Red Deer Rebels forward Zak Smith almost couldn’t believe he got the call.
Shortly after the 2019 NHL Draft ended, Smith, 18, got a buzz from his agent.
Although the Austin, Man. native hadn’t been picked in the draft, there was one team interested in taking a longer look at him.
The Vegas Golden Knights extended a Development Camp invite to Smith, something he’s still surprised about today.
“It was an awesome experience. Getting invited to an NHL camp is something kids always dream of growing up. To get that phone call is pretty exciting. To think that I went there, it blows your mind a little bit,” said Smith, from back home in Manitoba.
“What I’ll take away is how NHL players are and world class they are. Just how well they do everything every day and I think that’s something I can take back to Red Deer and show other kids how that works.”
Smith was one of just three Rebels to get a call to development camp, alongside 2018 draftees, first rounder Alex Alexeyev and sixth-round pick Dawson Barteaux. The call was relatively unxpected for a winger who has recorded only 24 points through 78 WHL games. He was a virtual rookie last season, after playing only 11 WHL games in 2017-18.
He was initially nervous heading to Sin City but once he got there, Smith said the organization treated all 43 players like they were NHLers.
“They did everything perfectly,” he said.
“All the staff were nice and were always coming up to us, seeing how we’re going and they were easy to talk to. It made it more fun for the players and it wasn’t as much of a tryout, you just went and did what you could do with your skills, it was a lot of fun.”
The six-foot-two, 185-pound winger added one highlight was getting to a few NHLers including Cody Eakin, Ryan Reeves and Derek Engelland.
On the ice over five days from June 25-29, he competed against first-round picks like Cody Glass, guys with AHL experience in Nicolas Hague – so, there was a lot to learn from the day he arrived in Las Vegas.
“It’s still another couple steps up from the WHL, you’re playing against guys that could be in the NHL next year, draft picks and guys that have been playing in the AHL for a couple of years already,” Smith said.
“To play with those guys was a great experience, just to get a feel about what’s to come in the future if I ever make it up to that level.”
Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon, who took over from George McPhee in May, is also part owner of the Brandon Wheat Kings was a key connection in the invite.
Smith, for his part had a modest season with the Rebels last year, recording 13 goals and 11 assists for 24 points in 67 last year.
After his trip to development camp with the Golden Knights and a strong summer, the talented winger understands his role must be more prominent next season.
“I thought I did good, showed what I can do. At first, it’s hard because everyone is there trying to show their skills and everything is scattered, but as the days went on, chemistry started to build, the games got better. As each day went on I got better and better,” he said.
“I’m really excited to come back to Red Deer this year, had a lot of fun last year. Just after this camp, it put an extra boost in me and how I want to improve more.”