Southlake Native Finishes Big Hockey Season in Ontario
May 01, 2015 09:59AM
● By Kevin
After spending most of his life playing the sport he loves, Southlake native A.J. Smith embarked on a journey to continue playing hockey. Now with some club experience under his belt, the 20-year-old will enjoy his summer before heading off to Wisconsin to play at Northland College, an environmental liberal arts college founded in 1892 and located in Ashland. This isn’t Smith’s first stint in The Badger State, though.
Smith, a goalie, helped the Dragon hockey team win its first state championship in eight years when he was a freshman.
“That was pretty big,” said the starter. The Dragons lost in the finals the following year, but still went on to national competition, where they finished second overall. “I didn’t play junior year, but played 18U Triple A for the Dallas Ice Jets. I was starting to get looks to play junior hockey there. It was pretty exciting, but interesting moving away from home possibly.”
Senior year, Smith played high school to finish off what he started, but the team didn’t have the season he hoped for, operating under a new head coach with a young team. With the sport not recognized as a varsity team in the district, it can be difficult to recruit.
“It’s kind of weird; it’s hard too because you’re competing with the football team,” Smith said. “It’s a huge thing here, really good too. It’s hard to get people wrapped around hockey but I feel like it was a lot of fun though. You start getting people out to the games, and they slowly start getting into it.”
Next year, he moved on to Wisconsin and played for the Central Wisconsin Saints as the starting goalie. When it was all said and done, the Saints were knocked out of the playoffs.
“It was a learning experience,” he recalled. “Living away from home my first year was pretty exciting.”
Then, last year, Smith had to have shoulder surgery, which he admits he put off for far too long. He wasn’t sure where his career stood at the time, but then he got a call from head coach Nathan Hewitt, who asked him to come to Ontario.
So, Smith ventured to a small town in Canada called Elliot Lake to play for the Wildcats. In his time there, he was named MVP, second-team all-star, and won goalie of the year.
“A.J. was an excellent goaltender for us,” Hewitt said. “He's a goalie who battles hard all of the time. That's my kind of guy. He was also very well liked by his teammates. Northland College is lucky to have him, for sure, and I know he's really looking forward to that opportunity.”
The City of Elliot Lake, with a current population of 11,500, was established in 1954 as a mining centre. In fact, Elliot Lake was once known as the “uranium capital of the world.”
Today Elliot Lake is one of the most popular retirement communities in the province. Nestled in beautiful northern Ontario, the City of Elliot Lake appeals to outdoor enthusiasts, seeking leisure and a slower pace of life. Its small-town charm and big-city amenities are a big part of what attracts retirees as well. Regardless of what attracts them, they all find huge savings by retiring in Elliot Lake, allowing them to do as they wish in their retirement.
“In Southlake, there aren’t many fans of hockey,” Smith explained. “It’s not really bloomed here yet. I’d say living in different areas, like in Elliot Lake, everyone in town knew who you were. Everyone there is very adamant about hockey. They just loved it. They loved having hockey there and it’s kind of like being a star almost.”
Smith was certainly a star, starting in 34 games with a 20-9-2 record and playing a total of 1,955 minutes. He saved 967 shots out of 1,057 taken on goal. His save percentage was 91.5 percent. He registered three shutouts.
“It was awesome playing with 20 guys and that’s all you do is just play hockey,” he said of his time in Elliot Lake. “It was awesome. That’s all I can really say about that. Everyone was playing so well in front of me so I just helped them out.”
Smith is obviously fully recovered and ready to head back to Wisconsin in early August. He'll be missed in Elliot Lake.
“We were very happy to have had A.J. come to our community,” said Wildcats general manager Todd Stencil. “He was a great goalie but more important a great person.”
Smith chose the Division III school for a pre-med major, where he can pursue a career in either pharmaceuticals or physical therapy. Head coach Seamus Gregory enters his second year. He also has two senior goalies to handle in 2015-16.
With Smith entering his freshman year, Gregory explained he would be given every opportunity to succeed and be a part of something special to turn the team around. The hope is to get the community involved in the organization once again.
“I was excited about that and it seemed like a great opportunity,” Smith said. As for the future, hockey may remain a part of his life, but he’ll just have to wait and see. “There’s a lot of professional leagues in North America and Europe. There’s opportunity for me after college. I have everything planned out. I’m going to stay on top of everything. I want to play a lot of games, win at least 5-10 games, get into the playoffs and see what we can do from there.”