A CONVERSATION WITH BRENT SMITH

With Jon Geller, Assistant Athletic Trainer, Toronto Maple Leafs

Brent Smith started his career in professional hockey as an Athletic Therapist with the Halifax Citadels. After a 20-year journey with stops in Toronto and New Jersey, Brent parlayed his experience in professional hockey into a successful career in medical sales with DJO Global. Brent remains active in professional hockey by regularly attending the annual PHATS/SPHEM conference and supporting sports medicine teams with advanced medical products and educational resources. He and his family reside in the Greater Toronto Area.  Jon Geller took some time to talk with Brent about his hockey career and what came after.

Jon: Where did you grow up?

Brent: My hometown is Waterloo Quebec, a small rural town Southeast of Montreal, near the Vermont border.  It was a great place to live. I grew up a big time Habs fan but my first pro paycheck (ironically) had a Quebec Nordiques logo on it.  

Jon: Where did you go to school?

Brent: I went to the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton for a Bachelor of Physical Education, Athletic Therapy Practicum 1988.

Also the Toronto Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine for a Diploma in TCM Acupuncture in 1996 and then Athabasca University for a Masters of Business Administration 2010.

Jon: How did you hear about Athletic Training?

Brent: I tore my ACL and had it repaired in my freshman year at UNB. The rehab process sparked an interest in Athletic Therapy. By my third year, my focus had changed from playing hockey to ‘working’ in hockey and I applied to be the student AT for the varsity men’s team.  Doug McLean was the coach, and he accepted my application.

Jon: How did you end up in professional sports/hockey?

Brent: The Quebec Nordiques AHL farm team also played out of Fredericton’s Aitken Centre and while working two seasons as the student AT with the UNB team, I helped out with the Fredericton Express. After I graduated, the AT position turned into a full time AHL gig, and the overall ride lasted just shy of 20 years.  In all, I worked two seasons with the Halifax Citadels, 15 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and one year with the New Jersey Devils.

Jon: Who were some people that you looked up to in the industry?

Brent: I remember meeting Pete Demers at the first PHATs meeting I attended in 1989.  I was a 24-year old first year guy in the AHL and Pete was the Head Trainer for the LA Kings. Pete took a lot of time to talk with me, and that continued through the years. He was a true role model for me.

Our coaching staff during my first year in Halifax were incredibly supportive.  Doug Carpenter was our Coach/GM, who was extremely organized, and the man who gave me the opportunity to work in the NHL.  Claude Julien was a veteran player (at the time) who was just starting his transition into a role behind the bench. Both of these men were very influential in my career.

Jon: What were some of the biggest things you learned right away?

Brent: Be early, be prepared for the day, and be proactive. That feeling you get when you could have done something but didn’t, isn’t a good one.  

I also received some great advice from Mike Murphy.   After a game I was unhappy with a player and carried it onto the plane.  Murph saw that I wasn’t myself and said “remember Smitty, if it wasn’t for the players, none of us would have jobs”.  Truer words were never spoken. 

Jon: Did you make any memorable mistakes?

Brent: Where do I start?  A big one involved Greg Smyth (AKA The Bird Dog), but not in the way most people would have expected, based on his on-ice personality.  

On a road trip to Binghamton, we were in the training room, which also served as the area where the players hung their dress clothes on a rack.  We ran out of ice, and I needed to use a couple of instant cold packs after the game.  I overdid it trying to activate one of the packs and sprayed the entire contents of a package onto the clothes rack, covering about 15 suit jackets with the liquid chemicals from the pack.  

Greg walked in the room while I was still holding the cold pack and staring at what had just occurred.    He asked what had happened and I told him straight up that I had messed up.  I wasn’t sure what direction things would go.

Not only did he take it in stride, but he also let the other players know that I had made an honest mistake (which I felt bad about) and went on to diffuse the entire situation…as a tough guy/on the edge player, he showed a compassionate side that was unexpected.  I’ll never forget it.

Jon: Any tips for work/life balance?

Brent: Based on the nature and demands of a job in pro sport, I don’t know of a classic work/life balance approach that can be applied, but make sure to take time for yourself when you need to.  You are important to the players and team, but the puck is going to drop whether you are there or not.

Jon: What is the best advice you could give for someone just starting in professional hockey?

Brent: It is a long and demanding season. Find a rhythm that you can maintain and be consistent for your team/players.  Impress people with how much you care, not how much you know.

Jon: You’ve seen the progression of where the industry was when you started to where it is now.  Where do you think it will go next?

Brent: Having attended about 25 of the past 30 PHATS meetings (as a member and supplier) it has been incredible to see the association grow.  Training staffs have always been cooperative (for the most part) but to see the collaboration that exists now would make the early leaders of this group very proud.

I’ve also been fortunate to be a bit more involved with the Leafs training staff of late, such as Alumni events, training education sessions, and coffee visits. It’s allowed me to get some exposure to the scale and scope of the current landscape of an NHL training staff.

To answer the question of where it will go next is a tough one.  As a current hockey dad, I see firsthand the huge gap that exists for minor hockey players (and amateur athletes) between the actual level of care and what should be a standard of care; everything from equipment maintenance to concussion management.  Parents are buying kids $300 hockey sticks and paying thousands of dollars in team fees but are starving for guidance when it comes to dealing with simple injuries or equipment selection.  Is this an opportunity at the community/grass roots level for PHATS/SPHEM?

Brent in 1988 in Halifax with Max Middendorf

Jon: What was the transition like from professional hockey to the private sector?

Brent: I was the classic “didn’t see that coming” so my transition was abrupt, and I was completely unprepared.  

The biggest challenge that I faced right away was a skillset and credentials that were a great fit for professional sport but not well suited for the rehab/clinical market that I was in, so I needed to look outside the box.  I had always been interested in the Medical Devices industry, and when presented with an opportunity with DJO, I took it.

Nearly 15 years later, I’ve had (and continue to have) a solid career with DJO, completed an MBA, and am fortunate to still be (partially) in the hockey mix. It’s still feels like a privilege to me, each time I visit and interact with a team.

Jon: Looking back, is there anything that helped you feel prepared, or could have prepared you better?

Brent: The intangibles (work ethic, problem solving, organizational skills) that one develops working in pro sport are invaluable and completely transferable to the private sector.  For several years after ‘I left’, I would always call guys that I knew well enough, that had been let go, to reiterate that message and build their confidence.

As for preparing for the inevitable, the only word of advice would be to ensure that you have a fulfilling life outside of the hockey bubble.  A good friend of mine who had lost a high-profile (non-hockey) job, had these sage words; “when you are out, you’ll find out who your friends are,” and those are typically the ones that will take you on to the next chapter.

All photos courtesy of Brent Smith

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