He wasn’t there for a long time, but he had a good time.
Lacombe’s Josh Smith resurrected his major junior career when he joined the Portland Winterhawks in the fall, but as a 20-year-old he fell victim to the numbers game, the ‘Hawks deciding that the five-foot-nine, 191-pound defenceman didn’t fit the bill as one of three overage players allowed on their Western Hockey League roster.
Instead of rejoining the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior League, with whom he finished the 2013-14 season, Smith decided to suit up with the Chinook Hockey League powerhouse Bentley Generals, the top senior AAA organization in Western Canada.
“I had a great experience when I was in Portland at the start of this season. They treated me like gold, it’s like a pro team there,” said Smith, who collected one assist and racked up 34 minutes in penalties with the ‘Hawks before being released eight games into the season.
“Even being here (with the Generals), it’s pro class. It’s absolutely wonderful here and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
After a standout season with the major bantam Red Deer Rebels Black, Smith was selected by the Prince George Cougars in the first round — 19th overall — of the 2009 WHL bantam draft. He appeared in 10 games with the Cougars as a 15-year-old, and played 44 games as an official WHL rookie the following season.
However, he split the 2011-12 season between the Cougars and the AJHL Camrose Kodiaks, starting a trend of bouncing back and forth between the junior A and major junior ranks. Smith played eight games with Prince George last season and also skated with the Kodiaks and Oilers.
He got his last — and likely final — WHL shot when he was approached by a Winterhawks scout just prior to the start of the club’s training camp in late August. But he was deemed as the odd man out as a 20-year-old and was released in early October.
“I guess that saying ‘growing up kind of sucks’ is the right saying,” said Smith. “It was a good run while I was in Portland and I’m glad I got to finish my junior career playing on a WHL team like that. There’s a lot of pride in that organization and I was glad to be part of it for the short time that I was. But this is where I am now and this is my focus . . . I kind of get to start my life now.”
Despite being shifted back and forth between the WHL and AJHL, Smith never lost faith in his belief that he was a legitimate major junior player and his goal was always to return to the top level.
“When I went to Camrose when I was 17, my main goal was to eventually get back (to the WHL) and not just get back but be an impact with a WHL team,” he said.
“I think I got to be part of that early this season in Portland, it just didn’t work out that I was that key player for them.
“But there are no hurt feelings and I’m happy here.”
Smith is a good skater with a heavy shot and enjoys playing the fast-paced, physical brand of hockey that was evident in the Generals’ 2-0 Chinook League win over the Innisfail Eagles Wednesday at Lacombe and is the norm for the Chinook League.
But while he’s currently working in the family oilfield business and enjoying his time with the Generals, he hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of joining a junior A team prior to the eligibility deadline of Jan. 10.
“I believe I’m on a (AJHL) suspended list right now that still allows me to play here,” he said.
“I have been contacted by scouts asking if I’d be willing to go other junior A teams, but it would be hard to leave a team like this with the record that these guys have and how well they treat you here. It would be a tough decision.”
Another option for Smith would be joining a college team, either for the second half of this season or next fall.
“I have received a couple of school offers, but in that sense, for me, I don’t know if school and hockey would be the greatest mix,” he said. “I like to concentrate on one thing at a time and here I’m able to balance work and hockey at the same time.”
If he does decide to attend college at some point, enrolling at RDC and playing with the Kings would be a possibility.
“I have talked to (Kings coach Trevor) Keeper a couple of times and I have a couple of friends on that team,” said Smith.
“They have a good team and there’s a couple of courses (at RDC) that I would like to take. It’s definitely something to think about.”
For now, Smith will continue to patrol the blueline for the Generals, who are glad to have him in their lineup.
“He’s a good kid who has come in and been a pleasant surprise,” said head coach Ryan Tobler. “He’s a gamer, and just to see the look on his face . . . he loves being at the rink.
“To get a guy like that in here at this level is pretty special and we’re expecting big things from him moving forward.”