Zack Smith arrived at Blackhawks training camp not sure what to expect.
For the first time in his NHL career — he spent 10 seasons with the Senators — he found himself on a new team, in a new city, and his only past teammate on the roster (Robin Lehner) was also a new addition.
And then, before one of his first practices at Fifth Third Arena, Jonathan Toews noticed his pre-practice attire.
“I was wearing a My Morning Jacket shirt and Toews was like, ‘Oh, you like them? I’m a big fan too,’ ” Smith said. “And I’ve never had anyone in the hockey world ever notice my My Morning Jacket shirt.”
Despite his battles to cement a spot in the Hawks’ highly competitive group of bottom-six forwards — and, as of Wednesday, to overcome a new (but minor) injury — Smith quickly has found a niche in Chicago because of his music tastes.
“I haven’t had that much in common with someone in terms of music tastes in quite some time, so even just having a few discussions with guys is great,” he said. “Even [Brent] Seabrook and [Duncan] Keith listen to some of the stuff I do.”
A native of tiny Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Smith grew up playing hockey and jamming to ’80s and ’90s rock with a tightly knit group of kids.
He eventually made it to the NHL. His friends, not as successful on the ice, decided to form a band. They’re now a hard-rock group called League of Wolves, and they just signed with a subsidiary label of Warner Music Canada and released their first major studio album.
If not for his exceptional skill on skates, Smith — a 6-2, 31-year-old winger-center hybrid who constantly sports a smile — can easily imagine an alternate reality if he joined their League, instead of the National Hockey one.
“I like to think that if I wasn’t playing hockey, maybe I’d be involved in the music side of things,” he said. “I see the guys a lot. I’m always quizzing them — I’m very interested in the music business — but at the same time, I do whatever I can to help them . . .
“The extent of which is pretty much sharing them on social media,” he added, laughing.
Lead singer Dillon Currie attributes much of the band’s early success to Smith: their hockey star friend got League of Wolves songs on the playlist of Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, hosted the band on their tours to eastern Canada and brought Ottawa friends to their concerts.
“Pretty much he’ll do anything for you, so he’s really helped us a lot so far in our career,” Currie said. “He’s kind of a rare bird in that he likes rock-and-roll music. I don’t know how that sits with a lot of his teammates in the locker room, but it’s cool in this day and age.”
Currie was right on about the Senators players’ distaste, Smith said. Perhaps a franchise undergoing a drastic rebuilding and youth overhaul wasn’t the ideal place for him, even if it did allow his inner renaissance man to come out while he pursued another one of his passions, woodcrafting.
Another one of his passions, for the record, is drawing. During the 2012 lockout, he designed a League of Wolves’ shirt and logo.
But if Ottawa was the worst cultural fit, Chicago — with its seemingly ageless core of veteran stars — might be the best.
Just ask Toews what he thinks about rap.
“Kids these days, all they listen to is Drake and whatever pops up at the top of their Spotify,” the captain said, half-jokingly. “You’ve got to dig a little deeper than that.”
Smith said he considered staying an extra week after Blackhawks Convention for Lollapalooza, or hustling from the second day of training camp to Riot Fest — he was especially excited for that because Manchester Orchestra was performing — but decided attending music festivals wouldn’t be too helpful in his preparation for the hockey season.
Still, he’s determined to find his way to some of Chicago’s many music halls on off-nights this fall, partially because that’s an altogether new option for him. Most Ottawa concerts were in the arena where the Senators played, and came only during their road trips.
He even had a chance to make the Hawks’ workout room his own music venue, but the DJ duties were decided before he realized Toews (the typical DJ “by default,” Toews said) liked his taste.
“I was a little nervous to step up,” Smith said, laughing sheepishly. “So I didn’t volunteer. I’ll just slowly work my way onto the playlist of the room.”
That opportunity could come sooner than he expected. With the Hawks’ recent cuts condensing the Fifth Third locker room, Smith is Toews’ new locker neighbor. It might not be too long before “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” blares during the next team lifting session.
Or maybe it shouId be “Alive” instead. That’s what Currie recommends.
“If you get ‘Smitty’ singing live Pearl Jam at karaoke,” he needled, “you won’t see a better performance.”