Hockeytown. Motor City. The Arsenal of Democracy.
Whatever you call it, Detroit is a special place. It’s a place of grit and determination. It takes dedication to make it there, and it takes perseverance to sustain that success. The Detroit Red Wings were an embodiment of the city it represented, having participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for over 20 years, up until last season.
Unsurprisingly, that success spawns talented young players even if they didn’t cheer for the hometown team all the time. Jalen Smereck was born and raised in Detroit. He was undrafted and traded at the junior hockey level. He never got the attention that some of his more highly touted peers received, but what he lacked in attention, he’s made up for in that same Detroit spirit.
AT: I know that, in an interview in 2016 with ‘The Color of Hockey’, you spoke about being one of the few African Americans in your community that grew up liking hockey as opposed to baseball or basketball. What drew you to hockey? I know you said you had family, but was that really it?
JS: Yeah, my dad coached my two older brothers so me growing up being a little guy, I was always at the rink, playing with my brother’s stick, shooting pucks against the wall. When they put me out on the ice, I didn’t want to get out there at first but after a while I got used to it and I kinda just grew into it.
Hockey may seem like a natural sport to a Michigander, but in the city, hockey is surely not the first sport that comes to mind. Jalen’s father played soccer and baseball, while his brothers dabbled with various sports. But as Jalen said, his playing with his siblings’ sticks at the rink and being forced out onto the ice brought him into the world of hockey.
Poignantly, Smereck noted that he began to really like the game by just shooting the puck at the wall while his brothers had practice. When many of his peers in elementary and high school would hit the court or diamond, Smereck hit the ice for the Little Caesar’s 3A team out of Detroit, the same program that produced Coyotes defenceman Jakob Chychrun, and then later on with the Oakland Jr Grizzlies (Mich.).
Smereck scored 34 points over his two seasons with the Griz, which was good enough for .44 points/game. He later went on to play 51 games in the USHL before joining the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Smereck played 63 games in Oshawa, making for 25 points before being traded to the troubled Flint Firebirds, who were desperately seeking blueline help at the time.
That same offseason Smereck was traded, he was invited to Arizona as an amateur development camp invitee. I was at that development camp last season, and this was my review of his effort:
He dazzled in camp, a player as good as some of the Coyotes’ drafted defensemen. In fact, he was so good, the Coyotes brought him back for rookie camp and the NHL camp.
He was one of the last amateurs trimmed from the roster.
Jalen Smereck had one shot, so to speak, at the 2016 Development Camp, and he made it a good one.
AT: In that same article, you said that you wanted to give back to African American communities and get them involved in hockey, particularly in Flint where you spent time in the OHL. What have you done over the past year to get involved with that?
JS: Well, in Flint I was helping out with the Flint Inner-City Youth Program and now I’m back home in Detroit helping out with the Detroit Ice Dreams, locally in Detroit, at the Jack Adams Ice Arena, so you know, I just like to give back to the kids and help as much as I can and show them something different.
In a world where poverty and disadvantage are constant themes in the lives of far too many, service is increasingly important and this is particularly true for those who have the opportunity and the will to help others. Jalen, like many hockey players, sees the value in that. But the desire to institute change and the will to commit that change are two very different levels of execution.
Smereck said, in the aforementioned “Color of Hockey” interview that “I definitely look to get out in the community here in Flint and open up the eyes of some of the young kids in the inner city”
In my interview with him in late June, he said he did. The proof, you might ask, is right here for you to see.
Jalen Smereck had one important opportunity to make a difference in his community. He had the opportunity to encourage youth to break the cycle of poverty and show them that someone who comes from the inner-city, who works hard, and who commits, can achieve.
A Role Model
AT: Growing up, who did you base your game after? Who did you look up to? I know you grew up in Detroit so there are a lot of good defensemen to pick from.
JS: Well, for me, you just being kinda different, I loved to watch PK Subban. You know, he brings a lot to the table and I just kinda like to look at myself like that and bring as much as I can to the table for the team.
Humans, as a species, are behaviorally a product of our surroundings, whether immediate by our parents or more externally by our cities. Jalen Smereck grew up watching the latter half of Detroit’s glory days, himself a product of that city’s success in hockey.
But Smereck, as quoted above, doesn’t necessarily see himself as a mini Nick Lidstrom. He sees himself more as P.K. Subban, and that response speaks volumes about who Smereck is as a player and as a person.
Take a moment and evaluate P.K. Subban. What are the first things that come to mind when you think of him? Flamboyant? Exuberant? Engaging? He may be some of those things, but that the core of that player, who really is PK?
P.K. is a philanthropist.
P.K. is a leader who stands up for teammates (Coyotes fans should recall this one).
P.K. is an aggressive, offensive-defenseman.
P.K. Subban is an outstanding hockey player, and more importantly, an excellent human being. And Jalen Smereck telling me that he models himself after P.K. is a great thing to hear. There is no better model for African-American hockey players to base their game off of than PK, and Subban couldn't be a better model for young African-Americans who want to pursue hockey.
When you have one moment to decide who you want to model yourself after and you say P.K., you know that you have a player whose head is where it should be.
Going For It
AT: A lot of defesnemen define their game in a certain way [offensive, defensive, two-way]. What do you think of yourself most as?
JS: I think I’m offensive. Um, you know, I just like to pick my spots and jump into the play as much as I can.
Hockey as a sport is getting faster. It’s moving towards skill over grit and towards stats over intangibles. But what happens when a player brings both to the table. When you watch Smereck practice, he plays smart. To quote his Flint coach, “He’s not the fastest...he doesn’t have the best shot” but “he’s got a real god brain for the game”.
Like Subban, Smereck plays in a very cerebral way. The way he skates and steps into a puck, the way he manages his point in the offensive zone and the way he quarterbacks forward movement is comparable to PK-lite.
Smereck has time to grow. He’s moved on from juniors, signed an ELC as an undrafted free agent and will be stepping into the Tucson Roadrunner’s starting 6 this coming season. He has seized the moment, but time will tell if can continue to beat the odds and emulate his inner-PK as he strides towards the NHL.
Life is somewhat precarious, rife with constantly opening and closing doors. When one door closes, another opens. Just because you don’t make it to your goal by the most glamorous or fastest route doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed.
Don’t believe me?
Ask Jalen Smereck after next year’s training camp when he’s knocking on the door for the Coyotes’ Opening Night Roster.