Story by: Steve Warne
Photography: Mathieu Brunet
When NHL head coaching prospects think of their dream job, the last place Ottawa Senators don’t immediately spring to mind, but D.J. Smith is exactly where he wants to be. Smith has arrived in Ottawa, brimming with optimism, energy, and excitement to burn. The 42-year-old Windsor, Ontario native became the 13th man to take the Sens’ head coaching reigns on May 23rd. The task of turning the Senators around may seem like a tall one, but Smith knows a thing or two about difficult jobs.
“My grandfather owned a construction company,” recalls Smith. “I was the stop/slow sign guy at a job site and I stood there for like ten hours straight. Stop, slow. Stop, slow. The flagman, they called it. That was, by far, my worst job ever. I called my grandfather at the end of the night and said, ‘I’ll do anything, dig ditches, I never ever want to do that again.’ For a person like me, that likes to stay on the move, it was absolutely a killer. Eventually, when I was playing in the OHL, I made my way up to work the backhoe. I’d work until noon and then go to hockey practice at 3 o’clock.”
Smith has carried that perspective and hard work with him throughout his coaching career. Never again, as he did on the construction site, will he direct someone to slow down.
Smith was a bruising, point-per-game defenceman with his hometown Windsor Spitfires. That caught the eye of the New York Islanders, who drafted him in the second round in 1995. Smith appeared in 45 NHL games between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche. He spent most of his pro career in the American Hockey League from 1997-2004, most of it with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, where he piled up 908 penalty minutes in five seasons there. Only 42, Smith could fairly be classified for this season as one of the toughest guys on the Senators’ bench, even in a jacket and tie.
After his playing career, Smith circled back home, becoming an OHL assistant coach in Windsor in 2005. He remained there until 2012, but not before winning two OHL championships and two Memorial Cup titles. Smith moved on to become head coach of the Oshawa Generals, where he was named the OHL’s coach of the year in 2013-14 then won another Memorial Cup the season after. That impressed everyone in hockey, including new Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock hired him as an assistant in 2015, handing him the club’s defensive reins.
Last year, the NHL Players’ Association conducted its annual player poll and Smith was voted the NHL assistant coach most deserving of an NHL head coaching job. That certainly speaks to Smith’s ability to relate to his players. “He’s a lot of fun. He uses humour as a teaching tool,” said former Leafs’ defenceman Connor Carrick, in an interview with TSN. “He usually has a way of saying things that get through to the player. And I think he does a good job of sorting out how to coach each individual. He’s got a great background knowledge for the game and a personality that would certainly suit a head coach if given the opportunity.”
In Ottawa, that opportunity has finally arrived.
How would you describe your emotions, realizing your dream of becoming an NHL head coach?
I can’t be any more excited. I’ve waited a long time for this and I’m ready.
How would you describe yourself as a hockey coach?
I’m a guy that’s going to hold the players accountable. I’m a guy that’s gonna make the guys work hard. I’m a guy that… people will know that I’m intense, but I’m also going to be a player’s guy in a way that they’re going to know I trust them, but they’re also going to have to do it a certain way. Players don’t need a friend. They need a coach, but they also sometimes need a pat on the back. And I’ll be there to do that. We’re going to grow as a group. I get to know people first, I coach them second, and I found that with that recipe, you tend to have a little more success.
How did you get the job? Why do you think you and GM Pierre Dorion hit it off?
Well, Pierre was very honest with me throughout the process. He said, “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m going to interview a couple more people.” So I was aware of the process the whole time. What I wanted to get across was that I knew this team better than anyone else. I’ve watched them throughout the year. But when our season ended in Toronto, I was able to get a jump on these guys and get watching video of their games, even before I found out that I was going to interview. I wanted them to know that I knew this team, but also how passionate I was about making young players better. The opportunity that lies ahead of me, taking over a team that finished 31st in the National Hockey League, excited me so much.
As you watched video of the Ottawa Senators’ games from this past season, were you able to diagnose some of the things that were going wrong for this team?
I went through quite a bit of analytics to see what the numbers said to start with. So I kinda knew what I was looking for. Then, as you’re going through the games, you’re seeing (the issues). There were a lot of those things backed up, whether it be some things on their penalty kill or whether it be their forecheck or their ozone structure, whatever it may be, and I was just marking them one after another. And then you put them all together, go back and watch them and you say to yourself, you know, these are some things that are easily fixable. These aren’t talent-related issues. This is a work ethic or this is a structure and these are things that I believe I can implement immediately. So I see a chance for us to improve immediately. You know, talent and development of players are going to come with time, but a lack of structure will be unacceptable.
When you look at this roster, maybe a word on what you like about it, and how close is it to being a DJ Smith type of a team?
Well, I’m going to have to get to know the guys. I mean, I know the guys via tape. I don’t know their personalities. I don’t know how hard they can be pushed yet. I don’t know which guys are going to find another gear when the going gets tough. Those are the guys that I want. Those are the guys that are ultimately going to be the guys that stick around. They’re the guys that can push through some adversity or aren’t going to go away in tough times, and willing to play hard, tough hockey. That doesn’t mean a hit or a fight. It means being able to hold on to pucks, go to the net, be willing to get crosschecked, be willing to keep guys off the goalie. These are things that are going to check the boxes so we end up being the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins that are playing for the Stanley Cup.
In 2016, before they hired Guy Boucher, the Sens had asked Toronto for permission to speak with you about their head coaching vacancy. The Leafs refused. What was your reaction to being blocked for a head coaching job?
Well, I was ecstatic they asked, but I can say knowing what I know now, I wasn’t ready. I would’ve thought I was ready. I needed the four years to coach in the National Hockey League and see what the League was about. One of my greatest mentors is Lou Lamoriello. Lou said, ‘You’re going to be ready in time. You’re just not ready yet.’ I trusted his advice and he’s never steered me wrong.
Is there any difference communicating with players in the NHL versus communicating with players in the OHL?
I think ultimately if you treat people well and you give them trust, I believe they’re going to give some back to you. So I’d say junior is probably a little bit easier because they’re striving to get to this level. But it guys that are at this level, they don’t want to just be here. The good guys, anyway. They always want to be better and then the middle guys want to be the top dogs, and the top dogs want to be the best in the league. So my job is to push whoever that person is to be one notch better. And if I can get 10 or 20 percent more out of guys throughout our lineup, this team’s going to be better, sooner rather than later.
Going from OHL head coach where you’re running the show, to an assistant at the next level up. Is that a difficult transition?
You know what? It was. It was difficult for me. I’ve been the assistant coach before, but certainly being a head coach, you get to live and die by your own sword. It was a bit of a transition but it’s something that I needed to do. I needed to learn the league, I needed to learn, you know, the ins and outs of how to treat people in the NHL, how the cities work, how everything works. I don’t think you can run a franchise and be the head coach and the face of the group if you don’t know how everything works. And those four years (as an NHL assistant) provided that for me.
Defensive zone coverage has been an ongoing trouble spot for this team. Do you think being a former NHL defenceman yourself maybe gives you a leg up on some others?
Well, I can tell you that as a head coach in Oshawa…and I know what people say, ‘It’s the OHL.” But the OHL is a mini-NHL and I think our 156 goals against in Oshawa is the lowest in the last 10 years or so in the OHL. It comes with a mindset, certainly. You have to have people pay the price and it comes in practice. You have to learn to play in your own zone but, in saying that, if you can play in the offensive zone longer, you can track pucks harder. You don’t have to play in your own zone. So certainly, as a defenceman, I’m going to teach our defencemen to face the puck. I’m going to teach the centres how to play low in their zone. We’re going to have a five-man mentality. But what I would like to do is play more offense, track more pucks so we don’t have to spend as much time in our zone.
What was it like working with Mike Babcock?
You know what, he’s intense. He’s an honest man, in his effort every day, the way he works. He’s just a tireless grinder that wants to be to the utmost prepared. So, for me, it was imperative that I go through that process, especially to prepare me for an interview, to be prepared, to all of the things that you have to do to be a head coach. Had I not done that, I’m not so sure I’d have been as prepared for that interview.
Did any of the Ottawa Senators’ well-known problems, on and off the ice, give you pause for thought when you were considering this job?
Not for one second. I guess I always look at the glass half full rather than half empty. And I always think that if you go there and you treat people right, it’ll change. It’ll change for the better. Some people don’t believe that theory. But I believe I’m here now, that’s in the past. We can put that behind us. The best is ahead of us. So I’ve seen that. When I went to Windsor, we went from dead last to two Memorial Cups. In Oshawa, we went from being low in the standings to winning the Memorial Cup. Toronto was dead last to where they are today. So I’ve been a part of three transitions. I know the mentality and the hard work that has to go into it, but I have no doubt in my mind we can do that here.
In Toronto, there was no captain and there was lots of discussion about it. Same thing in Ottawa. How important is a captain and what’s your timeline for putting one in place?
In due time, that certainly will happen and that’ll be a decision between, me, Pierre and Eugene (Melnyk). Ultimately, that person has to prove themselves and they have to earn that right to be the captain. The team’s going to need someone to lead them. But you also don’t want to put a young guy in a position where he has to answer all the questions every single day. You know, while we’re on this journey, I’d rather be the guy to do that and maybe a couple of older guys as assistant captains can handle that early. And then when it’s time for them to take over, they’re ready. You don’t want to stunt their growth with too much pressure early. So I’ll do everything I can to take that pressure off. But we’ll find our captain in time.
You have some great young puck movers on defense. Are you excited about getting a hold of those guys and teaching them to be well-rounded defensemen?
Well, 100%. If you’re going to win, you have to play defense. So you can’t just be racing around all over the ice. The hardest part is to find guys that can move pucks and skate. So they’ve got that. Now they have to learn to play defense. If you look at a guy like Scott Niedermayer when he was young and some of the troubles they went through. They had to dial him back a little bit and Scott was a better player. So he got 20 fewer points, but the team was winning and that reminds me of these guys. So maybe they’re going to get a few last points here and there, but the team’s going to win and they’re going to learn to play in all situations, not just race around the rink. So, first, you want to find a partner for each guy and guys that can be reliable with them to create a nice mix. But it’s a great starting point.
Tell us about life in Windsor.
That’s where I was born and raised, lived my entire life there. I actually grew up in River Canard, which is a small French community outside of Windsor. I moved to Tecumseh, on the other side of Windsor when I was 14, 15-years-old and that’s where I live today. When the season’s over, I go back there. There’s a lot of hockey players that hang out there. We all play golf, we all kind of hang around and we get great pro skate going in August. So it’s a great place to live and raise a family.
Besides golf, what do you do with your spare time to get away from hockey?
You know what? I fell in love with Crossfit a couple of years ago. My wife got into it and then got me into it. So we’re into a Crossfit community back home. We’re there five, six days a week. I’m ultra-competitive, so I found that competing against people for the first time, I got kind of addicted. I still get an opportunity to compete for five days a week and in whatever their workout may be. So we do that. I visit buddies’ houses. I’m on the move at all times. I’m not the type of guy that’s laying on a couch or sitting around. Some people call that relaxing. My relaxing is being on the move.
What can you tell us about family?
My wife, Christie – we’ve been together 13, 14 years now. We met in Windsor. She was a golfer, she went away on a golf scholarship so now it’s really competitive when we play. I have a 15-year-old son that plays AAA hockey back home. His name’s Colton. He’ll be up for the OHL draft this year and we’ll see if he’s good enough to get drafted. And then Christie and I have a three-year-old boy who absolutely loves his older brother and dada more than anything. We’re just transitioning him into an Ottawa fan after coaxing him into Toronto.
NHL game as a head coach will compare to your first NHL game as a player?
Well, I say this to players all the time. Coaching is way harder and playing. When you’re coaching, you’re responsible for 20 guys. When you’re a player, you’re responsible for you. So there’s probably a lot more nerves as a coach than a player. But I’ve been doing this for the last 16 years and I’ve been in hockey my whole life, so I’m never more calm than when I’m standing on the bench or when I’m playing. I’m in my perfect place. So you know, there’ll be some nerves before, but at the end of the day, it’s just another hockey game and something I can’t wait to do.
If you could sit down with an Ottawa hockey fan who hasn’t decided if he wants to buy tickets this season. What would you tell them about what they can expect over the next three years with DJ Smith as head coach?
It’s easy for me to say, “Trust me.” You don’t know me. No one’s going to trust someone they don’t know. What I would say is, go back and look at my prior work and how I’ve done everything in my career to try and make other people better. It’s not about me. It’s about making a group better. And I believe I’ve successfully done that in every place that I’ve gone. I’m going to do that here. Trust the process. It’s not going to be a quick fix, but we’re going to do this thing right. And I didn’t come here to give a bunch of slogans and say a bunch of things so that people come in and watch us for a week or a month and say, “Oh, he’s done a good job.” I’m here to try and turn this franchise around. I believe that and I’m going to get these kids to follow.
Let’s find out about some of your favourite things. A favourite movie?
Whew. You know what, I’m going to go with Major League.
Favourite TV show?
I don’t watch a ton of TV anymore. You know what? This is going to shock people. When I played, I watched Days of Our Lives every day. 1-2pm for 20 years.
Italian. There’s a great Italian bakery back home in Windsor. I found one in Toronto too.
Last book you read?
Bob Probert’s biography. It was outstanding. You know what? Bob Probert had a very interesting, hard life. Every kid in Windsor grew up watching Bob being the toughest guy in the NHL and, and you know, he went through some trials and tribulations off the ice, but it was very interesting.
Your first car and your best memory associated with it?
Well, my first car, it was my Dad’s pickup truck. They own a construction company and it was a pickup truck that was just sitting out back that no one used. I had the ability to use it. After that, it was a green Neon that took a lot of abuse. One of those things I didn’t tell anyone was the brakes were gone. Eventually, my stepfather came to me and said, you know, the brakes are gone. I kind of figured that. They’d been squeaking for six weeks, but as a young kid, you just don’t have time to stop.
Favourite memory of your childhood?
You know what? It’s probably baseball. I just liked to compete so much. When I played baseball, we competed and tried to get to the little league world series. I never got anywhere close to that. But people would come out, to Optimist Park in Windsor. They’d chalk up the lines and get the microphones out. All the best teams in town would compete to try and get to Provincials and then Nationals. So every year in August, you’d get prepped up and just that thought of maybe one day having the chance to go to Williamsport, Pennsylvania as a kid and stand in there and play, starting from Windsor, Ontario, thinking the big picture, the rush was unbelievable. I mean, I never got there but it’s kind of carried with me in hockey.
Besides yourself, who is most responsible for helping you get here?
Well, I got to say it’s my parents for sure. My Mom and Dad. My Dad, who’s passed away, drove me everywhere. Just endless dedication between both of them to take me to tournaments to when the going got tough as a coach and they weren’t paying you very much at the start. You know, watching your kids so you could coach and do things. The endless amount of time that your family puts in and sticks with you and cheers for whatever team you’re coaching. So I’d have to say, my parents.
Tell us about your Dad.
My Dad’s name was Dennis. They call me DJ. I’m Dennis. Dennis Joseph. He was Dennis Warren. He passed away at 60 of leukemia, but he had an unbelievable personality. The one-liners! People in Windsor still talk about them. So I’ve taken a lot of his personality.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
In hockey, I go back to Lou Lamoriello. It’s the way you treat people. You don’t realize it when you’re young and you kind of just do whatever you have to do to get by. And as you get a little older you realize respect is a big part of it. You know, taking care of each other in the hockey world is part of it. You want to be competitive, but also you have to be respectful. And Lou Lamoriello did it, did all those things for me, made sure you always were dressed the right way, made sure you shaved every day. Meanwhile, in junior hockey, you went with the flow and it was invaluable to work under a man like that.
You’re taking over a team that’s had a couple of tough years here. How do you handle social media criticism?
So many people say that they don’t read it, but they do. I really don’t. I don’t have Twitter. I’ll check the highlights or whatever. I don’t read the criticism. Even if I did, I believe in myself enough to just keep doing what I’m doing. And in a Canadian market, the fans are so passionate. They just want their team to win and I get it. So there’s no time to be filtering all the negativity. You’ve just got to keep pushing on.
What energizes DJ Smith and what drains DJ Smith?
Energized? It’s just life. Getting up every day and being able to do something important. I don’t look at hockey as a job. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to make a living doing the one thing that I absolutely love and the opportunity to make kids better that maybe wouldn’t have had a chance if you didn’t push them over the edge. So the opportunity to get up every day and teach people and do something you love, absolutely energizes me. On the other hand, negative people are an absolute drainer for me. I spot them like the colour red on a wall. I can see a guy or a woman that just looks on the negative side of everything. And life’s too short. I’m only 42-years-old and I remember like it was yesterday being eight. Before you know it, I’m going to be 65. So I’m not going to waste another day of my life worrying about what goes bad.
Positivity, perspective and hard work – three key attributes needed to be successful in any new job, and especially crucial when you’ve just accepted one of the most challenging positions in the NHL.