SYDNEY, N.S. — Growing up in Antigonish, Declan Smith always dreamed about playing for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Although living on mainland Nova Scotia, halfway between Sydney and Halifax, Smith idolized the Screaming Eagles organization and its players.
“I always came to Screaming Eagles games when I was young, and I always attended tournaments in Sydney, so the Screaming Eagles were always on my mind,” said the 20-year-old overage forward.
“I always thought it was something special because the Screaming Eagles players were like heroes in the community.”
Smith began his hockey career playing for the Antigonish Minor Hockey Association, suiting up for the Bulldogs in the atom and peewee divisions.
When he reached bantam hockey, he decided it was time to take the sport more seriously and joined the Nova X-Men of the Nova Scotia Major Bantam Hockey League.
In his rookie season with the club (2011-12), Smith only managed to score two goals. He redeemed himself the following season, netting 18 goals and 38 points.
Despite the success in his second year with the X-Men, Smith wasn’t sure about his future in hockey, but decided to try out for the Cape Breton West Islanders of the Nova Scotia Eastlink Major Midget Hockey League.
“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make the team,” said Smith. “At the time, I was thinking that I was going to play high school hockey that year, but I ended up having a good camp, made the team and was getting good minutes.”
Smith went on to finish his rookie year in major midget with 12 goals and 21 points. The following year, he netted 18 goals and 42 points in 34 games.
It wasn’t until his second year of major midget when his coach, Sean Donovan, called him into the office after practice one day, near the end of the 2013-14 season, that Smith realized he could someday play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“He asked me where I wanted to be in the next couple of years and I told him that I wanted to get drafted by a junior ‘A’ team and that it was my goal,” said Smith.
What Smith didn’t know was that earlier in the day QMJHL Central Scouting had released its rankings for the 2014 entry draft and he was ranked in the fourth round.
“He told me to continue to work hard and to play my game and to have higher hopes,” said Smith of Donovan’s encouragement. “He made me realize that I needed to set my goals higher and to push myself a bit more.”
In June 2014, Smith was drafted by the Saint John Sea Dogs in round four, No. 67 overall. Later that month, he was also selected by the Weeks Crushers of the Maritime Junior Hockey League in the third round.
Smith would attend his first QMJHL training camp with the Sea Dogs that August, but would never play a regular-season game with the port city club.
In January 2015, Smith’s childhood dream would come true. While playing with the Islanders, his major junior rights were traded to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, in a deal that also sent Olivier LeBlanc to Cape Breton.
“I didn’t know what to think of the trade at first because I had planned on making the Sea Dogs the next year,” said Smith, whose favourite NHL player is Patrice Bergeron. “I had to reset my whole mind and look at the Cape Breton roster to see where I could fit in.”
Later in the year, Smith would eventually crack the Screaming Eagles lineup as a 17-year-old, posting three goals and eight points in 54 games.
He continued to progress in the years to follow, notching eight goals and 26 points in 2016-17, and last year posted career highs in goals (17), assists (21) and points (38).
“I love playing here in Cape Breton. It’s amazing,” said Smith, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “In this league, you have to put in the time and work during the off-season and if you don’t get better other people will and then you go downhill.”
Earlier this month, Smith was named the Screaming Eagles’ captain for the season, following in the footsteps of past great captains like Trevor Ettinger, James Sheppard, and Chris Culligan, to name three.
“It’s such an honour to be named captain. It’s crazy looking back at the captains on the captains wall at Centre 200 and knowing that I’m going to be on that wall one day is amazing,” said Smith.
“I want to have a good relationship with the coaches as well as the players, so I see myself as an equal captain to both.”
Smith spoke highly of the Screaming Eagles fans.
“I want the fans to know that our team appreciates what they do for us and we’re going to try our best and give back to them this year,” said Smith. “We know Cape Breton is a hard-working community and we want to be a hard-working team – we’re looking forward to their support.”
When the Screaming Eagles hit the ice for their game against the Halifax Mooseheads at Centre 200 on Friday, the contest will bring mixed emotions for Smith as it will be his final home-opening game of his major junior career.
“This is where I started my career — it’s definitely going to be a special night,” said Smith.
• Hometown: Antigonish
• Age: 20
• Position: Centre
• He has played the last three years with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
2011-12 – Nova X-Men (Major Bantam) – 32 Games – 2 goals – 6 assists – 8 points
2012-13 – Nova X-Men (Major Bantam) – 31 Games – 18 goals – 20 assists – 38 points
2013-14 – Cape Breton West Islanders – 30 Games – 12 goals – 9 assists – 21 points
2014-15 – Cape Breton West Islanders – 34 Games – 18 goals - 24 assists – 42 points
2015-16 – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – 54 Games – 3 goals – 5 assists – 8 points
2016-17 – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – 65 Games – 8 goals – 18 assists – 26 points
2017-18 – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – 65 Games – 17 goals – 21 assists – 38 points