While it may be a few months before he dons St. F.X. colours as a member of the X-Men, Declan Smith recently enjoyed a hockey homecoming of sorts.
The captain of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL laced up the blades at the Antigonish Arena, where his playing career began with the Antigonish Minor Hockey Association (AMHA).
The Fraser’s Mills native was part of the ‘celebrity’ team that skated in the annual Pink and Red in the Rink fundraiser, an initiative of the student leadership group at his alma mater Saint Andrew Junior School (SAJS).
“It is such a great cause and I am really happy that I could be here,” Smith said in the Bulldogs’ home locker room after his stint on the ice.
He described the boisterous crowd, which included busloads of students from local schools, as “awesome.”
“It was a great atmosphere,” he added.
Although he was unable to play, due to the potential for injury as his junior team readies for the playoffs, Smith took the ceremonial puck drop, which was a family affair.
He faced off against his younger brother, Colin, a member of the SAJS student team, while their father, Jerry, dropped the puck.
Smith’s other younger brother, Kuri, was the goaltender for the ‘celebrity’ squad.
“It was great to share that experience with them,” he said.
Proceeds from Pink and Red in the Rink benefit Cathy’s Place – the cancer resource room at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish – and local families affected by the disease.
The annual fundraiser is one near-and-dear to Smith and his family, including his mother, Rachel Currie, who was SAJS vice principal when she passed away.
The veteran educator died Dec. 1 after a long battle with cancer.
She was 48.
“Every game, when I am getting ready, I am thinking about her and what she would say to me before the game,” Smith said.
“She is with me – everywhere I go – not only on the ice.”
With his mother’s worsening health last fall, Smith made many trips from Sydney to Antigonish to be with his family.
“It has been more than I could ever ask for,” he said of his teammates, calling them “brothers.”
Smith added staff and coaches – the entire Screaming Eagles’ organization – has been “amazing.”
“They have made it so much easier. Everyone has been so supportive and understanding,” he said.
Smith added he will “never forget this year and this team.”
He also praised Cape Breton fans and people in the community for their support.
“It has been amazing,” he said.
Smith also talked about the continuing care he and his family have received from everyone in Antigonish.
“It is something that we will never forget,” he said.
On the ice, Smith and the Screaming Eagles are readying for the QMJHL playoffs.
“Right now, we have been playing pretty good hockey, and we have a really good team,” he said.
“I think we can make a strong push and go deep into the playoffs, but we will have to wait and see.
“I have a really good feeling – we have a great group of guys and our chemistry is amazing,” Smith added.
As for his play, he said there have been “ups and downs,” which come with every season.
“I think I have been able to contribute a strong game, throughout the whole year, coming to the rink, ready to play and working hard,” Smith added.
When he chatted with the Casket, the 5’11”, 192-pound centre had collected 31 points, including 10 goals, in 44 regular season games.
In his fourth full season with the organization – he played three games with Cape Breton in 2014-15 – Smith was named captain.
“It has been a great honour,” the Cape Breton West Islander product said.
He noted a wall at the Screaming Eagles’ home rink – Centre 200 – honours those who have captained the team.
“Just to be part of that is pretty amazing,” Smith said.
He added serving as captain for the closest QMJHL team to Antigonish, geographically, is special.
“I think I have been able to take on a big leadership role with the team,” Smith said of his work as captain.
“I think I have done a pretty good job, so far, and I hope to help lead our team to more success coming into the playoffs.”
As for his decision to join the X-Men program next season, Smith recalled going to many games at the Keating Centre when he was growing up.
“I always wanted to play for St. F.X.,” he said.
Smith noted he had great times at X-Men summer camps and as part of the Junior X-Men program.
“I always looked up to those players, so I think having seen them firsthand pushed me towards going to St. F.X.,” he said.
And, Smith added, there was the appeal of playing in front of a hometown crowd, on a regular basis, for the first time since pee wee.
“I am really looking forward to that,” he said.
When asked what he can bring to the X-Men, Smith described himself as “an energy guy.”
“I go out and work hard every shift – on both ends of the ice – so, I guess, I am a two-way forward who will be able to contribute to the team,” he said.
In an early January press release announcing Smith’s decision, X-Men head coach Brad Peddle described him as “a fierce competitor who plays a very gritty and honest game.”
“He is dependable in both ends of the rink and is very tough to play against. He will be a great fit to our group and we look forward to seeing him come back home to join our X-Men program,” he said.