By DAVER KARNOSKY – Daily Mining Gazette
Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared in the September 27 edition of the Daily Mining Gazette.
HOUGHTON, Mich. – Growing up in the shadows of the Northlands Coliseum, or as it was known over the last 12 years, Rexall Place, Michigan Tech center Alex Smith grew up an Edmonton Oilers' fan during the early years of the Doug Weight era.
The Oilers were already past the glory years, but were still a consistent playoff threat, making them a fun team to watch and attempt to emulate as young players grew up around Alberta. Now, the Oilers again have a young bunch of up-and-coming stars, just the types of players young athletes can look up to.
"It's been a tough couple of years in Edmonton when you are an Oiler fan," said Smith. "They are on the rise with guys like [Connor] McDavid and players like that. It's only going to get better with the new arena, too."
Now looking to make a name for himself, Smith hopes he can build off his 2015-16 campaign with the Flin Flon Bombers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) while a member of the Black and Gold.
"I played two years in the Alberta league with Bonneyville and developed my game to the point where, when I got traded to the Saskatchewan league in Flin Flon, I had two really good years in junior" said Smith. "That made it possible for me to be here now."
A very solid player from a young age, Smith enjoyed success with the South Side Athletic Club (SSAC) Lions Bantam AAA team, scoring 12 goals and 34 points in 33 games in 2009-10 playing alongside Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first round draft pick of the Boston Bruins. Playing Minor Midget the next season with the SSAC Bulldogs, he upped those totals to 15 goals and 48 points in 38 games.
In one year of Major Midget AAA action with the SSAC Athletics, Smith notched four goals and 15 points in 34 games. He had the opportunity to skate alongside 2014 NHL draft pick John Quenneville, cousin of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who was drafted in the first round by the New Jersey Devils. Smith also had the chance to see action in a pair of games for the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Grande Prairie Storm, giving him an early taste of junior hockey.
"As a 16-year-old, I got in a couple of games in the Alberta league," said Smith. "That was good to get a feel for the pace."
The next two seasons, Smith laced up his skates as a member of the Bonnyville Pontiacs. In 2012-13, his rookie season, he struggled to score as he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the junior game. He put up five goals and eight points in 42 games.
The next year, he still struggled to find the back of the net, scoring just four goals in 51 games, but he was able to find teammates in scoring areas, picking up 16 assists.
"It's obviously a big step up," said Smith. "It's getting used to the pace, getting used to playing with and against stronger players."
Moving from the AJHL to the SJHL in 2013, Smith joined the Bombers as a 19-year-old. He continued to improve offensively, finished second on the team in goals with 19, and third in points with 47 in 54 games.
Last season, Smith played a second campaign with the Bombers and blossomed into a true scoring forward, netting 32 goals, tied for second on the team, and team-highs in assists (52) and points (84). In the playoffs, he racked up another seven goals and 21 points in 16 contests.
Smith helped lead the Bombers to a 4-1 series victory over the Weyburn Red Wings before doing the same to the Battlefords North Stars. The Bombers fell 4-2 in the Canalta Cup finals against Melfort.
Smith was recognized for his efforts after the season ended, as his 52 assists were the most in the SJHL, and his 84 points helped him earn Player of the Year honors as well.
"I got more of an opportunity in Flin Flon and I tried to make the best of it," said Smith. "I had a couple of good linemates, good coaching staff. The coaches gave me every opportunity to succeed. As a player, that is all you can ask for."
A player with good on-ice vision, Smith likes to play a two-way game with the ability to win key faceoffs when his team needs it. Despite the fact that it will be another transition to a higher level, Smith feels ready for the challenge.
"You talk to guys about it," said Smith. "It's well known that it is a big jump up. Nobody tries to hide from the fact that it is a big jump. It's obviously going to be a big step."
Joining a program on the rise with the quality of the coaching staff the Huskies boast was a like a magnet to Smith when deciding to go the American college hockey route. He is looking forward to being a part of the continued rise of Michigan Tech.