Skating in his dad’s footsteps, Ryan Smith realized a childhood dream on Friday.
Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
Smith, whose father Ed patrolled the Sudbury Wolves blueline in the mid-1980s, followed a standout performance at training camp with a commitment to the local OHL club on Friday.
“Since peewee, since the draft came into perspective, I have always wanted to play in the OHL,” said the 17-year-old forward from Bala, Ont., shortly after meeting with Wolves brass. “I haven’t really thought about anything else. My dad was actually a Sudbury Wolf a while back, so being able to sign here is honestly a dream.
“I have really wanted to play here since the start, so it’s really fun. I’m really excited.”
Sudbury’s 11th-round pick, 201st overall, in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, Smith entered camp noticeably larger than last season, at 5-foot-11 and around 160 pounds, but really grabbed attention with his speed and heads-up style that allowed him to find his teammates on several impressive plays. One of the most consistent performers from the 2002 draft class over 48 hours, he appeared to have benefitted from a season with French River of the NOJHL, where he collected 13 goals and 23 assists in 56 games in 2018-19.
“I knew I had some experience over a lot of the other guys with playing last year in French River,” Smith told The Sudbury Star. “I had a year to mature and to get better. Coming into this year, it was my mind set that I was going to do whatever I had to do to make the team.
“Right when I stepped on the ice, I felt really good about myself, good about how I was playing, and I just went out and had fun, didn’t worry about anything else, just did my best.”
Smith was one of a handful of players to receive commitments from the Wolves on Friday, joining forwards Giordano Biondi and Nick DeGrazia and defencemen Nathan Ribau and Andre Anania.
The Wolves also reduced their roster to 30 players ahead of Saturday’s exhibition game by the Soo Greyhounds. Puck drop at Sudbury Community Arena is set for 7 p.m.
“I have said it from Day 1 — when we took over, we wanted to make sure we were adding team skill and speed,” said Rob Papineau, Sudbury’s general manager and vice-president of hockey operations. “That’s today’s game and with the guys we have made commitments to and have committed back to us, every one of them is one of those guys who brings an element of speed and skill.
“When we draft these guys, every one of them could evolve over the next year or two, and we tell all the players we don’t care where you were drafted or what round you were drafted in, we don’t care how you got to camp. We even have a real good history of 18-year-old rookies who were never drafted and played on our hockey team and have gone on to NHL camps. Cory (Stillman, head coach) is a big believer, as the whole team is, that it’s what you do when you get here and it’s how you continue to develop and how you continue to get better. The guys we have committed to have all obviously made that commitment.”
It’s a road Ed Smith knows well. He played for the Sudbury Cubs of the NOJHL, then the Orillia Travelways in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, before joining the Wolves.
“I was talking to the general manager, Rob Papineau, and I said I think it was somewhere around 33 years ago, in this very arena, I met with Joe Drago and signed up to play for the Wolves,” the elder Smith said with a smile. “Fast forward to 2019 and my son is now meeting with Papineau, playing with the Sudbury Wolves. It’s nice to keep it in the family and it’s something that we really value and appreciate.”
Last year, when Papineau suggested the youngster stay in the North and play in NOJHL, the family took his words to heart.
“He lived in Sudbury, so he got to know the city, he went to hockey school in Sudbury,” Ed Smith said. “He has adjusted to any homesickness issues, he has adjusted to the city and he’s a year older, he’s more mature, he’s 20 pounds heavier and three inches taller than when he was drafted, so he just had to go out and earn the spot and he did. I really have to give the kid credit, because he came in and he took it. He wasn’t anticipated to be here going in, so I’m really proud of him.”
Biondi may have seemed a long shot to sign with an OHL team, too, when the Wolves selected him with their 14th-round pick in 2018, but the Sudbury native was also well served by playing a year of Tier II hockey, this time with the Rayside-Balfour Canadians.
A 15-goal, 17-assist rookie campaign was followed by an invitation earlier this off-season to Team Canada East’s selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge, then another training camp in Rayside, all of which helped prepare him for puck drop this past Wednesday.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder made good use of his speed and hustling, north-south style to make plays in all three zones, leaving the Wolves with no other option but to add him to their program.
“It’s a big weight off my shoulders,” said Biondi, 17. “It feels good after all the work I have put into it, with my family there to help me. It’s a relief, for sure.
“My skating has been the best part of my game since I was a kid, so I just used that the whole weekend and I was able to show off my speed and what I was able to do with the puck, creating plays, helping out in the defensive zone, as well. I thought I played well all around, defensively and offensively, and even when I was tired — it’s obviously a long week and a lot of guys were feeling it — I just wanted to push through and my skating was definitely one of those things that helped me push through.”
It was definitely an edge, too, for diminutive defenceman Phil Caron, a free agent invite whose 5-foot-8 frame was all over the ice over 48 hours. A former member of the Soo blueline corps who has since made stops in Gatineau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Cambridge of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, he’ll remain with the Wolves this weekend and have the chance to earn a spot in exhibition.
“This week felt great,” said the 19-year-old Timmins native. “I did what I planned to do, played my game and showed them my speed and my skill and I’m very excited. I met a great group of guys, as well, and this whole culture is very good. Sudbury seems like an awesome fit for me.”
He’s thrilled to be facing his former team on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be awesome and I’m going to have so much motivation to prove those coaches wrong, to show them what I can do,” Caron said. “I’m also going to see a bunch of good friends, a bunch of guys I played with, so that’s super exciting and I can’t wait.”
He’s also determined to show Sudbury’s staff he deserves to be with the team all year.
“I have to continuously be better,” Caron said. “I have to keep playing my game, but also minimizing mistakes, upping my game every chance I get.”
The Wolves visit the Ottawa 67’s on Sunday to continue their pre-season schedule. That game starts at 4 p.m.
For the players who won’t be moving forward with the team, at least for now, Papineau’s message was simple — keep at it.
“They all want to be pro hockey players, every one of them has the same goal, and a career in hockey is a marathon, not a sprint,” Papineau said. “They’re 16, 17, 18 years old and guys who play hockey as a career can do it into their 30s, so things that happen this weekend are not going to determine their final outcome and their life. They need to stay focused. We use an example like Owen Robinson, who is a guy who came in as an 18-year-old rookie, who played and played a lot as a 17 year old, it wasn’t in the OHL, it was the NOJHL, and he went from a guy who wasn’t drafted in his draft year in minor hockey to an 18-year-old in our league, then was off to an NHL training camp in the spring and will go back to an NHL camp this fall.
“It’s about not losing sight of your goals and continuing to work on it, because you’re not defining anything this weekend. It’s part of your process.”