Konnor Smith waited a long time for Thursday’s game to arrive.
With it, the second-year defenceman for the Peterborough Petes finally returned home to Windsor to face a Spitfires’ squad he grew up watching at the WFCU Centre.
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“It’s a great feeling to be playing in my hometown,” the 18-year-old Smith said. “I’ve been waiting since last year. I’ve been counting down the days.”
As a rookie last season with the Petes, Smith never got to play at home as the Western Conference champion Spitfires did not face any team from the Eastern Conference during the regular season in the league’s efforts to limit COVID-19 exposure.
“I know my whole family’s looking forward to it,” said Smith, who expected some 300 friends and family members to be in attendance. “Last year, there was nothing and I circled this as soon as I saw the schedule.”
The fact that the Windsor Jr. Spitfires minor midget product has arrived is a testament to the perseverance of a player taken with 175th pick overall in the 2020 Ontario Hockey League Draft with the Petes grabbing him in the ninth round.
“I wanted to go higher, but every kid wants to go higher,” Smith said. “First or second round, I still wouldn’t have been satisfied.”
Add that to the fact his 2020-21 season was wiped out by the pandemic, but he still showed up to camp with the Petes last season ready to leave his mark.
“I came into the rink with no backup plans,” Smith said. “I wanted to make the team.”
He did just that, but what impressed the Petes was the commitment Smith made from the day he was drafted in 2020 to training camp more than a year later.
“Unfortunately, the (2020-21) season didn’t get going and we didn’t even have a chance to have development camp to see where he fit in,” Petes’ general manager Michael Oke said. “But he was very proactive and we had a lot of communication that year trying to do as much as we could on and off the ice.
“Konnor was very receptive to that and quite often and regularly communicated with our coaches seeking more information and knowledge. He went down to Nashville to stay with a family friend (when Ontario was shut down) and do training. He continued to work hard and progress. Coming into camp last year, we didn’t know a lot of what everyone can do. Being a later pick, he came in and demonstrated early that he deserved an opportunity.”
At six-foot-six and 200 pounds, Smith is hard to miss on the ice and he’s only begun to grow into that frame.
“I’m still growing into my body,” Smith said. “I still haven’t hit my man strength. I need to fill out.
“Being a bigger guy, I knew I had to play that nasty role. I pushed to be a physical, hard-nosed defenceman. This is a fast league, guys are skilled and your timing has to be on the ball. You have to learn the speed and angle at the speed. I think I adapted to that fairly quickly.”
He’s also caught the attention of the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, which placed him on its preliminary watch list as a prospect for the 2023 draft.
“For someone his size, he moves quite well,” Oke said. “He can be physical and he’s not afraid to go into the corner. He’s a real nice piece.”
Smith doesn’t hide the fact that he would one day like to be an NHL defenceman, but he also knows it’s a long process with a lot of work.
“My main goal is playing in NHL and having a career,” Smith said. “It’s nice (being on the rankings list), it feels good, but ultimately it doesn’t matter in the long run. You know you’re doing something right, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Oke said it’s Smith’s attitude to never be satisfied that separates him from other players.
“He’s a good teammate and good ambassador,” Oke said. “For the NHL Draft, I know he has aspirations. Opposition players know when he’s on the ice and I think he’s garnered a fair bit of attention.
“When scouts come to the rink, he’s one of the players they’re focused on and I think the sky’s the limit for him. If you look at him for pro potential, he has that ability to be physical and the way he moves around the ice is a nice combination, but I can’t express how hard he works on and off the ice.”