After more than 1000 games in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators, Jason Smith cemented himself as a true journeyman defenceman: A leader, a captain and one hell of a warrior. When his playing days ended in 2009 with the Ottawa Senators, he took a few years off only to be later hired by the Ottawa squad in 2012 as a team consultant. This move triggered a chain of events that has now seen him land as the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets
His coaching career started two years after being hired by the Senators, when the team promoted him to the role of an assistant coach. While in Ottawa, Smith was in charge of running the defence – the position he excelled at during his playing days. After two years with the Sens, Smith was named the head coach of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets on July 6.
“I’m really excited that we have a found a new head coach and I think that he will fit in really well with the team we have and the existing coaching staff,” said Rockets President/GM Bruce Hamilton. “I  think our players will be really excited to have a coach of this caliber, with this kind of experience as a player and as a coach.”
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Now, let’s rewind a little bit. While I myself never began following the Edmonton Oilers heavily until the 2005-2006 Stanley Cup run season, some of my earliest memories before that season had to do with Gator prowling the blue line laying down anyone who dared come near him.
Jason Smith was a warrior. There was no other way to put it. He was more than capable of holding his own in his own end then mix that with his edgy play and willingness to play through any sort of injury or ailment and you have someone who quickly became a fan favorite.
When the Oilers acquired Smith in a 1999 trade deadline deal for a second and a fourth it was soon apparent that the former 18th overall selection would play a big role in Edmonton. In the following season, he wore an ‘A’ for the Oilers and prior to the 2000 – 2001 season he was named the 11th captain in the franchises history and would later to go on to become the longest serving captain in Edmonton Oilers history. Well deserved for a player who truly wore his heart on his sleeves.
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Not bad Gator, not bad. 
Knowing that Smith had recently been hired by the Rockets, I thought it would be great to hear from him about his time as a coach, as a player, and what it was like to be an Edmonon Oiler.

NOW FOR THE GOOD STUFF

Zach Laing: Thanks a ton for taking my call today, Jason. How’d this opportunity come up for you with Kelowna?
Jason Smith: After being relieved of my duties with the Senators I put my ear to the grindstone to see what was available for options. It kind of came about that there was an opening in Kelowna and I reached out to Bruce (Hamilton) and we got in touch, talked a few times then met in person in Toronto just before the draft. I ended up in Kelowna last week and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to coach the Rockets. It’s very exciting.
ZL: You had the chance to play in the WHL as a Regina Pat, so what does it mean to you to be able to go back to your roots and the league where everything kicked off for you?
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JS: It’s obviously exciting. You look back at going through the process of playing in the Western League it was a stepping stone to getting me playing in the National League. I think if you try to go the college route or the junior route it’s about the teaching and the advice you get along that process that allows you to take those steps to develop and grow into a player with the skills and work ethic to play in the NHL. I’m just hoping I can pass on some of my knowledge to the guys in Kelowna and allow them to develop and grow as players and as people.
ZL: What were some things you noticed were challenging about transitioning from a player to a coach? 
JS: I think that as a player you always come, get to the rink, put in your time and leave. You’re given direction, responsibility and strategy to go out and execute. As a coach, you put in the time to create those plans, develop relationships with players and relationships to help put out fires. Things aren’t always going to go the way they want, but you learn how to read people and how they’re dealing with stress or challenges. 
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It is a tough league and hockey is a hard game. I think it’s important as a coaching staff to be able to have stable relationships with your players so you can notice when things aren’t right and you can help solve problems when they come about. 
ZL: As far as your coaching style goes, what are you looking to implement in Kelowna? Have you even gotten that far yet? 
JS: It’s a work in progress, but speaking with Bruce the belief in their organization is to be a team that’s going to be a hard working team. (We want to) develop a culture where you work in practice, you work in the games and you play with pace and tempo. I think those are obvious beliefs that I have and that are an important part of being successful in hockey. 
You look at all the teams that have had success in the last bunch of years whether in the National League, College or Junior. You play with pace, play with tempo, create turnovers and play 200 feet. You can create that work ethic and that belief in what you’re doing. Mistakes do happen, but if we’re working hard and competing, playing as a team and as a unit of five on the ice there is always someone there to help when there is a breakdown and you’ll get the results you want.
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ZL: The way you talk about that reminds me of you as a player. When you look at that, do you feel your playing style helped transition into the way you coach?
JS: I look at all the years I played and the variety of different coaches I had from Jacques Lemaire as a head coach in New Jersey with Larry Robinson as an assistant coach to Kevin (Lowe) and Mac(Tavish) and Ronny Low over the years in Edmonton to John Stevens in Philadelphia. You kind of go through the process of practicing and learning things from coaches along the way that are successful and that you really like. 
I think the big thing is there was certain times of success in all those places where it was fun to come to the rink everyday and the atmosphere was good. It is a tough league and you don’t win every game, but if the atmosphere is positive and there is belief in what you’re doing that gives you the best chance to win games.
ZL: When you were traded from Toronto to Edmonton, what was that like for you?
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JS: It was actually a relief. I got to Toronto in a deal where I got an opportunity to build my game and grow for the first couple years but then went through a big change in the organization. I kinda fell out of favour of the people who were at the top of the organization and the coaching staff. That happens and some of it was my fault and you just have to keep plottin’ away. 
It was a breath of fresh air to get to Edmonton to join the Oilers and I got somewhere I was welcome and wanted, to come from a place where I was kind of spinning my wheels not getting results. I got to Edmonton and was put in a role where I was playing, competing and relied upon to contribute. My game just grew and obviously I had a lot of fun playing in Edmonton. The atmosphere in the building was great and it was a really good group from day one when I got there to when I left.
ZL: As far memories go of being an Oiler, what really tops it off for you?
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JS: The run we had going to the final was the most exciting and most disappointing memory to go through that stretch in the playoffs and see the way the team played, the way we grew as a group and then the turmoil we dealt with. There was excitement not just in the city of Edmonton but with the hockey culture in Canada, the whole country was behind our team. It still is a lifelong memory, but it would’ve been the cornerstone of my hockey career to win that series and win that cup. It was exciting, it was great for family, great for friends and it was great for the people of Edmonton to be a part of that run.
I’m sure in the near future there will be excitement in the hockey back in Edmonton.
ZL: Outside of the rink, what were some of your favorite memories in Edmonton, whether it was with the guys, or with your family?
JS: I had a really good group of friends around the rink that my wife and kids grew up with. The Moreau family, the Staios family, the Pisani’s, the Smyth’s, we had a lot of kids that were young and grew up spending quality time together and we had a lot of fun away from the rink too. I had good friends away from the rink that weren’t involved in hockey and I’m still friends with them to the day. You know you meet good people that care about your family and your life when you move 3000 miles away and you still keep in touch and have those relationships.
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ZL: During your time in Edmonton, who was the biggest jokester in the locker room?
JS: You know, it was a variety of different guys. I think “Sparky” on the equipment staff is obviously a man who has been around the Oilers for a lot of years. He was a cornerstone of a lot of the jokery that went on, he was always involved in it and behind a lot it. 
There was just a great group of guys. It rotated around and there was a lot of good humor and good laughs, that’s for sure. 
Note: For those who don’t know, Lyle “Sparky” Kluchinksy has working the OIlers locker room since the team played in the 1975 – 1976 WHA season, and has been the team’s equipment manager since 1982.
ZL: Do you still follow the Oilers from afar and keep an eye on them?
JS: I do. I really enjoyed my team when I played there, I enjoyed the people, the city and Edmonton will always be close to me. The organization and the Oilers as a whole were great to me. I’ll always follow them and always keep an eye on the standings for sure.
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ZL: When you look at the team right now, what do you think it needs to take for them to turn it around?
JS: I don’t know the inner details of the team and the group itself, but I know that there is a great staff there with really great people in charge trying to get things going in the right way. I think with the players that are there, and the skill level, talent and work ethic that’s there, it will continue to be a great team sooner than later.

TO CLOSE

It was great to have a chance to speak with Jason and hear what his time was like in Edmonton. I could tell talking about the 2006 Stanley Cup run certainly wasn’t the easiest thing for him. As I mentioned earlier, he was a absolute fan favorite for good reason and it truly seems like he enjoyed his time in Edmonton. 
Follow me on twitter: @zjlaing
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