LYONS BROOK, N.S. – Standing in her kitchen in Lyons Brook, Hilda Smith holds a photo collage of her son.
They show Russell Smith at various ages, with family – including his younger sister Rhoda, who idolized the brother who was two years older – or with his friends, or standing on a fishing boat off the shores of Cape Breton, or holding the Stanley Cup with his friend Colin White.
“Things happen, I guess, but life goes on,” his mom says.
“We’ve known family members who have lost loved ones, and you think you know what it’s like. But you don’t – not until it happens to you.”
On this wintry day, the kitchen table is covered with some of the awards and honours he earned in hockey, while a few feet away, strewn over the back of a couch, are some of his old hockey sweaters: the Florida Panthers, Truro Bearcats, Team Nova Scotia at the 1995 Canada Games.
In mid-December, Hilda and her husband Russell Smith, along with their daughter, travelled to Edson, Alta., in order to be with Russell, Jr.
He was 41 years old, lying in a hospital bed, losing his fight with liver disease.
“We were with him for two days before he passed,” says Russell Smith Sr.
His son had been in and out of hospital on several occasions, only this time, he wasn’t going home, and knew that it was likely he would die there.
“When I got there, he said, ‘the doctor told me I’m not going to get out of here’” Russell Sr. says.
“So, he knew.”
He passed away on Dec. 17, with his family around him.
• • •
Russell Smith grew up next to the old West Pictou Rural High School, a big kid who loved the game of hockey.
“He learned to skate on the harbour,” his mom says.
He played major bantam and major midget with Jon Sim, Colin White and Derrick Walser, who would all go on to play in the NHL. In 1995, Smith was named Weeks Major Midgets’ most valuable player, the same year he played at the Canada Games.
“We called him Rah-soo,” Sim remembers. “In bantam, he was a very outgoing person – a funny guy, always fun to be around.”
A big, strong defenceman, Smith spent a season with the Hull Olympiques (now the Gatineau Olympiques), skating alongside Colin White, his buddy from way back. He was selected by the Florida Panthers in the 1996 NHL draft and attended one training camp, but was sent back to junior.
Back in Hull, Smith would subsequently be traded to Beauport, but wasn’t happy there; the host family didn’t speak English and had him sleeping on a cot in the laundry room.
He came home and was traded again, this time to Rimouski, where he was expected to be an enforcer, a role he did not want to play.
One night, he got into an on-ice fight and broke the other player’s nose. After the game, his teammates were watching the fight on a TV in the dressing room, mocking the opponent.
“He called me from a payphone and said, ‘they’re all laughing in there, dad,” the elder Smith recalls.
“His heart wasn’t in it anymore. He said, ‘I’m done. I’m coming home’. He came home on a bus, and we went to Truro to pick him up.”
Smith would play one season of junior A with the Truro Bearcats before his junior eligibility ended. He seemed content during his year with the Bearcats, who made him an assistant captain and just wanted him to go out and play the game.
• • •
While his friends Colin White and Jon Sim spent the 2000s playing pro hockey and winning Stanley Cups, Russell Smith worked as a fishermen’s helper, on the oil rigs in Alberta and at other jobs. Out west, he had a son, Carter, who is now 11.
His family lived in Pictou County for four years, but Russell moved back to Alberta at the end of 2018. Never again would he see the place where he grew up.
“It’s hard to keep in touch with everybody,” Sim says. “But I did run into him at the rink (in 2018) and we had a nice, long talk. It was great to see him again.”
On Jan. 4, a celebration of Russell Smith’s life was held at Caribou Fire Hall, as more than 300 people showed up to pay their respects and share memories. One of those who attended was Neil Gromley, his best friend who flew over from London, England.
“Neil’s mom always called Russell her other son,” Hilda says with a smile.
At the fire hall, his friend and Pictou County musician Ashley George played Pictou Proud, a favourite of Russell’s. The evening provided his parents with some closure, although Russell Sr. says the bad moments still show up.
“Every now and then, those moments come,” he says.
Most likely, they always will.
“We loved him,” Hilda adds softly. “He had a big smile and a big heart.”