Jonathan Smart blushes at the mere mention of his name in the same sentence as Tyson Barrie.
“That’s obviously very flattering because he’s a (defenceman) I look up to,” Smart said of Barrie, the former Kelowna Rockets’ captain from Victoria who is coming off a breakout 53-point campaign with the Colorado Avalanche. “He’s one of the premier offensive D-men in the NHL right now, in my opinion. And when he played for the Rockets, he did it all and he was a great captain. So it means a lot to me, to get a comparison like that.”
Smart, a Kelowna product, certainly has a lot in common with Barrie.
Both were late first-round picks in the WHL bantam draft; Barrie at 18th overall in 2006 and Smart selected 22nd in 2014.
Both were undersized at the time, Barrie at just 5-foot-8 and Smart also sub six-feet tall at 5-11, though Smart has grown to 6-1 over the last year.
Smart is already bigger than Barrie — now 24 years old and topping out at 5-10 — but the biggest similarity is in their style of play. Prior to and since getting drafted, Smart has been reminding many of Barrie through his smooth skating, intelligent puck-moving and impressive offensive instincts.
You could see that clone coming to fruition as Smart quarterbacked the power play for the Penticton-based Okanagan Hockey Academy at the Kelowna International Elite Midget Tournament back in January.
“I’m not going to say he’s a poor man’s Tyson, but he’s close — he’s that kind of player,” Lorne Frey, the Rockets’ longtime director of player personnel, said of Smart, who arrived at his second Rockets training camp this weekend appearing noticeably taller and tipping the scales at about 175 pounds. “We’ll see how he develops physically, that’s going to be a key with him, but he’s very smart offensively. He moves the puck very, very well and can jump into the play.
“We’ll see how strong he’s gotten over the summer and whether he can handle the situations physically or not,” continued Frey, who has scouted and helped develop more than a dozen NHL defencemen over the last 25 years in Kelowna’s organization. “We know he’s smart enough and can move the puck, but whether he’s physically ready or not, that’ll be determined during camp and the exhibition games.”
Smart, for his part, feels up to the challenge. Frey singled him out as one of only a few 16-year-old prospects with a realistic chance of cracking the roster for Kelowna’s season opener against the rival Kamloops Blazers on Sept. 25 at Prospera Place. Smart’s currently auditioning alongside approximately 60 peers — including 18 defencemen — in scrimmages and practices, with the first true test to come in Saturday’s exhibition opener against the visiting Prince George Cougars.
“That was definitely a goal of mine, to get a lot bigger to try and step into the league as a 16-year-old,” Smart said. “It’s a big step . . . but I’ve definitely prepared myself the best I can and I’m really looking forward to doing my best here at camp.”
It didn’t take long to discover that Smart has something else in common with Barrie. The kid is a quote machine, more polished than most his age when it comes to media interviews.
Asked if there was any added pressure as a first-round pick, Smart put on a verbal stickhandling clinic with his response.
“There’s expectations that come along with it, but when you get in the room with all the guys and the other players trying to make the team, where you got drafted really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone is on even footing, so I’ve just got to play my game. . . . I’m definitely looking forward to putting on the Rockets’ jersey for the first time and stepping on the ice and showing everyone what I can do.”
Gold, pure gold.
He’s likely been schooled by his parents with his dad, Jason Smart, a former professional hockey player and NHL draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989, while his mom, Michelle, works for a local online news outlet. Jason played in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades (1986-1990), then spent a handful of seasons in the minor leagues as a 6-foot-4 forward — that explains Jonathan’s continued growth spurt — but has since retired and is now an RCMP officer who “doesn’t play much anymore,” according to his son.
Smart is also a quick study on the Rockets’ depth chart and realizes he’ll have his work cut out for him over the next month.
With the world-junior gold-medallist pairing of Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey graduating to the pro ranks, the Rockets are returning four defencemen in Devante Stephens, Joe Gatenby, Lucas Johansen and Riley Stadel, the latter of whom finished last season as a forward but is now expected to be the old horse on the back end as the lone 19-year-old — turning 20 in January — on what projects to be a very young blue-line this season.
That leaves three or potentially four available roster spots for newcomers and Smart is in that mix. His main competition includes Cal Foote, the elder of former NHLer Adam Foote’s two sons drafted by the Rockets, who is a near lock to make the cut for his 17-year-old season despite still being 16 with a late birthday in December; Danny Gatenby, Joe’s younger-but-bigger brother and another strong candidate as a 17-year-old; Gordie Ballhorn, who was signed out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League partway through last season and will turn 18 on Wednesday; and Connor Bowey, Madison’s younger-and-smaller brother who might be converted to a forward, at least for his 17-year-old season.
Do the math and that is nine names vying for seven, maybe eight jobs — not to mention the other nine wild-cards who remain in training camp and could still emerge as surprise roster contenders.
“The Rockets do a great job spotting prospects, they’re a defence factory,” Smart said. “It’s going to be tough, but I feel like I can come in and really show my game. I’m excited for the competition.”
Being a local kid, Smart has grown up watching and idolizing the Rockets, so he’s well aware of the franchise’s history and alumni. He faintly recalls attending a game against the Medicine Hat Tigers during the 2004 Memorial Cup tournament, which the Rockets won 2-1 — the same score that saw them later prevail over the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympics to be crowned champions on home ice at Prospera Place.
Faintly, for Smart, because he was just shy of his fifth birthday back then. Yes, we’re that old — or he’s that young. Either way, it’s crazy how time flies.
“It’s pretty cool being able to come into the organization having watched it as a young kid,” Smart said. “I came to lots of Rockets games and (Barrie) was definitely one of my favourites, along with a couple other guys like (Tyler) Myers and (Luke) Schenn. I don’t really remember the older guys like (Duncan) Keith as much, but I do remember (Shea) Weber a bit, he was fun to watch.
“It’s a dream come true to come in and try to follow in their footsteps, and hopefully play in the NHL one day.”
First things first, make the Rockets out of training camp.
“That’s the goal, hopefully sticking around for the season,” Smart said. “I’m just real focused on making the team.”