When it comes to the fundamentals of running a hockey team, Jason Smith and Kelowna Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton speak the same language.
Hired this week as the 10th head coach in the Rockets’ 25-year history, Smith plans to employ a hardworking, no-nonsense approach in building both good players and good people.
“When I first talked to Bruce, the way we communicated, his passion for the game, doing things the right way with repetition and hard work,” said Smith, who was signed to a three-year deal. “Making sure that the young players develop as players and move on with a chance to play is important, but it’s also about developing good people.
“I didn’t have the most skill, I was a blue-collar player who relied on hard work and work ethic and learning the game,” he added. “Now I hope I can pass some of that knowledge on.”
A hard-nosed former defenceman and veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games, Smith, 42, had stints as captain of both the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers.
He takes over the post from Brad Ralph who the Rockets parted ways with this spring after one season at the helm.
In Smith—an assistant the last two seasons with the Ottawa Senators—Hamilton said the Rockets will benefit from the knowledge, leadership and experience gained over 16 seasons as an NHL player.
And while coming to Kelowna to coach junior-aged players on a full-time basis will be an adjustment, Hamilton believes the former Regina Pats’ defenceman has all necessary tools to make the transition.
“Any guy who’s played in the NHL for 16 years obviously has some real solid upside,” Hamilton said. “He understands the game better than a lot of people do. He’s spent a lot of time in junior rinks with the Senators draft picks, so he had an idea of how these guys are today, which is a real challenge…I think he’ll do a real good job.”
With a long-term of goal of being a head coach in the NHL, Smith called Kelowna “a great starting point,” a team with a winning reputation and perennially high expectations.
And while he expects some early growing pains, Smith is excited for the challenge, safe in the knowledge he’ll have plenty of help along the way.
“There’s a learning curve, but I’m excited for the challenge,” said Smith, who is married with two children. “(Assistants) Travis (Crickard) and Kris (Mallette) are both experienced guys who want to learn and want to grow.
“I’m looking forward to working with the guys on the regular basis. That’s what I really learned in the NHL, you have to work as a unit, rely on each other. That’s something we’re looking to improve on as a staff.”
While the Rockets won 48 games and reached the third round of last year’s WHL playoffs, Hamilton had some concerns with direction the team was taking under Ralph.
With Smith at the controls, Hamilton expects to see a return to bona fide Rockets’ hockey.
“I want to see our team get back to being very disciplined, play very hard and you know, make it very uncomfortable for every team coming in here to play us, and I think that will come from the way he played,” Hamilton said.
“I was just concerned, I think the word culture is way overused, but we had something pretty special going here for the last 10 years and I could see things were slipping, and I want it back and I want it back in a hurry.”
Smith and the Rockets will open the 2016-17 WHL regular season Sept. 23 in Kamloops.