Zak Smith was confident he had a future with the Red Deer Rebels, he just didn’t know if the future was now.
When Smith’s season with the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League ended March 2, the 16-year-old wondered if he would be recalled to the Rebels.
“After the (MJHL) season they (Rebels) said they might take me up, but they didn’t really know,” Smith said Tuesday. “So when I got that phone call it kind of took a lot of weight off the shoulders.”
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter recalled the Austin, Man., native last week and the left winger has appeared in both Red Deer games to date and will be back in the lineup Wednesday when the Lethbridge Hurricanes visit the Centrium.
“This is the first time for me in big games and then the playoffs, so it’s going to be really fun for me,” said Smith, who earlier in the season played in six WHL contests on temporary recall from his junior A team.
The six-foot-two, 181-pound forward was listed by the Rebels during the winter of 2016-17 and he went to score 22 goals and collect 56 points in 44 games with the midget AAA Central Plains Capitals as a 15-year-old.
He was impressive during training camp with the Rebels last fall before being reassigned to the Natives.
“I had a really good first year in midget and then going to Neepawa . . . I wasn’t sure if I would be good enough (to play junior A as a 16-year-old),” said Smith. “But when I got there I got better and better every game and during the last 10 games of the season we had some injuries and I got lots of ice time.
“I played top two lines and did what I could to finish off the year really well.”
Considering his age, Smith put up some nifty numbers with the Natives, scoring 11 goals and collecting 11 assists in 44 games.
He also racked up 56 minutes in penalties, an indication that he was anything but physically intimidated by his older opponents.
“If one of our guys is getting jumped or something I’m not afraid to go in there and protect him, that’s just kind of the way I am,” said Smith. “I had two fights this year and I feel I held my own against the older guys.
“I’m not afraid to battle.”
Now that he’s moved up to another level, Smith will continue to work on improving his overall game.
“I’m a pretty big guy and I think I just need to work on foot speed, just the first few steps . . . that would be huge,” he said. “I have size and a good shot, but maybe just add a bit more weight and fill out.”
Sutter has liked what he’s seen of Smith thus far, noting that the big winger is ahead of the grade after competing at the junior A level.
“He’s doing fine. He’s probably further ahead than some of our other 16-year-olds at this point because he’s been playing junior A whereas the others came to us from playing midget AAA,” said the Rebels boss.
“It’s not as big of a step for him because of that.”
Sutter might have recalled Smith to the WHL sooner if the youngster had been in midget AAA hockey rather than competing against older, bigger and stronger players.
But he was confident Smith would develop at a quicker pace while playing in Neepawa as opposed to being back with Central Plains.
“He played pretty well for a 16-year-old. He put up some numbers and played with some grease,” said Sutter.
“He’s a big guy. He’s going to be a big strong power winger who can play either side and he’s still a young man. He’s another player who we certainly have high hopes for.”
Smith recorded his first WHL point with an assist in Saturday’s 5-2 win over the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers.
“It was nice to get that out of the way and hopefully our line can get more points,” he said.
Rebels vs. Lethbridge Hurricanes, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Centrium
The Hurricanes carried a 32-30-6-0 record into Tuesday’s game at Edmonton and sat seventh in points in the Eastern Conference and occupied second spot in the Central Division. The ‘Canes had lost their previous five games and were 4-6-0 in their previous 10 . . . C Jordy Bellerive was leading the Lethbridge scoring parade with 44 goals and 90 points and was followed by C Brad Morrison (27-46-73), D Calen Addison (10-52-62), C Dylan Cozens (22-29-51) and LW Taylor Ross (21-21-42) . . . D Ty Prefontaine was the team leader in the plus/minus category at plus-22 . . . Logan Flodell was 12th among WHL goaltenders with a 3.13 goals-against average. His save percentage was .909 . . . Bellerive signed a free agent entry level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins last September after being passed over in the NHL entry draft three months earlier. Morrison was selected by the New York Rangers in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft and D Tate Olson was a seventh-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks the same year.
Injuries: Lethbridge — None. Red Deer — D Alexander Alexeyev (upper body, week-to-week).
Special teams: Lethbridge — Power play 25 per cent, seventh overall; penalty kill 77 per cent, 15th. Red Deer — Power play 18.7 per cent, 18th overall; penalty kill 78.7 per cent, sixth.