Dhane Smith Turns Malice to Motivation, a Black Athlete Succeeding in White Crowds
Dhane Smith belongs.
When he led Team Canada as an assistant captain to the gold medal at the 2019 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships, he belonged. When he won NLL MVP in 2016, the first Black player to make that mark, and set league records for single-season goals and points, he belonged. And when he was a 10-year-old watching his cousin, Billy Dee Smith, represent the Buffalo Bandits on the floor, he belonged.
Dhane Smith has always belonged.
As a kid growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, Dhane Smith played what he could get his hands on. Lacrosse, hockey, football – it didn’t matter. If it was athletic and competitive, he wanted in.
He pursued all three in particular for much of his adolescence. In hockey, he matured too late for how early players are drafted, and it dropped off. In football, Smith featured at quarterback for Huron Heights Secondary School, which opened in 2006, soon before he began his high school years. When Smith started as a freshman, the football team was just freshmen and sophomores, the two grades at the school.
It didn’t go well.
“We definitely lost a lot of games to begin with as a new school,” Smith said. “Didn’t have that many kids.”
But by the time Smith was a senior, he had helped get Huron Heights to a championship game, taking it from the very bottom of the barrel to on the largest stage available within four years.
It sounds like a great rags to riches story, and it was. But Smith couldn’t participate like he planned.
During his senior year, he broke his ankle, forcing him to miss the rest of his final campaign and undergo serious medical treatment.
“I had seven screws and a plate in my ankle and still do to this day,” Smith said. “I couldn’t imagine getting tackled and getting hit in that ankle.”
That injury ended his football career and whittled his competitive sports down from two to one: lacrosse.
Smith was the only Black player on his hockey and lacrosse teams growing up. He wasn’t allowed to forget it.
Taunts, jeers and slurs were common from opponents. Often times, they went unnoticed or unpunished, leaving a young Smith with no recourse. It wasn’t only him; his brother, Marcus, received the same treatment in his sports.
“To me, I was just playing a sport,” Smith said. “I didn’t really know what to do but tell my parents or tell my sister. I shouldn’t say there’s nothing I could do, but realistically, there isn’t too much you can do in those situations. You have those people out there who believe in what they believe in.”
Once, though, an official overheard an opposing player call Smith a slur. The player was thrown out of the game and suspended from school.
The offender was also made to write an apology letter. Smith didn’t find it sincere and told his mother so. She took the letter and saved it in the same scrapbook she kept newspaper clippings of his achievements in athletics. It took some years for Smith to understand why.
While Dhane Smith skated on ice and tossed on turf, he got plenty of lax in, too.
In 2009, he started with the Kitchener-Waterloo Braves in Junior A. Three years later, he was MVP in his second-to-last junior season, an uncommon feat. His transformation in junior launched him into becoming the player he is, Smith said.
“I’m a laidback guy, kinda a shy guy,” Smith explained. “To be great at something, you need to take that next step. You need to be more confident and have a bit of swagger. It was eye opening when I did end up winning MVP. I was developing, coming into myself and believe that I was a good player. You need confidence.”
Smith entered the draft in 2012, aiming to begin a professional career in the sport he committed to. He would have been thrilled if any of the 10 NLL teams had taken him, one in particular would have been really special.
And sometimes, things work out.
Smith was selected No. 5 overall in the 2012 NLL Draft by the Buffalo Bandits, the same team his cousin had played for since 2003 and Smith had grown up admiring.
“It was pretty crazy how it happened and everything fell into place,” he said. “I remember not really knowing if I was going to go to Buffalo or not. There were a few teams before them that showed a little bit of interest in me.
“It was a dream come true,” Smith added. “I never thought it would be like that. That was Buffalo’s first first-round pick in two years, too.”
Kitchener, Ontario, is 78.2 percent white, according to the 2016 Canadian Census. Dhane Smith was part of the 4.1 percent of the city’s Black population. Not only was it unusual to see a Black person in town, but it was especially rare to see one on the lacrosse field or hockey ice.
It was common for Smith to be subject to questions when suited up for either.
“It was tough for me to play those types of sports without hearing something,” he remembered.
Smith would be asked why he was playing a “white sport.” Shouldn’t he be playing basketball? Or at least football? Hockey and lacrosse weren’t “for” him. He didn’t belong.
“At times, it definitely did make me want to (quit),” Smith said. “They made me question why I was playing that sport and things like that.”
But on the field, he was doing well. And he knew those sports were meant for him. He enjoyed them.
So, he fought to belong.
“Being the competitor I was, I wanted to prove to people I could do it, and I could do it at a high level,” he explained. “I wanted to be better than everybody else, and that was my goal. I worked hard at those sports to be where I’m at.”
Dhane Smith played with his cousin, Billy Dee Smith, in Buffalo for three years. The elder Smith took the younger one under his wing, as did the rest of the veteran lineup.
Smith had to claw his way to where he wanted to be, though. As a young guy on an experienced squad, he had to get used to not being first fiddle. Out of 32 players on the 2013 Bandits roster, Dhane Smith was one of five players born in the 1990s and the youngest on the team by more than a year.
“It was a learning curve. Going to a professional team that young, I knew I wasn’t going to be the guy or one of the better players,” he said. “It was hard to sit back and understand it, but it was also awesome, because I learned from so many great players. We had a crazy veteran team, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
At the start of his NLL career, Smith was sent to the back of the field, serving as a defender and transition player. It wasn’t where he wanted to be, but it was the path he had to take to return closer to the opponent’s goal.
“I played my first professional years as a defense, transition kinda thing,” Smith said. “I had to earn my stripes and make my way to playing offense.”
Not too long into his Bandits career, he was up front in the Buffalo’s attack, and the NLL was on notice.
In 2015, Smith had 39 goals and 68 assists, third in the league, for 107 points, fourth in the league. That wasn’t what gave him the massive boost heading into 2016, though.
That summer, Smith was given the nod to join Team Canada for the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. It was his first major international experience, and until it happened, he couldn’t believe something like that was possible for him.
“I never thought I would ever be a part of that, especially at a young age. I was the youngest by quite a bit,” he remembered.
As honored as he was with the roster spot, Smith figured he wouldn’t factor into many games. But when duty called late in the tournament, he answered the call.
“I remember I got sat the first game, and then I figured I’d maybe get sat the semis and finals. I ended up playing,” he said. “The confidence the coaches gave me was out the roof, and I think that’s made my career take off from there.”
Smith went on to have one of the greatest seasons in lacrosse history, breaking NLL single-season records for goals and points.
Smith won NLL MVP in 2016 with his 72-goal, 65-assist-and-137-point season, placing himself in the history books in just his fourth professional campaign.
In that same year, Smith won the Mann Cupp with Six Nations Chiefs, and although a run to the NLL championship came up short, it was an unbelievable year for the forward.
Winning gold with Canada the year before helped launch it all.
“I always knew I was a good player. Did I know I was a great player at that time? I don’t know,” Smith explained. “Having those coaches believe in me, because I was a very young kid at the time, and I never really thought I would be in that situation, it was an honor. My confidence went through the roof after that.
“I believed in myself more. I knew I was a great player. My career took off.”
When Dhane Smith looks back in the scrapbook from his youth, he is reminded of the good and the bad thanks to his mother’s lack of censorship.
“Yeah, my achievements were there, but some negative things were in there, too,” he said. “It’s nice to look back and see what I went through. I wouldn’t say I’d forget about all that stuff, but it’s nice to look back, reflect and know that I’ve overcome a lot of things.
“It’s very important. You can’t focus on all the positives. There are going to be negatives throughout your life. It’s how you overcome those things.”
Smith is now a regular in the NLL and PLL, and he won another gold medal with Canada, this time as assistant captain, at the 2019 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. At age 28, he’s proven himself to be one of the best in the business, and proving himself is what it’s always been about.
“Looking back, I’m glad. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have that motivation to push me through,” Smith admitted. “I’m sure I’d find something else, but I have had a chip on my shoulder, and I’m definitely happy with where I am now.”
Smith believes his story can inspire the next kid to break whatever arbitrary boundaries are set for them and pursue what they love.
Before the two gold medals, before the NLL records, before the junior MVP, Dhane Smith was just a kid who loved lacrosse, and he belonged. And it’s the same for any other kid in their chosen love, whatever and whomever they may be.
“I am grateful that I have achieved all those things to show people that I do belong in the sport. I belong here,” he said. “I want to show the next generation of kids that they’re more than capable of doing the same. I want to see more kids go out of their comfort zones and play lacrosse or play any sport or do anything they want to do no matter the color of their skin.”