By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
With the most recent Memorial Cup win with the Oshawa Generals and the impressive coaching resume, it was only a matter of time before the NHL came knocking on DJ Smith’s door.
Now, Smith has been named as the assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs, set to man the team beside newly appointed bench-boss Mike Babcock.
“I’m just excited to be part of such a franchise,” Smith says. “It’s such a storied franchise and especially growing up in Ontario, knowing how important the Leafs are to the community and it’s just exciting to be able to work for them.”
The appointment followed a few days of swirling rumours while Smith was at Hockey Canada camps in Toronto.
While denying any offer had been made at the time, Smith tells The Express he was indeed meeting with the Leafs at the time.
“While I was in Toronto, they approached Rocco (Tullio) and asked if they could speak with me, interview me and I talked to Mike a couple times and he felt comfortable enough and offered me the job,” Smith says.
The Windsor-native has spent three seasons with the Oshawa Generals which saw him named coach of the year for the 2013/2014 season and culminated this past season with his club taking the OHL title in a record-breaking year and the Memorial Cup in Quebec City in May.
Smith also won two previous Mem cups as an assistant coach with the Windsor Spitfires in back-to-back seasons.
He credits this past season as a large role in securing his new position.
“With winning comes opportunity,” Smith says. “It’s certainly not an easy trophy to win and our players played great and a lot of things fell into place, but that certainly plays a role.”
A defense-first coach, Smith’s Generals this year led the league with fewest goals against. The back-end will be Smith’s main responsibility while behind the bench with Toronto.
Despite the challenges he knows are ahead, Smith says he’s highly anticipating the opportunity.
“I’m going to do my best and I’m going to learn from Mike and take as much as I can from him and try and see what I can provide. It’s new to me, but it’s like anything else, it’s a challenge and I look forward to it.”
Despite the excitement, he says it’s tough to leave Oshawa.
“I really do like it in Oshawa, and I love everything about it,” he says. “The fans and everything were great and the players, but we got done what we wanted to get done.”
Smith is also no stranger to the Leafs organization. While spending most of his career playing for the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Smith played 11 games with the blue and white, along with 34 for the Colorado Avalanche.
Like his players on the bench in front of him, Smith says coaches in the OHL are also looking to get to the big league.
“Everyone is trying to get to the NHL, and we’re trying to get better and I just felt like I couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” he says.
The process to hire Smith’s replacement is currently underway.