By Sunaya Sapurji
EDMONTON – If he had to do it all over again, Devante Smith-Pelly said he wouldn’t change a thing.
He would have still angled his skate to block a blistering shot – one that would break a bone in his foot and end his world junior run with Team Canada. The forward, on loan from the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, was injured in the second period during Canada’s 8-1 victory over Finland in the tournament opener.
“I don’t regret blocking it at all,” said Smith-Pelly, leaning on his crutches and sporting a cast on his left foot. “That’s a part of my game and injuries happen.
“You never know what could have happened on that shot.”
He said he knew the instant the point shot from Finland’s Teemu Pulkkinen hit his skate that something was amiss. The former Mississauga St. Michael’s Major star tried to continue to skate, but couldn’t put any weight on his foot, barely managing to make it to the Canadian bench under his own power.
“I’ve blocked shots before but as soon as it hit me, I knew right away that something was wrong,” said Smith-Pelly on Tuesday. “I tried to go again, and I couldn’t stand on it. I was pretty upset right away.”
The 19-year-old, who failed to garner an invite to Canada’s camp last year, is expected to miss four to six weeks with the injury, meaning his lone opportunity to play in the premier tournament has ended prematurely. He said that painful realization is far worse than the hurt from the injury.
“This is what I wanted to do for a while,” he said. “And I only get a chance to play a period and a bit. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Ducks sent Smith-Pelly to Team Canada after the Toronto native surprisingly made the club out of training camp. In 23 NHL games with the struggling club, Smith-Pelly has three goals and two assists for five points in his rookie season. One has to wonder how the Ducks will feel now that their young star is sidelined for at least a month.
“I think they’ll just kind of accept it,” said Smith-Pelly. “It was a blocked shot. It wasn’t a concussion or something that could have been avoided. It’s just a hockey play. I don’t think they’ll be that upset about it.”
The Los Angeles Kings’ co-director of amateur scouting, Mike Futa, agrees having sent his own prospects to the tournament in the past. He doesn’t believe an injury like this will make NHL teams gun-shy over sending their young prospects to Team Canada in the future.
“(Smith-Pelly) was doing what was expected,” said Futa. “(Blocking a shot) is one of the things he wouldn’t have done three years ago, but it’s one of the reasons he’s in the NHL now… in fairness it happens. Hockey Canada certainly understands the huge thought process that goes into that kind of decision – to send a kid back. It would have been different if they had misread the X-rays and tried to jam the kid’s foot into a boot to force him to finish the tournament. Clearly he’s injured and he can’t play and Hockey Canada always has the players’ best interests in mind. He was a National Hockey League player that was loaned, but I think they treat everyone the same, they’re valuable to their organizations and if they can’t play, they can’t play.”
Last year the Kings sent centre Brayden Schenn back to his WHL team, the Brandon Wheat Kings, just prior to Team Canada’s camp so he could play in the tournament.
“It’s huge and it’s not looked at as just another tournament,” said Futa of the WJC. “Whether it’s on enemy soil, so to speak, or whether it’s in Canada where the pressure is probably greater, where if you don’t win gold it’s considered an outright failure it’s a huge measuring stick to see how kids are going to handle pressure at the next level.”
Smith-Pelly said he would remain with Team Canada for the remainder of the tournament and was at practice on Tuesday morning trying to keep his teammates upbeat despite his own disappointment.
“I was just watching practice and enjoying myself,” said the Ducks’ second-round draft pick (42nd overall) in 2010. “I can’t be pouting and moping around, feeling sorry for myself. I’m going to try to have fun and continue to enjoy the company of all the guys.”
Smith-Pelly’s loss is going to be tough for Canada to overcome not only because of his exceptional two-way game, but because he’s one of the most feared hitters at the junior level. It was the stout 6-foot, 211-pounder’s ferocious checking in the pre-tournament games that really set the physical tone for Canada.
“He probably averages 10 hits a game,” said Canadian forward Brendan Gallagher. “The other teams know who he is and what he’s going to do to them, so when defenders are going back they know he’s coming. We have to step up and it’s not going to be just one guy it’s going to be our whole team that steps up and plays a little more physical to make up for that absence.”
And while it’s easy and perhaps cliche to say that players such as Tanner Pearson and Michael Bournival will have to “step up” along with the rest of the team, as forward Freddie Hamilton notes, hitting like Smith-Pelly is an art.
“He just hits so hard,” said Hamilton, whose Niagara IceDogs are in the OHL’s Eastern Conference with the Majors. “He’s a really good hitter and has a big body… Hitting takes some skill and I think he knows how to hit with his shoulder and he pops guys, he’s definitely good at it.”
If there’s one player that can commiserate with what Smith-Pelly is going through, it’s teammate Jaden Schwartz. The Colorado College forward broke his ankle after an awkward collision with a Czech player last year in the second game of the tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. Like Smith-Pelly, he had to watch the rest of Canada’s games from the stands.
“It’s tough watching the game and not being able to help,” said Schwartz, who is Canada’s captain this year. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through as far as hockey-wise.
“I feel really bad for (Smith-Pelly). You dream of playing in this tournament growing up. It’s an honour to be here and it’s really bad timing.”
Schwartz at least had the benefit of being 18 at the time of his injury, meaning he could still think about representing Canada in the future – one luxury Smith-Pelly doesn’t have.
“What crossed my mind last year when I got hurt was, ‘Hopefully I get a second chance this year,’ and luckily enough I did,” said Schwartz. “This was his only opportunity, so I feel bad for him.”
In addition to having to deal with his injury at the tournament last year, Schwartz also had to manage the added emotions as his sister, Mandi, was battling leukemia. Mandi Schwartz, a hockey star in her own right at Yale, passed away in April after her lengthy fight against cancer inspired many to donate bone marrow, raise awareness and funds.
It’s a devastating loss that has always put hockey in perspective for Schwartz.
“I know (Smith-Pelly) knows this, but there are a lot worse things in life than an injury. I know he’s going to get through it.”