Tigers hockey looks west

Reunited WHL teammates the highlight of the men’s hockey team’s summer

The Dalhousie University Tigers men’s hockey team is adding some west coast flavour for the 2022-2023 season.

After coming off their best regular season and playoff finishes since 2004, the Tigers have added two Western Hockey League (WHL) veterans to help them to another successful Atlantic University Sport (AUS) year. Jackson van de Leest from the Red Deer Rebels and Zak Smith from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s (SJHL) Flin Flon Bombers (but a former Rebel) will make the trek to Halifax to join Dal.

Jackson van de Leest comes from a stint of five full seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL) to join the Dalhousie University Tigers men’s hockey team. (Candice Ward)

van de Leest is a six-foot-seven defenseman who was part of the Red Deer team that made it to the second round of the WHL playoffs last season. After spending five and a half seasons with the Calgary Hitmen, he was traded to Red Deer halfway through his final season in the WHL. The defensemen registered 88 points in 255 WHL games across six years

“I had some knowledge of some schools out here, but I was super intrigued by what Dal had to offer. That led to me coming on the tour,” van de Leest said. “After the tour, I fell in love with Halifax, the Dal campus, the people on the team, and Coach Dons [Chris Donnelly]. I think it felt like the best place for me, and I’m super happy to have made my decision.” 

The Kelowna, B.C., native describes his game as being more defensive, but wants to become more of a two-way player this season.

“I am known for my defensive prowess and I’m a physical player. I like to help out on the penalty kill, I love blocking shots, that type of thing,” van de Leest said. “I’m a guy that hopefully can do anything for the team. I hope that evolves as my time at Dalhousie goes on and eventually, I’m working everywhere up and down the lineup.” 

van de Leest said he hopes to bring leadership and experience to the team after thriving in big games in the WHL.

“I’ll be able to bring some experience and really shine in those areas, because those are the games that everyone wants to play: when everything’s on the line,” he said.

Former teammates reunite

Zak Smith is coming off his best offensive season yet, including 17 points in 18 playoff games with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s (SJHL) Flin Flon Bombers. (Kelly Jacobson)

van de Leest will be a roommate of Smith, a former Red Deer teammate. Smith is a six-foot-three, gritty winger who captained Flin Flon to a Centennial Cup Canadian National Junior A Championship appearance. He tallied 48 points over 50 games in 2021-2022. Smith describes himself as an all-around player.

“I don’t think I’m going to be a 50-goal scorer, but I think I can help offensively and at the same time, I can help defensively,” Smith said. “I take a lot of pride in blocking shots and doing the right things in the [defensive] zone, but at the same time, trying to help offensively.”

Smith had the opportunity to participate in the 2019 Vegas Golden Knights development camp, describing it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s rare for NHL camp participants to suit up in U SPORTS competition.

“If I had a list of my hockey experiences and accomplishments, that’s definitely in the number one spot,” he said. “That’s what you work for growing up and to get that call, it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s nice to know that all the hard work finally pays off, and to even get a sniff of that atmosphere was something I’ll never forget.”

Smith said he expects his hard-nosed game to translate well to U SPORTS. 

“They brought me onto this team for a reason. Even though I’m moving into a faster-paced league, I’m going to stay with my grit and physicality because that’s what has made me successful over my career,” he said.

Donnelly said the team will lean on the two to take prominent roles in 2022-2023.

“Both will be playing major roles with our team,” he said. “We’re excited to add two players and what they bring to our program.”

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Ethan Hunt

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