By: Thomas Becker
When the fresh, new-look jerseys arrived earlier this month, Sam Smiley rummaged through the box looking for one number in particular – No. 9.
Close friend and current Panther captain, Ignacio Sanchez was assigned the number the last three years, but knowing its significance, he offered it to Smiley.
It was the same number his Hall of Fame dad wore when he took to the UPEI field three decades earlier.
“It was a special moment for me. Not only am I putting on the same jersey as him, but the number as well. It’s special.”
A SOCCER STAR IS BORN
Growing up in British Columbia, Smiley’s first sport of interest was hockey and on his off days his father, Glenn Smiley – a retired RCMP officer – would take young Sam to the local rink and teach him how to skate before allowing him to handle a stick. He taught him everything he knew about the sport, but lying dormant was that soccer gene just waiting for a platform to shine.
Even after his college years, Glenn continued to play soccer with a local club and when a group of the guys gathered their kids for a world cup style soccer tournament, Glenn quickly saw the potential his son – who was just five at the time – had on the field.
“They had team Canada and we were Germany. Canada was killing teams like 7 and 8-0 and the adults were high-fiving each other on the sidelines. So here’s my wife and I saying to Sam ‘come on now pass the ball.’ He could run through anybody, but we always told him to share the ball. We’re about to play Canada and a couple parents came up to us and said ‘it’s OK if Sam carries the ball in this game.’ So we ended up beating Canada 6-0 and Sam scored all the goals,” he said with a chuckle.
About a year later, the family moved back to Prince Edward Island after Sam’s mother, Jacinta Gallant, started a law practice. It was here where Sam began to realize his potential as a soccer player. And it was also around this time when he learned his dad played professionally for the Edmonton Drillers of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1980 and suited up for the national team before committing to UPEI.
“Once I was old enough to realize how cool that was, I started to like soccer a lot more,” Sam said.
GLENN SMILEY – FATHER, COACH and HALL of FAMER
Glenn had a storied career at UPEI, which spanned from 1982-87. He was the team’s captain and led the Panthers to three consecutive championships in 1983, ‘84 and ‘85. Because of his play in midfield, he was inducted into the UPEI Hall of Fame in 2003.
“He’s the type of player that will run a guy over. They called him Crunch,” Sam said. “Growing up, all I’d hear was how good he was and to get out of his way because he will run you over.”
The stories Glenn tells about a campus buzzing with championship excitement, like the time a trio of UPEI teams – soccer, basketball and hockey – were all ranked No. 1 in the country, spoke to Sam and sparked an interest.
“It gave me goose bumps, because that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I have a picture in my head of what that looks like and what that would have felt like and that’s what I want.”
Soccer quickly became more than just a sport, but a chance to strengthen a bond between father and son. Glenn even coached Sam and some of his closest friends who are also members of the Panthers, including Sanchez, Jake Deighan and Austin MacKenzie at the club level.
“I think a lot of people don’t like their dad as a coach, but I liked it. If anything, he pushed me harder than anybody else.”
But it didn’t come without its challenges.
“At times I’d get mad at him during practice, but it was tough to stay mad at him after, since I had to go home with him in the same car,” he said. “Now we have this rule sometimes at the dinner table where we’re not allowed to talk about soccer.”
Still, soccer has always been connected with the Smiley name. Sam’s grandfather played professionally in Scotland and his sister Taylor also played. The Smiley’s even have a net set up in the front yard, where they spent hours kicking the ball around.
“Soccer just seems to be a theme in our family that brings us all together.”
SAM SMILEY – ALL-STAR IN THE MAKING
While there’s an undeniable love for the sport, Sam never felt pressure by his father to take soccer any further than he wanted. That said, Sam pushed himself and there were lots of early mornings with his father at the Stratford Indoor Complex training and developing into the smart, sure-footed forward that fans know today. Glenn also shared his experiences with his son and prepared him for the mental side of the game and how to handle the ups and downs the soccer season brings, whether it was at the high school or provincial level.
“Even if I had a bad day at soccer or if I was playing bad all week, he’d always tell me that everyone has those weeks and that I would bounce back.”
After high school, Sam spent some time in Scotland where he trained with some of Europe’s up-and-coming stars. But home was where he wanted to be and a few months later he returned, ready to take on university. And UPEI was the only school he considered joining.
“I’m kind of a homebody, I like having my friends and family around. And there was the added bonus that I get to follow in my dad’s footsteps.”
Admittedly there was a bit of pressure attending the same university where his father made a name for himself, but it wasn’t bad pressure.
“I think it’s motivation if anything. Motivation to put the work in and be better each day. I want to show that I’m right there with him.”
Having a pair of familiar faces cheering him on win or lose didn’t hurt either.
“I feel a lot of pride when I watch him on the field because he respects the game. He plays it a high tempo and he has the skills that any coach would want to have on the field,” Glenn said. “He wants to play with the other players. He wants to share and he’s excited when they score. He’s excited when they do it as a group. And that makes you proud as a father.”
In 2017, Sam was named a second-team all-star for the first time in his AUS career and Glenn was one of the first people he contacted.
“To me, Sam will always be a first-team all-star. I see what he brings to the field and it was about time,” he said. “For him to finally get that recognition it just makes you very proud of him and for him because I know how hard he’s worked.”
Now, like his father once was, he too has become one of the faces of UPEI soccer, trying to bring back the glory days of old.
“You kind of have to sit back and take it all in. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity,” Sam said. “Just growing up and hearing his name and how important he was to UPEI, I hope one day that can be me too.”
And as his soccer journey continues, he knows he can count on No. 9 to support him along the way.
“He’s been a driving force for me. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be as successful or motivated to take UPEI somewhere.”