In early December, Ty Smith left the Spokane Chiefs for a month so he could represent Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.
For much of that stretch, the Chiefs were on break themselves, and so Smith’s void wasn’t quite so noticeable.
But for Eli Zummack, Smith’s best friend and the player who stepped in as team captain for the handful of games that Smith missed, filling the Chiefs’ primary leadership role was personally significant.
“Just to be able to represent the Chiefs and represent Smitty while he was gone winning gold for our country,” said Zummack, a fellow Canadian, “it was a very special moment for me.”
The Chiefs went 4-4-2 in those 10 games without Smith, but they’ve made winning even more of a habit since last year’s Canadian Hockey League Defenseman of the Year returned to Spokane for good in what is almost certainly his last season with the Chiefs.
Since Jan. 10, the Chiefs – who host Moose Jaw on Wednesday before playing their next five games on the road – are 10-4-0, chasing basically the only junior hockey accolade Smith hasn’t achieved: winning a Memorial Cup.
“Since coming back from the World Juniors, he’s had an opportunity to settle in, and he’s been outstanding,” Chiefs head coach Manny Viveiros said. “He’s been dominating at times. That’s the Ty we all know.
“He’s accomplished everything in this league other than winning a championship, and that’s first and foremost what he wants to do.”
Even though he’s undersized – at 5-foot-11, he is the second-shortest Chiefs defenseman – Smith has played on teams where he was the youngest skater out there almost every season since his bantam days.
Zummack first played against Smith when they were 13 or 14. Even then, as an underage player, Smith was wearing a letter on his jersey, Zummack said. And the year after that. And the year after that, too.
“He’s always been a captain. It’s natural for him,” Zummack said. “The way he leads on the ice, he doesn’t ever take a shift off, and he’s so focused and dialed in. It’s just like an automatic for him.”
Smith has also worn letters at the most prestigious levels of junior hockey, including worlds, where he was an alternate captain for the Canadians.
“I’ve tried to incorporate leadership into who I am and the player I am,” Smith said. “I’ve always tried to be more than a good player, but a good teammate, and I try to be a leader for younger guys. It’s something I’ve been comfortable with.”
Graham Sward has witnessed that firsthand. Two seasons ago, when Sward was a 15-year-old defenseman at Chiefs training camp, Smith was his roommate and helped Sward get his bearings in the Western Hockey League.
Sward and Smith were first-round picks for the Chiefs in the WHL’s bantam draft: Sward was 17th overall in 2018, while Smith was first overall in 2015.
“He kind of took me under his wing for that week, showing me how things work around here, where to go, just showing me how everything works,” Sward said. “Even just, like, being on time … little things that a young kid at 15 doesn’t really realize, the little details that a guy like (Smith) does so well.”
Smith has always been like that, according to his father, Wayne Smith, who drove from Saskatoon to Spokane last weekend for his son’s bobblehead night.
“Ty’s always just been a really quiet, confident guy who doesn’t boast about his abilities, and it attracts other kids toward him. He has a natural draw,” Smith said. “Ty’s always been a winner, and he really likes to win, so I think that’s part of why he wears a letter.”
This is Smith’s 19-year-old season, but after making it all the way to the final cuts last fall with the New Jersey Devils – who selected him 17th overall in the 2018 NHL draft – he will likely either be in the American Hockey League or the NHL next season.
This, then, is his final push for a WHL championship.
Last season the Chiefs won their first two playoff series but then lost to the Vancouver Giants, four games to one, in the Western Conference Finals.
“Being able to win would be unbelievable any year, but especially my last year,” Smith said. “I think we have a good group, and the league is close this year.”
The Chiefs (65 points) are third in the U.S. Division behind Portland (81) and Everett (72), but in the past eight days Spokane beat both of those teams.
The Chiefs have benefited all season from the play of the veteran defensemen: 20-year-old Noah King’s plus-42 ranks third among WHL defensemen, and 20-year-old Filip Kral – a Toronto draft pick the same year as Smith was selected – has 11 goals, the seventh most in the league at his position.
In the 13 games he has played since returning on Jan. 10, Smith has six multipoint efforts, as well as goals in three of his past four games.
“Ty has the puck on his stick all the time. When he’s on the ice, we’re not in our zone very long, so if a team dumps the puck in on him, we’re usually out of our zone really quick,” Viveiros said. “In the offensive zone, he has the puck on his stick and he’s making plays.”
Viveiros said he is always coaching players to be ready for the next level and that Smith is “so receptive” to coaching. He compared Smith to Kailer Yamamoto, the former Chiefs forward who is thriving in Edmonton, where Viveiros previously was an assistant.
“You have to get up to speed as quick as possible, and Kailer’s done an outstanding job of being a smaller player,” Viveiros said. “He’s smart and quick, and Ty is like that also.”
But for now, Smith is focused on finishing out his time in Spokane, a legacy that would be cemented by hoisting a cup the franchise last most recently won in 2008.
“I wanna be known as a guy who was well liked in the community, respected, and a guy that my teammates were happy to have as a teammate,” Smith said. “Winning, that’s what you play for. You love to compete and love to win.”
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