The new Estevan Bears midget AAA hockey team has turned to a well-travelled local individual to be their first head coach and general manager.
The Estevan Minor Hockey Association announced Tuesday morning that they had hired Jeff Smith for the role. Smith, who is currently an associate coach with the Estevan Bruins, will finish his commitments with the junior club this season and then step aside so that the Bears can be his hockey focus.
Originally from Estevan, Smith grew up in Regina. He played junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels, where he won a Memorial Cup national title in 2001. Then he played professional hockey in Canada and the U.S., winning a Calder Cup title with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League in 2005.
He also played overseas in pro hockey leagues in England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia before retiring in 2017. He joined the Bruins coaching staff in early 2018.
Smith said it’s a great honour to be the first person in charge of the Bears.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach. It’s a level below (junior hockey), but I don’t believe it’s a step back. It’s a step forward for me,” Smith said in an interview with Lifestyles.
Player recruitment will be the biggest task for Smith before the Bears begin their inaugural season this fall. Not only will they draw from the Estevan area, but they will cover the entire southeast region, which spans from Highway 1 to the north to the U.S. border in the south, and Highway 6 in the west to the Manitoba border in the east.
“There are so many kids in the southeast who are not on an AP (affiliated player) list or who aren’t signed with somebody. There is a lot of good kids out there who we’ll have a good, long look at, and our scouting staff has already been on that, and has a list of a few hundred kids already that we want to have a look at,” said Smith.
The Bears can’t talk to kids already committed to other midget AAA programs about coming to the program until the end of the regular season in February.
The club will get a look at talent when it has a spring camp from April 24-26.
He’ll also be tasked with everything from hiring staff members to designing uniforms.
“The board that we have is above and beyond what I expected. They’re really helpful, and they’ve done more than enough to help us become a good team and put everything in the right way,” said Smith.
When he was playing in Europe, Smith coached a minor hockey team to the league final, but this will be the first time he has coached minor hockey in Canada.
“It’s been a nice transition going from the Estevan Bruins to the Estevan Bears,” said Smith. “It’s the same rink, it’s familiar and everything else.”
It will be a full-time gig, but Smith expects he will still have a job in the community.
Bears director of player personnel Cole Zahn said Smith was a person they identified early on as someone to lead the Bears into the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.
“One of the things that really struck us is we’ve seen what’s he’s done over the past two years with the Bruins skill development-wise, helping the younger guys out as much as he can, and just being a players’ coach,” said Zahn.
It also helps that he’s a local person who still has roots in the city. And he has strong connections in the game from his playing career.
“Even having his dad (John Smith) being involved with the Regina Pat Canadians for as many years as he was, Jeff has built up a lot of contacts through John, especially in a younger league here,” said Zahn.
The Bears had about a dozen applicants for the head coach and general manager’s job, including some from Alberta to Quebec. There were also a couple from the U.S.
“We were pretty blown away with the applicants that we had and where they were coming from,” said Zahn.
Smith was the only person from Estevan who applied. They also had someone from Pilot Butte apply, which is in their catchment area, and others from Saskatchewan voiced an interest in the job.
“It was a tough process. We had some pretty high-end guys who had very, very good resumes and very, very good interviews, and for us to ultimately come out with Jeff Smith, it says a lot about Jeff himself,” said Zahn.
Smith said he is thankful for his time with the Bruins, and now he is looking forward to getting the Bears off the ground.