On leadership, teamwork and class

About this time last year, many fans of the Ottawa Senators were wondering who would replace Wade Redden as the second assistant captain. Mike Fisher’s name (rightly) came up but for my money it was going to be either Dany Heatley or the newly-acquired Jason Smith.

Heater had just signed a massive contract extension that would make him, more or less, a Senator for life (those who follow the game are surely chuckling at that memory) but Smith brought a leadership pedigree as evidenced by the ‘C’ he wore for years in Edmonton and for his brief stay in Philly.

In the end, the ‘A’ went to Heatley. Fast forward one year and that decision looks pretty silly for reasons that need not be explored here right now. If you’ve been living under a rock, just Google Heatley’s name and you’ll see what’s gone down lately. I won’t waste any more words on #15. This post is about the man who didn’t get the ‘A.’ The man known as Gator.

Face of a leader
Face of a leader

Smith announced his retirement today, bringing an end to a career that somehow spanned more than 1,000 games despite #21’s propensity for throwing himself in front of pucks, face first if required, and generally doing anything he could to help his team.

I could go on and on about my respect for Smith as a hockey player but instead, in an attempt to keep this post relevant to the non-hockey fans, I want to talk about something a little less tangible. Two things jumped out at me during his retirement press conference. And they underscore just why Smith was not just a great player, but a great leader and teammate.

“My body is telling me I can’t give 100% anymore”

The NHL is littered with stories of players who held on a little too long. Smith’s teammate in Philly, Derian Hatcher, was in a similar situation in the last years of his career. Oft-injured and clearly a step behind, Hatcher kept playing and kept playing, contract in hand, until knee surgery finally forced him to miss an entire season. His legacy, if you can call it that, of a hardnosed defender was tarnished by the images of him being corkscrewed into the ice as he spun in circles as faster, younger forwards burned past him

If you don’t want to consider Hatcher (an understandable sentiment, the guy was an ass), think of 44-year-old Claude Lemieux who made a largely-unsuccessful bid to return to the league this year. Or 47-year-old Chris Chelios, who remains committed to finding another team to play for this year despite being a healthy scratch for most of the Wings’ cup run in 2008-09.

Here’s the thing that’s easy to forget about Smith – he had another year on his deal. This isn’t some veteran d-man giving up after finding no interest in his services. Jason Smith just walked away from $2.6 million because he didn’t feel he could play up to the level he, his teammates and his fans expect. He had 2.6 million reasons to hang around but his professional integrity and commitment to his teammates trumped the money.

“Jason called me ten days ago to tell me he was leaning in this direction”

Speaking of money, the Senators are were in a jam from a salary perspective. They had to clear some salary and, with Heatley’s return to the lineup seeming all the more likely, that was going to mean moving somebody out. Smith recognized this and decided, on his own accord, to call Bryan Murray and tell him he was probably going to retire. Thus saving Murray from making a bad trade just to clear cap.

In and of itself, that’s a classy move. But what I love most about it is that Smith didn’t bring it up, Murray did. When Heatley had his famous press conference a few weeks ago (I know, I said I wouldn’t bring him up again. I lied) he boasted about being a great team guy. But actions speak louder than words. Smith doesn’t need to talk about being a great team guy. He just goes out and acts like one.

Bringing it back to communications / social media / whatever you want to apply it to

True leaders don’t need a letter on their sweater or a fancy title. True leaders don’t need to tell the world that they’re a leader, or a team player, or anything else for that matter. True leaders do what Jason Smith did. They go out, night after night / day after day, and put themselves on the line for what they believe in.

He was never the biggest name on his team, let alone the entire league. He never made the big bucks (relatively speaking, of course) and he rarely appeared in the plays of the week. But he brought professionalism and class to the ice every night. He led by example and I know that guys like Brian Lee are better for having shared a dressing room with him.

Dany Heatley was part of the Sens leadership core this year. So was Jason Smith. Who would you rather have in front of you?


  1. Joe – the end of this post really resonates w/me. It is a point I tried to bring up in a meeting today, but did so far less eloquently. Thanks for taking the time.


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