Trevor Smith takes his best shot at an NHL spot

North Vancouver journeyman finally finds ice time with Toronto Maple Leafs

North Vancouver’s Trevor Smith, with a history of six points in 24 NHL games played with three different teams from the 2008-09 season to 2012-13, knows very well the mantra repeated by athletes on the fringes of any pro sport.

When he was called up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in early October of this year after the Toronto Maple Leafs were hit by injuries and suspensions to a number of their forwards, Smith said it once more: This is the last time I’m ever getting called up. This time, I stick.

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“You say that every time you get called up,” Smith confirmed with a laugh when the North Shore News caught up with him by phone last week in Toronto. This time, however, he may be right. It’s now more than two months later and he’s still with the Leafs. He’s been making quite an impression too with nine points in 23 games, including a couple of huge game-winning goals. Maybe, just maybe, this is the last time he’ll ever get called up. Maybe he’s in the big show for good. But as sure as Smith knows the drill when it comes to getting called up, he also knows not to look too far ahead, to never forget that there are no guarantees.

“There never are in this business,” he said, chuckling again. Whether or not he does stick with the Leafs for good, he certainly has made the most of his time there. Here are the best bits:

• Oct. 8, Colorado 2 Toronto 1: In his first game as a Leaf, Smith played less than six minutes and the Buds lost, but the North Van Minor alum got his first taste of playing at home for a Canadian NHL team.

“It was surreal coming out of the tunnel. It was a home game so the fans were going crazy. The place was packed, really loud. It was an awesome experience, a lot of fun.”

• Oct. 15, Minnesota 1 Toronto 4: Second game, much better result. Still playing less than six minutes, Smith made the most of his ice time, taking a pass from fellow North Shore guy Morgan Rielly, a rookie defenceman, and popping in what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“The goalie kind of came out a bit and I just tried to go five-hole and it just squeaked through and rolled in. I saw it go in and that was awesome too, it was a big goal for the team,” he said, adding that it was nice to make a “West Coast Connection” with Rielly on the goal.

“I think he’s got huge upside to him, he’s got a lot of potential,” Smith said of the 19-year-old West Vancouver product. “He’s a great player, he skates very well and he sees the ice very well. He’s got a great future ahead of him and the Leafs are lucky to have him.”

• Nov. 19, NY Islanders 2 Toronto 5: Smith scored just 22 seconds into the game and added two assists while seeing more than 16 minutes of ice time against the team that gave him his first shot in the NHL.

“Man, a lot of good feeling around this year so far,” Smith said when reminded of that performance against the Islanders. “That felt great. The goal that first shift, Lupul made a great pass and it was pretty much a bang-bang play. Those couple of assists were just giving the puck to the superstars and letting them do their thing.”

• Dec. 5, Dallas 2 Toronto 3 (OT): The big one, an overtime winner in front of the Maple Leaf crazies after seeing nearly 20 minutes of ice time.

“That’s one I’ll never forget for sure,” he said. “It was kind of toward the end of OT, the puck went up along the wall and I just went to the front of the net. The boys made a nice play to get it to the net and I just tried to make a play on it, tipped ‘er in. We were on a losing streak so it was awesome to get the win. After I scored I kind of skated out to the crowd, it was rockin’. Great feeling.”

With that moment Smith seemingly stamped his name on the NHL season, leaving a mark that will forever say ‘I was here.’ It was quite the turn in a path that has sometimes seemed endless for the 28-year-old who as a kid prepared for the NHL by running up and down a short set of stairs behind the Harry Jerome recreation centre over and over again.

“That was a lot of hours on those stairs,” he said. “It’s fun looking back now — not at the time.”

Though his legs were strong it was his overall size, or lack thereof, that helped keep him from getting drafted into the WHL or NHL. Smith instead went to the University of New Hampshire where he put up 63 points in 78 games over two seasons, finally drawing a little interest from pro scouts. The Islanders took a shot and signed him to a pro contract but through stints in New York, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh Smith never managed to stick in the big league. Finally, though, the ice time has come in Toronto and so has the scoring.

“It’s kind of a different path from the usual guy making it to the NHL,” said Smith. “It’s been a long path — I was never the biggest guy growing up for those draft years in the CHL and the NHL draft. I was just under the radar a bit, trying to play and work my way up as best I could, working hard and trying to take advantage of any opportunity I could.”

The path has led Smith to the centre of the hockey universe now, a town so enthralled with their team that even journeymen call-ups are local celebrities.

“Everyone knows what’s going on with the Leafs — whether you’re playing well, when you’re not playing well, how you’re doing individually, your stats,” he said. “Leaf fans are awesome. When they’re cheering for you, they’re great. . . . It’s a great atmosphere to play in when you get some momentum going in the building. You get the fans with the ‘Go Leafs Go’ chant and they’re rocking.”

Smith said he hasn’t changed much in his game aside from adding a little burst to his first step on the ice.

“I’m just trying to play the way I do, moving pucks quick, shoot the puck as fast as I can and create opportunities,” he said. “First I’m trying to be good defensively, make sure I don’t get scored on. And just be a disher, try to get the pucks out to the wings and let those guys do their thing, support them and try to chip in wherever I can.”

The good vibes don’t end once Smith leaves the rink. He and his wife Meghan, whom he met while playing for New Hampshire, are expecting their first child, a daughter due in early January.

“You should see my house right now,” he said. “I’m looking around at pink chairs and teddy bears and rockers and car seats and strollers. It’s ridiculous. They had a baby shower last night with the Leaf wives . . . we got a lot of stuff.”

So life is good for Trevor Smith, almost perfect. Almost. His ice time has gone down the past couple of games, from in the high teens and low 20s a couple of weeks ago to just 4:35 in a 7-3 blowout win over Chicago Saturday night. Could he be sent back down again despite his strong showing? Of course he could, but it sounds like he’s at peace with that. He’s seen enough ups and downs in his career already that one more down won’t stop him from chasing the next up.

“What’s kept me going? Love of the game, man,” he said. “What a treat it is I get to wake up and go to practise or play a game and not have to do anything else. . . . Some years are tougher than others with trades or injuries and that stuff but I’ve been fortunate to win a championship in the American Hockey League and been on some really good teams and made a lot of great friendships along the way, including my wife. I’m pretty happy to be playing hockey for a living.”

Smith could seemingly package up his story and take it on the road as a motivational speaker.

“Keep working hard every day and things will pay off,” he said when asked what message he could deliver to a class of Grade 6 hopefuls. “It might not happen at the start but if you stick to what you love and what you want to do, things have a funny way of working out.”

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