LA RONGE — In just his second season, La Ronge Ice Wolves goalie Dawson Smith has emerged as “the backbone of the team,” according to head coach Kevin Kaminski.
Numbers do not tell the whole story of what the 19-year-old Whitehorse product brings to his Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League squad, but they are a good start. As of Monday, Smith was third in the SJHL in save percentage (0.928), fourth in goals against average (2.61), and fifth in wins (seven). Kaminski said, “He makes some saves, like you think ‘How?’”
“If we have a breakdown, Smitty is there to clean it up and make the big save. I think it’s a confidence builder for the boys … knowing if they make a mistake, Smitty is probably going to bail them out,” said the head coach, who is a former National Hockey League enforcer known by the nickname of “Killer.”
Smith embraces the pressure of the position – being the hero or the goat. He also appreciates its simplicity: “my role is easily understood, stop the puck. However, some days it’s easier said than done. Seriously though, it’s a big risk reward position. The highs are high, but the lows are low, never a dull moment.”
Smith’s strong play has helped his team to a good start this season. As of Monday, the Ice Wolves had a 10-7-1-0 record. They sat fifth in the SJHL standings and were second on the Sherwood Division.
“We have a team where everyone works hard every game and that's paying off,” Smith said. “I particularly like it when they keep the puck down the other end of the ice.”
When the puck makes its way down to his end, the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder has proven to be formidable at stopping it. Kaminski praised Smith’s work ethic, compete level on every puck, quickness and lateral movement. He also appreciates how low maintenance his veteran netminder is.
“He’ll practice with a broken stick,” Kaminski said. “He won’t ask for a new stick unless it is completely broken. That’s the type of kid this guy is. He doesn’t care. ‘I just want to stop pucks. Whether it’s with a broken stick, no stick, whatever. I stop pucks.’”
Last season Smith partnered with Xavier Cannon in the La Ronge crease. The younger member of the tandem was called upon often at times during the season as Cannon battled injuries.
“He just seemed to get better and better as the year went along. It didn’t seem to matter kind of who we had in the net – Cannon or Smitty – they both were outstanding. … I think that experience last year gave him a good eye-opener – what it’s going to take. Obviously, he took the steps this summer.”
Smith ended up winning the team’s Most Improved Player award. He believes he benefitted from his rookie season. Smith learned the adjustments he had to make in going from U18 AAA to Junior A. He appreciated the support of his coaches and teammates. “With last year being Cannon's final year, both him and Kyle Sephton, the goalie coach, worked with me to better my game,” Smith said. “Also, with Canon's misfortune of being injured a couple times, that really allowed me to see some games. It's always a bit of an
adjustment going from one level to the next. The speed of the game changes, pucks move a little faster.”
Smith remembers being eight years old and attending his first hockey school. He was a defenceman at the time and “for some reason I really wanted to learn to be a goalie. My parents told me they would put me into goalie school only if I did the regular hockey school too. They picked up some goalie gear at the used equipment store across from the arena and there was no turning back.”
Growing up in northern Canada, Smith hit the road often to pursue his passion for hockey.
“Playing competitive hockey in Whitehorse means you spend a lot of time out of town playing tournaments and such, but once you get to U16 you pretty much have to move outside,” he said.
Smith played for U16 and U18 squads (Cariboo Cougars) in Prince George, B.C. due to Yukon being aligned with Hockey BC. For two years with the Cougars, his goalie coach was Kris Joyce. A former Ice Wolves standout, Joyce was the 2016 SJHL Most Valuable Player. He went on to play at the University of Windsor, briefly in the ECHL, and overseas. “I really appreciated working with him,” Smit said. “The job of a goalie coach is to be able to break down each goal and figure out if there are any consistencies or adjustments to make, so those are the things we worked on.”
Someone told Kaminski about Smith and he had the opportunity to check him out while coaching at a camp in Langley. He does not recall Smith letting in a goal all of that weekend. Smith is pleased that his hockey journey brought him to Joyce’s former stomping grounds in La Ronge.
“The community support is incredible,” he said. “Usually you don't hear the fans when you're on the ice but last year during the playoffs, it was crazy. And where else are you going to play for a coach named Killer? It's awesome!”