Puck dreams in Florida: From Orlando to the OPJHL

The old saying goes “Home is where the heart is”.

The Couchiching Terriers play at an arena complex called The MASK, just up the road from Casino Rama near Orillia, Ontario. It’s a multipurpose building, containing a library, school and an ice pad. As far as Jr. A arenas go, it’s pretty small, but for Terriers forward Matt Smyth, it’s home.

Smyth is currently the leading scorer on the team, and league, with 51 goals and 102 points and leads the team by nearly 40 points.

Not bad for somebody who grew up in the hotbed of hockey known as Orlando, Florida.

It seems like a weird convergence of fate, to some degree, that Smyth even began playing hockey. Sure, he says that growing up he was a fan of Pavel Bure and Wayne Gretzky.

But in Florida?

Hell, a hockey fan even in a city where come winter, basketball is the first thing on everybody’s minds?

That’s likely why Smyth fell into hockey in a roundabout way – through roller hockey.

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Growing up, he lived in an apartment building that overlooked a roller rink and he took up rollerblading as a hobby. At the age of six, Smyth began playing street hockey with some local kids.

“My dad thought it was a cool thing to do,” said Smyth, who had the fortune of growing up and watching hockey, too. “I wanted to be like Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr… I wanted to be one of them.”

“I played other sports, but I never played in another league. I wanted to keep my focus on hockey.”

Within two years of first putting on rollerblades, Smyth moved to ice hockey and was soon playing “Double-A”.

On the ice, Smyth is not a dominating presence. He stands no taller then most of the players, nor is he bigger. He’s solidly built, a generous 5’11” tall. But he’s a fast skater, has a hard shot and knows it.

“I use my speed and my shot to my ability and I open up the ice for other players.” He said ideally, he’d compare himself to Alexander Ovechkin. “His explosiveness is my style too.”

Like Ovechkin, Smyth said he can feed on a rush across the ice and create a scoring opportunity for himself or for his teammates.

The day I spoke to Smyth, he was watching them play from the stands, sitting along a crowd of maybe 200 people, taking a game off to rest a foot injury. Without his scoring ability, the team seems to be lacking a go-to guy. Without him, the Terriers lose 4-0.

Smyth worked his way up through assorted leagues in the city until he was 14. That year, on the suggestion of a friend, he entered into a prospects tournament in Canada.

“I think I led the tournament in points,” remembered Smyth. “I had a good tournament.”

That’s when things started moving into place for Smyth’s career. Shortly after the tournament, he signed with an agent and began to play for the Markham Islanders. It was a big change in scenery for Smyth, who was used to Florida’s warm winters.

“It never snows in Florida, so the cold was a lot different,” he remembered. “But the first year I was here, I was loving it. I could play pond hockey, snowmobile, things like that. It was a pretty cool change.”

Despite the change from flipflops to snowpants, the biggest change might have been in the quality of his opponents.

“There’s a thousand kids up here that are good,” said Smyth. “Down home there’s only a couple and they’re few and far between… That’s why I wanted to stay here and pursue my career here.”

The next year, Smyth was drafted 14th overall by the OHL’s Belleville Bulls. While he had only seen them play twice before he was drafted, he felt at the time that going straight to the Bulls was the right move.

“It’s a great feeder to the NHL,” said Smyth.

There was another reason, too: his agent, who Smyth said pushed the OHL as the best option. Still, he has his regrets about jumping straight to the OHL.

“Looking back, there’s a few different things I could have done,” said Smyth. “I could have played for Team USA and then went to the OHL or played “Jr. A” then went to the OHL. There were so many options that I didn’t know about. I could have gone to school.”

Instead, he spent the season playing with the Bulls. In total, he played two seasons with the team, racking up a less then stellar 11 goals. Before the next season, he was traded to the Sarnia Sting and appeared in 24 games; it was then that he began playing for the Terriers. Last season he landed with the Barrie Colts, where he appeared in just nine games.

If he had to do it all over again, he’d go another route.

“I’d play provincials for a year and try to sort it out for team USA,” said Smyth. “It was a great learning experience for future things I’d do, don’t go into things before you research it, don’t go in blindfolded.”

This season marked Smyth’s third season with the Terriers.

“It’s great,” said Smyth, “I like Rama. It’s not too big, but it gets supporters.”

He arrived just in time to be on a team making it’s own comeback. The season before, the Terriers did not participate in the OPJHL. He joined the team halfway through a 29-15-5 campaign. In the 12 games he played with the Terriers, he scored 10 goals and 19 points. The next season, he led the team in scoring with 41 goals and 89 points in 43 games, plus 15 more points in 10 post-season games. Overall, the Terriers won 10 more games that season and scored more goals than they had in a decade.

This season it’s a little different. Smyth finished the season scoring at a goal-a-game rate (51 goals in 51 games) and the Terriers won 30 of 56 games. Still, it’s enough for the team’s third consecutive playoff berth.

In the first round, the Terriers played the Trenton Golden Hawks, a team that they beat three times this season.

They were swept in four games, with the Golden Hawks scoring five goals in each game.

After this spring, Smyth’s finished with the Terriers. At 21, Smyth is in his last season of eligibilty for both the Terriers and for the OHL. So what comes next? Currently, he’s got his eyes set on playing overseas.

“I was born in England, so I have a British passport. I’d like to try and get a shot over in Europe… Austria, Germany, Italy,” said Smyth. “It’d be an interesting experience. Not just to play hockey, but to see how they live.”

If home is where the heart is then Matt Smyth better start packing.

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