Through 31 years of junior hockey involvement, Blaine Smith has pretty much seen it all.
Turns out that he still wants to see just a little bit more.
Most hockey folks in Sudbury are well aware that Smith, whose tenure with the Sudbury Wolves would eventually culminate with his role as President and VP of Hockey Operations, parted ways with the team when his contract expired this past summer.
“To be honest with you, I was hoping there would be something with the Wolves after my contract was done,” stated the 62 year old long-time resident of these parts quite candidly, having now moved over to assist the Rayside-Balfour Canadians of the NOJHL, serving as a Senior Advisor.
“I had been there (with the Wolves) for 31 years and would have like to finish my time there, getting to age 65 with relatively good health. That’s what I was hoping for.”
That wasn’t what was necessarily anticipated back in 1988, when the graduate of the Sports Administration program at Laurentian University was scooped from the ranks of Nabob Coffee from then team owner Ken Burgess, a move that coincided, within months, with the hiring of Sam McMaster to handle the on-ice aspects of the Sudbury Wolves.
The McMaster-Smith tandem was inheriting a team that had missed the playoffs in seven of the eight previous years, and continued that trend in their inaugural campaign together, in 1988-1989. “I was optimistic because of where I had come from, my work with the Regina Pats,” said Smith. “In 1980-81, their place was packed - they had promotions coming out all over the place.”
“The OHL had really not yet grabbed on to that. The Western Hockey League was ahead of the OHL when it came to marketing, promotions and such.” That played directly into the Smith wheel-house. Two years with the Pats and five years with the Sudbury Minor Hockey Association, as Executive Director, made for a valuable foundation for the new sales mastermind of the Wolves.
“I was working for the team, part-time, while I was with Sudbury Minor, organizing game night promotions and such, and did that for about a year and a half.” Then came the offer that he simply could not refuse – sort of. “Ken (Burgess) did tell me I was going to get a company car,” said Smith, hardly able to hold his laughter.
“He just didn’t tell me it was going to be a bright red Ford Ranger with a “Win Me” sign on the back of it.”
To work he went, filled with far more visions of the potential of the market than dread over the past. “I went to school to get a job in sports,” said Smith. “When the Wolves gig became available, it was really a no-brainer.”
The timing could not have been better. Nor could the tutelage, as a very eager to learn still under thirty SPAD grad hitched his wagon to the wealth of knowledge that was Sam McMaster. “Sam, to this day, was the consummate hockey general manager to me,” said Smith. “He was so engaged into all aspects of running an OHL team.”
“It was not just the on ice product, where he did a marvelous job of drafting and recruiting. He got involved with the marketing, he had some great ideas. His work ethic, hockey smarts and communication skills set him apart.”
“I remember when he left to go to LA,” Smith recollected. “His instructions to Todd Lalonde and Glen Merkosky, at that time, were “if you don’t do anything else, communicate, communicate, communicate, so that everyone in the organization knows what’s happening.”
The fortunes of the Sudbury Wolves were beginning to turn, and Smith could sense a snowball that was building momentum. “There were 150 season ticket holders when Ken Burgess took over the team. As the team improved under Sam’s guidance, I could leverage that to sell rink boards, game night sponsorships.”
“There is a correlation. People want to come out and watch a winning product,” said Smith. “It didn’t have to be a championship team, but it had to be a team that could come out and be competitive every night.”
While his marketing acumen was never in doubt, the role of Smith as a “hockey man” has led to many a lively debate in local rinks. Little surprise for those who know him well that Smith would take the high road, in this discussion, albeit taking time to make note of some interesting achievements while the reins as GM of the Wolves were held firmly in his hands.
“I can’t control what other people think,” he said. “But going through those first six or seven years with a guy like McMaster, with hockey guys like Ken Mackenzie, you kind of learn through osmosis just by being there. When the opportunity came in 1998-99 to be involved with the draft, as interim GM, I had already been there for ten years. I figured I had to expand my wings a little bit.”
“And then I got involved again as interim GM when Bert (Templeton) left, and that was the Marc Staal, Adam McQuaid, Nick Foligno draft,” said Smith. “We had a really good draft that year.” Fair to say the fifth round selection of the current captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets would constitute a steal, though perhaps not in the manner most would have expected.
“Mike (Foligno) was coaching in Hershey at that time,” said Smith. “There was no guarantee that Mike was coming when we drafted Nick.” For a team whose past had seen the ebbs and flows of the first few decades of their OHL involvement, the Foligno era carried a little more stability to the fold.
“I worked closely with Mike, and to be honest, some of my most enjoyable years were working with Mike Foligno,” said Smith. “To me, Mike Foligno is the consummate professional. He is an exceptional human being. Everybody has their qualities, and everyone, including myself, has some things we could improve on.”
This mindset has served Smith well, as he worked hand in hand with the team owner most associated with his tenure in Wolves management. “By the early to mid-1990’s, Ken (Burgess) was passing the torch to Mark (Burgess),” said Smith. “I can tell you that Mark and I definitely established a close friendship over the years.”
“He is a very genuine, very trusting and a very loyal employer that I have enjoyed working with over the years. I have always valued everything that he and his family have done for me, not only from an employee/employer relationship, but also on a personal level.”
While the very nature of ownership of an OHL franchise will create a lightning rod environment for those who partake, Smith has no issue whatsoever offering his perspective in defense of his long-time employers.
“For a family to own an OHL franchise for thirty years, you have to be all in,” he said. “Just the time and resources that he and his family have put in, and their total commitment to do whatever they could to bring winning hockey to Sudbury – they tried.”
“They brought in some of the best coaches. While there are obviously a lot of good things that can come from owning a team, trust me, there’s a lot of negativity, and to have your family subjected to that is difficult.”
Thankfully, finding the positive memories is an easy task for Smith.
“The best part of my job, without question, is dealing with the people,” he said. “Dealing with the people that you see at the rink all the time, dealing with the people that you work with and establish friendships with. There are so many great people that you meet in this game. Patrick Ehelechner’s dad, to this day, still sends me chocolates at Christmas time.”
“Isn’t that something?”
Truth be told, the laughs that were shared during this interview greatly surpassed, many times over, the more difficult questions. Stories of the run of 2007, of the privilege of assisting players such as Derek Mackenzie, Nick and Marcus Foligno, Mike Fisher, Zach Stortini, Jeff Corbett, Brody Silk and literally hundreds more navigate their junior careers, of working alongside the likes of Eunice Watson and Curtis Hall and so many more.
Smith is typically candid and somewhat melancholic as our chat nears the end. “To be able to get up, every morning, and be eager, anxious and happy to go to work, is probably the biggest takeaway.”
“Thirty-one years have really flown by.”