It was, in the words of Queen Elizabeth II, whose portrait used to hang on the wall of old Maple Leaf Gardens and witnessed some pretty bad hockey, an annus horribilis. Sweaters tossed. Fans not saluted. Losing to Nashville by a touchdown, at home. Phil hating on everybody. Everybody hating on Phil. I mean, turn out the lights and wake us up in time for the McDraft Lottery.
At one practice late in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ nightmare season, there was Trevor Smith, looking decidedly unmiserable. He was smiling and laughing, and lingered at the MasterCard Centre long after the formal part of his workday was over.
The worst year in Toronto Maple Leafs history? Maybe. But 2014–15 has been the best year of Smith’s professional life. Summer can wait.
“When you go on a slide like we did, it’s tough to stay positive sometimes. But for me, playing in the NHL—this is what I want to do,” the veteran forward says after leaving the ice, relaxed in his stall, skates still on. “Coming to the rink every day, coming to practice, it’s great. Every game you play, every opportunity around the net, every shot you get in a game—it’s pretty special.”
He would know. Before this season, Smith had managed to accumulate 52 NHL games for four teams in seven professional seasons since he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of New Hampshire. His was a story of a dream deferred, if not denied. Every time his hopes were raised, out would come the rug from under him: a shattered ankle one year, the NHL lockout another, the seasons flashing by as his address changed again and again—16 different postal codes so far. He keeps them on his phone as a reminder. His wife, Meghan, plans to include them in a piece of art one day.
But this year, in the midst of an organizational free fall, Smith improbably found himself steady work in the NHL as he turned 30. On March 19, as the Leafs were losing 4–1 to the San Jose Sharks, Smith played a then-season-high 23 shifts in what was his 100th NHL game, an incredible milestone considering it took nearly a decade to reach.
“It was something he was really pushing for,” Meghan says. “Just to be able to say, ‘I played 100 games,’ to tell that story to his kids many years down the road.”
They met at UNH, where Meghan played field hockey and ran track. She fully understood elite athletics, but did she know what she was signing on for as the wife of a professional hockey player?
“No idea. No clue,” says Smith.
They came to Toronto in part because it offered the chance for some stability. They had their first daughter, Islay, a year ago in January, and playing in Toronto provided what a veteran American Hockey League free agent with a baby on the way craved—the Marlies and the Leafs are in the same city, so being called up wouldn’t mean being called away.
The Leafs offered him a one-way contract at the NHL minimum ($550,000), a perk to attract the right kind of minor-league veterans—character people who can offer injury insurance for the big team and veteran leadership at the minor-league level. In 2013–14, he was named the Marlies’ captain, but Smith wanted more for himself. He kept pushing. Last year, he played 28 games with the Leafs and would have gotten in for more had he not broken his hand in December, a few days after his career highlight—deflecting in the winning goal against Dallas in overtime.
“I didn’t breathe for two minutes,” says Meghan. “I nearly passed out.”
This season, on a team in disarray with defensive holes glaringly apparent, Smith’s willingness to do the small things earned him the most precious commodity of all for a working-class player: his coach’s trust.
“You want to see the guys who do what he does get that opportunity to play,” says beleaguered Leafs coach Peter Horachek, his face momentarily brightening. “Some people don’t commit the way he commits to the game. He’s not gifted with amazing speed or an amazing shot or an amazing anything—he’s just a good, reliable, smart guy.”
He’s a competitor, so the losing gnaws at him. But having been through some tough years in the minors, Smith argues that a tough year in the NHL is infinitely better.
“The travel is a lot easier. Flying is a lot better than taking buses through the night,” he says. “You stay in nicer hotels. Everything is catered to; it’s just another level. My buddies ask me: ‘What’s it like?’ And I tell them: ‘Everything you think it is, it is.’ It’s unbelievable.”
The benefits ripple outwards. The NHL paycheque gave him and Meghan the confidence to buy their first house back in New Hampshire, where Meghan’s family is from. That’s where she plans to hang their postal code–based art installation one day, when hockey is over. But for now, after years of living on the edge, they can enjoy something passing for certainty.
“I’ve never seen him so relaxed. He’s loving hockey and he’s confident,” says Meghan. “It’s just so nice to see. It’s been a long road for that guy.”
At home in Vancouver, Smith’s family doesn’t have to search around for his AHL games on the Internet. “Going down to the basement to see your son play on Hockey Night in Canada in HD never gets old,” says his father, Harvey Smith, who coached Trevor through bantam.
Even better is that for the first time in his career, Smith was in the NHL for the Maple Leafs’ annual father-son road trip in November.
“I booked his flight, but I didn’t tell him until the last minute because I wanted to make sure it was happening—you never know in this league,” says Smith. “But I flew him down and we went to Pittsburgh and it was awesome. All the dads are mingling, telling stories. It was a fun time. That was pretty cool, for us to have that together.”
Of course, the Leafs still had to play the game, and they lost to the Penguins in a shootout. No one knew then how many more losses were coming in a season almost everyone associated with the team wants to forget.
But for Smith, it’s still a cherished memory in a season he’ll always remember.