ST. JOHN’S — Mike Babcock and D.J. Smith exchanged humorous texts this summer about matching their coaching wits in the coming Battle of Ontario, but the fog rolled in on that frivolity here Tuesday.
Smith, Babcock’s former assistant, now runs the Senators and after Tuesday’s 3-1 win over his mentor, has an eye to the Oct. 2 NHL season opener at Scotiabank Arena.
“I’m really proud, really happy for him,” Babcock said. “D.J. did a really good job for us (running the Leafs defence). We talked about this when he first interviewed with me five years ago, that he would have an opportunity like this. He sent me a really nice text the other day about feeling really prepared and confident.
“That’s what it’s all about. You’re trying to develop people in your organization and move on. I’m proud that lots of my guys have become head coaches (such as Bill Peters, Todd McLellan and Paul MacLean).”
Smith spent five seasons with the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Maple Leafs (1997-2002), appearing in 337 games.
The 42-year-old Smith is actually third all-time in games played for the AHL Leafs, behind only Nathan Dempsey and Guy Lehoux. His 908 penalty minutes with St. John’s is also the third most in franchise history behind Shawn Thornton and Lehoux.
The blooming of Morgan Rielly’s career as a Leaf came with Smith as the blueline tutor.
“It was a little bittersweet,” Rielly told Postmedia of Smith’s departure. “We had a really good relationship, but that being said you’re happy for him because this is what he wanted, to be a head guy.
“He deserves it. He’s got a great personality, guys are attracted to his energy and the way he goes about his business. He did a great job in Toronto so I would expect nothing less.”
Rielly, who spits out some good one-liners himself, says the jocular Smith, “can make people laugh all night if you want. He can me laugh pretty much on command, but the great part is when he goes about his business he’s focused. “He wants to win. He wanted to win in junior, he got that done (a Memorial Cup with Oshawa). He wants to win at this level and that’s what he’s trying to do.
“Look at his career as a player and he did it the hard way, so it’s proof he’s not afraid of the hard work. He’ll do stuff that maybe other people don’t want to do. That’s a great combination.
“He wanted to accomplish the goal of being a head coach in the NHL, I wanted to be (an) elite (defenceman), so we were really working as a tandem.”