February 10, 2014

Yale-bound Smiths help stake Salisbury to prep prominence

By Arielle Aronson


Captains Evan Smith (17) and Mitchell Smith (18) flank Derek Barach and Neil Robinson after Salisbury won the 2013 Flood-Marr tourney. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)
 

Twins in hockey. Most people immediately think of the NHL’s Sedin twins, an identical duo who have managed to stay together while thriving in the NHL.

Prep school hockey has its own version of the Sedin twins in Evan and Mitchell Smith, an identical set of twins from Stouffville, Ont., who helped lead Salisbury to a New England championship last season and look to help the Knights go back to back this season.

Like the Sedins, Evan and Mitchell are seemingly inseparable. While Evan wears No. 17, Mitchell wears No. 18. They play on the same line for Salisbury, room together and share the same group of friends. The twins said they see a lot of similarities between themselves and the Sedins on the ice as well.

“The way (the Sedins) play, how they play on the same line, their chemistry is similar to ours,” Mitchell said. “The ability to not even look, passing right on the stick to each other and knowing where each other are, it’s almost like they have their own sense of communication and it looks easy for them, and we think it’s similar to us on the ice.”

But the relationship between the Smith brothers was not always so rosy. Their father, Gerry, said Evan and Mitchell were constantly at each other’s throats as 5-year-olds just starting out in hockey.

“The two of them would race to the centers and then they’d get to fisticuffs out there, and they’d swing sticks and start fighting because one wanted to center and the other one got there first,” Smith said. “The other parents were, ‘Oh my gosh, those kids are fighting’ and then we’d have to explain they’re brothers and twins. It was kind of comical.”

The fighting continued until the twins were 12, when they figured out that if they worked together on the ice, they could accomplish a lot more than they would fighting each other. The boys grew into coveted young prospects, and they had a tough choice to make between playing major junior hockey or staying NCAA eligible. Most Canadians choose the major junior route.

Both brothers were drafted by Ontario Hockey League teams — Evan in the third round by the Owen Sound Attack and Mitchell in the eighth round by the Plymouth Whalers. But education is a priority for the Smith family, and the OHL’s educational options are rarely beneficial for players who have a chance to go pro but are not a sure thing.

Although the OHL offers players one year of a scholarship for every year they play OHL hockey, the scholarship covers only an amount equal to the cost of tuition at the university nearest to the player’s home. In addition, players have only 18 months from the time their OHL career ends to start using the scholarship, so if Mitchell or Evan did not sign with an NHL team within 18 months of the end of their junior careers, they would have to choose to either continue pursuing a lifelong hockey dream or give up and attend college.

“For us, we recognize that first, NCAA hockey is getting so good nowadays, that there’s a lot of opportunity,” said Gerry Smith. “Second, education comes first in our family, and it was very important that (the prep and college hockey route) gave them the opportunity for both — not only to get a great education but also to play spectacular hockey, so it was the best of both worlds.”

The twins decided to stay NCAA eligible and attend Salisbury School, which made an impression on them based on the high number of scouts at Salisbury games and the top-notch academic offerings. As a bonus, Knights coach Andrew Will told the twins they might be able to play on the same line together.

“That was actually a really big influence on how we came to prep school because we were both drafted to different (OHL) teams,” Evan said. “One of the biggest things we wanted when we play hockey, even at a younger age, is that we can play together, and we both play well together. Coach Will said we could both be on the team and we could both play together, so that was a big influence.”

Will stayed true to his word, and the Smith twins enjoyed success last season as linemates. Evan shared the team lead in scoring with 38 points (19 goals, 19 assists) in 29 games, while Mitchell totaled 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in the same number of games.

The Smiths are on the same line again this season, and both remain key contributors for the Knights, with Evan tallying 16 points and Mitchell putting up 11 points through 13 games.

What numbers alone do not show is the unique compete level the twins possess to raise their games in key situations and flourish. The Smiths serve as captains and are often difference-makers for the Knights. In the Flood-Marr tournament in December, they either scored game-winning goals, provided assists in key moments or simply led by example by playing with intensity to help their team earn the tournament championship.

“They are catalysts for us both with and without the puck,” Will said. “Evan and Mitchell, I think in particular, they see pressure as an opportunity. They relish being out there in key moments of the game where the game is on the line, and a lot of players either have that thrust upon them reluctantly or get nervous or anxious in those situations. Evan and Mitchell get excited about it and are thrilled to have that challenge.”

The Smiths’ performance at the prep level has caught the attention of NHL scouts, who ranked Evan at No. 204 and Mitchell at No. 210 in the CSS mid-term rankings for the 2014 NHL draft. In addition to attempting to help Salisbury to a second New England elite championship, the Smiths are doing their best to improve their game ahead of the draft. In fitting identical twin fashion, both players identified skating as the aspect of their game that they hope to improve on most.

Regardless, the NHL remains a long way off for the twins, who plan to play a year of juniors before attending Yale University together in 2015. But while the NHL might not be in their immediate future, the brothers hope to continue following the path of the NHL’s most famous twins. 

“The Sedins are exceptional players even if they weren’t twins, but for them to be together kind of creates almost a jealousy with us because we are fortunate to go to Yale together, but I don’t know how much further we can go together,” Evan said. “Obviously we’d like to stay together as long as we can, and the Sedins are good role models for us. So to be like them and hopefully play further like them would be great.”

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