The retooling of the Wellington Dukes for the upcoming hockey season isn’t just confined to changes to the on-ice roster.
Just a day after announcing a number new players to the local Ontario Junior Hockey League club for the 2019-20 season, the team announced Head Coach John Druce was stepping down and the Wellington Dukes were promoting alumnus and assistant coach Derek Smith to the role of top bench boss.
Both Druce and Smith joined the hockey club in early January, 2018 after a shuffle saw Scott McCrory relieved of his head coaching position.
In statement issued by the team Thursday to the Gazette, Druce said he would be examining other opportunities in the hockey world.
The Peterborough, ON native resided in his home town and commuted to Wellington almost daily to run practices and coach home games.
“I am going to explore other opportunities in the hockey world and have decided to step down as the coach of the Wellington Dukes,” Druce said. “I want to thank (club Owners) Ken Clement, Michael Mulvihill, the hockey operations staff, players, fans and the rest of the Dukes’ family for my time in Wellington. Wellington is an amazing place to be a part of. Players get to better themselves as people and as players in a winning atmosphere and I wish everyone and the organization the best of luck.”
The hockey club found great success under the Peterborough native and former NHLer as he guided the team to its first ever Royal Bank Cup finals game in 2018.
Wellington would wind up losing to the host Chiliwack Chiefs in the nationally televised final game of the Jr. A post season 3-2.
For an encore, Druce’s squad struggled somewhat early in the 2018-19 OJHL year but came on around Christmas and were one of the better teams in the league in terms of performance.
Wellington entered the OJHL’s 2019 post season as a fourth seed in the East Division but engineered three straight upsets to return to the Buckland Cup Finals to defend their 2018 crown.
The Dukes would wind up getting swept away by the Oakville Blades in the 2019 Buckland Cup finals however, after such inconsistent start to the season and the slaying of Cobourg, Whitby and North York in the playoffs, there were few in Wellington that could look at this recently passed campaign as anything but a success.
“We want to thank John Druce for his leadership, class, and passion for developing players,” Randy Uens, Wellington’s Vice President of Hockey Operations said. “John is one of the best people you could ever meet in the game of Hockey. He truly wants to help young players become better people. He understands the value of a group of players working together towards a common goal and we wish him the best of luck in his future hockey endeavours.”
Uens added the club had inked Smith to a multi-year pact.
Smith, a Belleville native, spent four seasons in Wellington and was part of the 2002-03 club that won the organization’s first Buckland and Dudley Hewitt Cups that lead to an appearance at the 2003 Royal Bank Cup Championship in Charlottetown, PEI.
Smith would parlay his Jr. A career into a four year stint attending and playing hockey for Lake Superior State university.
From the NCAA ranks, Smith would sign on with the Ottawa Senators and, between stops in the nation’s capital and Calgary with the Flames, Smith played 94 games in the NHL between 2009 and 2014.
Now, for the second time in his life, the Wellington Dukes organization will play a role in his hockey development-this time in honing his coaching acumen.
Smith told the Gazette he was still getting used to the idea he would be standing in the place where his former Dukes head coach Marty Abrams would bark orders.
Surreal might be one way to put the manner in which hockey life was coming full circle for Smith.
“I think back to 2000 when guys like Don Cotton, Marty Abrams, Tod Lavender and Garry Lavender took a chance on a 16-year old kid named Derek Smith. The Wellington Dukes organization gave me my first big chance in hockey and flash forward and it’s happening all over again,” Smith told the Gazette. “It’s crazy how hockey works like that.”
Smith said the organization’s practice of developing great players and even better human beings that care for the community wouldn’t change under his watch.
In terms of his head coaching style, Smith said he was blessed to have played under top end coaches like Brent Sutter, Bob Hartley, Marc Crawford, Gord Dwyer and Ron Rolston during his career and hopes to bring a little bit from each bench boss as he develops as a head coach.
“Spending the last year and half under John Druce was so beneficial as well,” Smith said. “To see both sides-his preparedness and approach to the team and situations on the ice but also his demeanor and approach to life was instrumental to me. He’s a great coach and great human being.”
Editor’s note: This original story was edited July 4, 2019 to include comments from Smith.