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Pursuit: Catching up with Cubs’ star Oliver Smith

A junior hockey veteran at 21, the young man who helped his team to the NOJHL title this season, looks back on his career and forward to the Centennial Cup and beyond
A junior hockey veteran at 21, Oliver Smith helped his team to the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League title this season. In a profile with sportswriter Randy Pascal, Smith  looks back on his career and forward to the Centennial Cup and beyond.

Years from now, Oliver Smith will clearly remember his first OHL goal (Jan. 4, 2020, vs the North Bay Battalion – for the record).

A highly gifted scorer in his youth, the long-time Sudbury Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) product will surely recall memorable games and individual highlights, tournament treks and team celebrations.

Putting up 171 points in 113 games as a member of the Greater Sudbury Cubs these past two seasons, there are sure to be vivid images of dangles and snipes dancing in his head as he shares stories of his hockey career with kids of his own.

Yet all of the above is quite likely to pale when cast against the magical ride that has been the 2023-2024 Cubs campaign – and more specifically, the post-season run for the ages, one that would bring an NOJHL title back to the Nickel City for the first time in more than a decade.

At 21 years old, Oliver Smith has travelled quite the hockey journey to date. And blessed with wisdom beyond his years, the grounded young man fully understands that this type of a season does not happen each and every year. 

For most players his age, it might never happen at all.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Smith, offering a big picture view on a variety of the key components to this experience, from teammates to coaches, from mindsets to mentors – and the key role he would play as a team co-captain (along with Cameron Walker) over the course of the past eight months.

“I can’t say enough about the group of guys that we have.”

Honestly, it’s highly unlikely this was the scenario Smith would have envisioned as he made his way through the minor hockey ranks as consistently one of the top local AAA players in his age bracket, one who had to deal with the background OHL chatter from far too early an age.

“When you’re in those years, in your mind, all that you’re thinking about is going high in the draft,” Smith recalled. “We put so much stock in the draft. Looking back, it’s so over-hyped by everyone. It’s not the end of the world where you go (in the draft). That doesn’t define you as a player.

“If I could change anything about my minor midget year and everything, it would be not to put so much pressure on myself,” Smith added. “It doesn’t mean your career is over if you don’t get drafted at all. You just have to keep working hard and people will notice.”

To his credit, Smith was indeed drafted, selected in the ninth round of the 2019 OHL Entry Draft by the Barrie Colts. For developmental purposes, as it turns out, the 6-1 forward might not have found a better landing spot than the 2019-2020 Rayside-Balfour Canadians.

Surrounded by a solid group of skilled and character veterans, Smith would join fellow 16-year-olds Mitchell Martin and Zacharie Giroux on a junior team that was sitting comfortably in first place when the sports world came to a screeching halt in March of 2020.

“That was my first taste of junior hockey,” said Smith, the notion of exactly how the human brain works when it comes to maintaining memories sometimes a very tricky one to understand.

Case in point: the immediate thought that came to mind as this offensive talent reminisced on his time in a Rayside jersey. 

“I still remember my first shift,” said Smith, with something of a coy smile. “That was my first time ever wearing a visor. I hit a guy like 10 seconds into my first exhibition game and he turned and said, ‘Do you want to fight?’,” he said. “I thought – geez, I just got here. Let me get a few shifts under my belt.”

Thankfully – and quite intelligently – he would pass on the offer to dance with that league veteran. Within the Canadians’ room, he and other rookies would absorb everything that the likes of Brady Maltais and Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis would pass their way. 

“All of the older players we had that year were just great people and it made the transition that much easier,” said Smith. Just a few years later, he would embrace the same role that he so admired in his early junior teammates.

“I talked to Mox (Cubs head coach Darryl Moxam) about coming back and I was so pumped,” said Smith. “I wanted to be a really good role model for the younger guys coming up. When you’re a young guy coming into juniors, it really means a lot if you have good leaders on your team.”

By this time, Smith would benefit from having 60 games of OHL experience under his belt – with perhaps a similar amount stolen from him thanks to the 2020-2021 year derailed by COVID-19. 

In that spring of 2022, the wonderful life perspective that Smith had been gifted via family and close friends would prove invaluable as he took stock of his hockey career. 

“I had a great time there (in Barrie), but there came a point where my playing time wasn’t a lot and I had nothing else to fall back on,” he said. “I felt like it was more of a guarantee for my future if I go back to school.”

With his electrical program diploma from Cambrian now safely secured, Smith can enjoy this current voyage with an ease of mind that is not commonly found in young men reaching that inevitable crossroads with a game that they love.

“I’m feeling comfortable; I have something to lean on,” said Smith. “Coming back to the Cubs, that’s what that has allowed me to do. I’m super grateful for that.”

Super grateful for that and so much more.

The Greater Sudbury Cubs will head to the Centennial Cup next week without ever having required a Game 7 victory this spring. That is a testament to players, coaches and staff alike.

“We really focused on staying level-headed and buying into our systems, buying into our forecheck, stuff like that,” said Smith. While there are kudos a’plenty to be shared, Smith, for one, looks no further than directly behind him on the bench.

“Mox is a guy who can keep everyone together. Even when we scored the go-ahead goal in game five of the finals and the whole bench erupted, he made sure that we stayed controlled. I am sure that he was so fired up – but there was still a minute and seven seconds left.”

“He would come in (to the dressing room) after every win and you could tell he was excited,” Smith added. “But he would tell us to enjoy it for the next 20 minutes because we still had a job to do.”

A job opportunity that doesn’t come around every year for young hockey players, truth be told.

Randy Pascal is a sportswriter in Greater Sudbury. Pursuit is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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