WHL Next Generation is a 22-part series highlighting a handful of the future stars of the Western Hockey League. From first-round bantam draft picks to later-blooming selections, get to know the names of players set to establish themselves as the newest crop of exciting talent to grace the WHL. From August 1 through September 11, get the inside scoop on the incoming crew of 16-year-olds.
Red Deer Rebels prospect Zak Smith is just fine with being viewed as an underdog at Red Deer Rebels training camp.
The 2001-born winger came into camp late last week as a listed prospect and has since risen to become one of the front runners for a handful of open forward spots on the Rebels’ opening night roster.
“Red Deer told me I was an underdog. That’s a good thing. I come into camp and I show people to prove them wrong and it’s taken a lot of weight off my shoulders that Red Deer’s listed me,” Smith said.
After going undrafted as a 5-foot-9 Bantam player in 2016, Smith caught the eye of the Rebels’ scouting staff with a huge first year of Midget hockey with the Central Plains AAA Capitals of the Manitoba Midget Hockey League.
In 44 games with the Capitals this season, the 6-foot-2, 181-pound forward posted 22 goals and added another 34 assists to finish second on his team in scoring.
He also added a goal in three playoff games with the Central Plains team, which is based out of Portage la Prairie.
While the Austin, Man. product’s work ethic and hockey sense remained intact from his second year of Bantam, he was helped along by a growth spurt which saw spring up five inches and put on 30 pounds in the span of a few months.
What a difference a few years makes for #RDR prospect.
— Red Deer Rebels (@Rebelshockey) 26 August 2017
Smith, though, insisted that he couldn’t take all the credit for his breakout season with the Capitals.
“I played with a lot of good coaching. I’ve had great coaching throughout my whole life and I had great line mates,” Smith said.
“He grew a lot last year. He’s now a 6-2 kid whose hockey sense drew us to him,” Rebels senior scout Randy Peterson told Greg Meechem of RedDeerRebels.com earlier this week.
After keeping a close eye on Smith for part of his 15-year-old season with Central Plains, the Rebels added him to their 50-man protected player list.
That news served as a good confidence boost for a player who, a year prior, had been cut from Lethbridge Hurricanes training camp as an unsigned invitee.
“It was a tough camp. There was a lot of great players going into Lethbridge and when they didn’t take me, you know it still sucks because every kid wants to play in the ‘Dub,” Smith said. “Coming out of camp I had put my main focus into Midget, had a great year and then Red Deer phoned me one night and they listed me, so it was huge.”
Now that he’s a couple of days into camp, Smith said he’s learning a lot from the WHL players and coaching staff.
“It’s great. It’s well-organized, the coaches are perfect. Everything you do in practice, you take out. It’s huge. It helps a lot,” he said.
Away from the rink, Smith enjoys spending most of his time outdoors because of his country upbringing.
“We live on a farm, so I’m usually in the country a lot. I like hunting – hunting’s a big thing for me and just being outside,” he said, adding that he also enjoys water skiing at his family cabin during the summer.
But now that hockey season is right around the corner, the self-described pass-first forward is all business.
“Really, when you come to camp, anyone can take your spot. You could take an older guy’s spot – because everyone’s fighting for their spot on the team. It’s just who wants it more, who has it, who has the heart and the desire for it,” he said.
“Red Deer has a lot of skilled players coming in and all of them are good. If I can get in that fourth line or whatever it is, I can muck and grind, I can do whatever they want from me.”
Smith and the Rebels kick off the 2017 WHL Pre-Season on Sept. 1 when they host the Calgary Hitmen at the Enmax Centrium. Puck drop is at 7 p.m. MDT.