Devante Smith-Pelly is already the only NHL player named after a member of his parents' favorite 1990s R&B supergroup. But the 22-year-old power forward named after Jodeci singer/songwriter Devante Swing is eyeing a more impressive distinction: left wing on one of the league's top lines.
Of the 690 available NHL jobs, none may be more coveted than the left side of the Anaheim Ducks' top trio alongside All-Stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (who has resumed skating with the team after contracting mumps). If the first few weeks of the 2014-15 season are any indication, Smith-Pelly has the inside track on that spot, which Bobby Ryan patrolled for five years before being traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2013.
It's a high-profile assignment for a player who had a very inconspicuous introduction to hockey. Growing up in Toronto, Smith-Pelly didn't start playing organized hockey until he was almost nine. That's sacrilege in the greater Toronto area, where aspiring NHLers are typically thrust into youth hockey by age four. It's also a major reason he was considered an afterthought in an area where hockey players are never too young to earn attention from local agents and scouts.
"You would see some of the big agents in the rinks standing with a group of parents. I guess they didn't notice him," said Smith-Pelly's father, Wayne. "You just kind of move on, you don't give it a second thought. They're only 13, I was pretty sure things would change."
They certainly have. After being selected 42nd overall by Anaheim in the 2010 NHL draft, Smith-Pelly started the 2011-12 season with the Ducks as a teenager. But as in youth hockey, he encountered a steep learning curve and spent most of the past two seasons with the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk.
"He had a huge year down there and played really well. He tightened his approach. That really set him on the path to come up and play well with the Ducks. That Getzlaf and Perry like him playing with them tells you a lot," said former NHL player and current TV analyst Kevin Weekes, who hails from the same Scarborough neighborhood as Smith-Pelly.
"The sky is the limit for him. He's big, he can hit, his skating has improved and he's unafraid to pay the price and score goals by going to the net and go to the corners, which opens up space."
While Smith-Pelly was leading the Admirals in 2013-14 with 27 goals in only 55 games, the Ducks had a revolving door at left wing on their top line. Anaheim tried Patrick Maroon, Teemu Selanne, Jakob Silfverberg and Dustin Penner, who the Ducks signed to a one-year deal in 2013 hoping he could recapture the chemistry he had with Perry and Getzlaf when Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Meanwhile, Smith-Pelly was earning praise from then-Norfolk coach and current Ducks assistant Trent Yawney. No small feat considering Yawney's reputation for being stingy with complements and the other top prospects on Norfolk's roster, including goaltender John Gibson, forwards Emerson Etem and Rickard Rakell and defenseman Sami Vatanen.
For his efforts, Smith-Pelly was called up for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Playing primarily with Perry and Getzlaf, he led Anaheim with five postseason goals, each of which was scored at or near the lip of the crease. With that, the Ducks found their newest big-bodied power forward and handed the 220-pound Smith-Pelly a chance to skate on the top line this season.
"I thought this year he came into camp a little more prepared. I think in past years at times he was kind of riding the roller coaster and seeing how it would go," Getzlaf said of Smith-Pelly. "He's starting to develop that consistency and he's doing a better job of it this year."
Lining up frequently beside the Olympic and Stanley Cup champions has proven invaluable for his development. But Smith-Pelly most credits his growth to NHL players Chris Stewart, Anthony Stewart and Wayne Simmonds, who like Weekes all grew up in Scarborough. Smith-Pelly was formally taken under their wings when he signed with their agent, Eustace King.
For years, Smith-Pelly has regularly trained with Chris Stewart, who now plays with the Buffalo Sabres, and Philadelphia Flyers winger Simmonds. When the Smith-Pelly family flew to Los Angeles for the 2010 draft, Chris Stewart joined them. While in L.A., they stayed at the home of Simmonds, who played for the Kings at the time and was living with then-teammate Drew Doughty.
"I've known them since I was 16. Just training with them all those years and watching them on the ice I picked up a lot," Smith-Pelly said. "If it wasn't for them I'm not sure how everything would turn out. They had a lot to do with that."
But it wasn't just their on-ice resilience that motivated Smith-Pelly. The Stewart brothers and Simmonds each navigated dire financial straits to find success in a sport that can be prohibitively expensive. Their story especially hits home with Wayne Pelly, who was forced to give up hockey at 13 because his family couldn't afford it. He instead took up basketball and won three consecutive national championships at Brandon University in Manitoba.
"I obviously knew about their background. For all those guys to come out of those kinds of situations just speaks to their character and their work ethic," Smith-Pelly said. "It's a great story. It's definitely inspiring."
Inspiring enough to help guide this once-unknown to a spot on one of the NHL's top forward lines.
"It definitely took me a couple of games to stop staring at them [Getzlaf and Perry] rather than just playing. After those first few games, you kind of settle in," Smith-Pelly said. "Now it's just another set of linemates. Two elite ones."