DJ Smith: The People's Coach

DJ Smith's time as coach of the Sens has come to an end in disappointing fashion, but that doesn't mean there aren't some positives to look back on.

DJ Smith: The People's Coach
Photo by Arthur Edelmans / Unsplash

For coaches in professional sports, there is always an expiration date. Occasionally, it's retirement. More often, it's the other thing. Even for the best of the best, being relieved of your duties behind the bench is almost an inevitability.

To paraphrase Geoffrey Chaucer, all coaching gigs come to an end.

Look no further than Bruce Cassidy. Two summers ago, he was fired by the Boston Bruins. Eight days later, he was hired by the Vegas Golden Knights. And 364 days after that, he coached the Vegas Golden Knights to a championship.

For coaches in professional sports, there is always an expiration date.

DJ Smith's was on Monday.

The Ottawa Senators have endured a gruelling six season stretch, having missed the playoffs every year since their Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. To make matters worse, there haven't been many moments where the play-offs were even a remote possibility after, say, October 31st of each season.

This year was supposed to be different. This year they were supposed to be, at worst, in the Wild Card mix.

It's Wednesday, December 20th. The Senators have played 27 of their 82 regular season games and they currently sit dead last in the Eastern Conference. They're not on the outside looking in. They're just on the outside.

Recent events are likely to have you thinking negative thoughts about Smith's time in Ottawa. After all, the on-ice product didn't deliver. There was a series of disappointing and embarrassing losses, an inexplicable trend of failure during only the second period of games, and three disastrous Novembers. In a row.

On social media, you've already read about what's mentioned above. You've seen the posts about how Smith was grouped in with some Stanley Cup and award winning coaches as one of the six longest tenured coaches in the league, despite no results to show for it. You've seen his record as a head coach in the NHL. You've seen lists of the very rational reasons why he's no longer behind the bench. But it's also important to remember Smith's time in Ottawa positively for the great things he did bring to the Senators team and community.

Just look at some of the clips coming out of yesterday's media availability. Brady Tkachuk said he wouldn't be the same player or person today if it weren't for DJ Smith. Earlier this year when the "Fire DJ" chants first rained down at the Canadian Tire Centre, Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Claude Giroux all rushed to their coach's defense.

The narrative that is common in almost every coaching dismissal in the NHL that didn't exist here was one that Smith should be incredibly proud of. Despite the losses, despite the frustrations, it doesn't appear that Smith ever lost the room. While you can point to issues on the ice, inconsistent performances and nonexistent structure, the players in that room would have gone to battle for DJ Smith. Win or lose, respect was there.

Smith may have lost a lot of hockey games, but he never lost that room.

That respect for, and from, Smith extended beyond the dressing room. When talked about in the media, he was referred to as "a player's coach". Lauded for his ability to communicate with his team, that cliché appears to have actually been true. Outside of the room, amongst members of the media, we saw more than one comment on Monday afternoon about interactions with DJ Smith and what he meant to this community.

Claire Hanna at TSN shared this kind anecdote about Smith and how, despite hockey being a male dominated sport, she never felt that she was treated any differently than her male counterparts.

The Athletic's Ian Mendes shared his own story, about how a once banished member of the media was invited back to the inner circle by the Head Coach.

And, finally, my personal favourite, a story about how DJ Smith took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to give one of Ottawa's biggest fans, Brian Fraser, a memory he could take to his final day.

The Ottawa Senators will journey ahead, for the time being, under the leadership of Jacques Martin. Systems will change and, hopefully, the on-ice product will improve. But one thing you can't deny about Smith's time in Ottawa is that dressing room, that group of players that are so tightly knit, wouldn't be that way if it weren't for the team-first foundation laid out by Smith.

The player's coach. The communicator. The team builder. When this young core finally turns the page and hits the ice for a playoff game for the first time, Smith won't be behind the bench.

But he'll have had his part in it.

Hit the music!

Editors note: Catch DJ Smith's interview from this morning with TSN 1200 HERE.

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