From Detroit’s East Side to the Desert: The unlikely journey of Jalen Smereck

When I got the call from Costa Papista pitching a story about a DPS kid with an NHL deal, it took me about 15 seconds to fall in love with the story of Papista’s star defenseman Jalen Smereck.

The Detroit Public Schools have created many great athletes over the years, with Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton (Northwestern High School Class of ’59) among the most successful and beloved DPS grads to make the pros.

There are so many DPS alumni who made the NBA and NFL that you can create multiple dream teams – you can even rank the players by best nicknames (George “The Iceman” Gervin, Martin Luther King Jr. High School Class of 1970, national Basketball Hall of Fame 1996, is my favorite).

But I can’t think of one DPS kid to make the National Hockey League. That’s partly due to the circuitous route NHL players take. Instead of playing for their high school, the best kids typically play for a carefully-selected travel team before moving in with a host family to play junior hockey in Canada. Then they hope their name is called in the NHL draft.

I scoured the internet and hockey databases for leads on DPS kids who made it to the NHL. I even consulted the Son of Swami, recently-retired Detroit Free Press high school sports writer Mick McCabe. SOS also couldn’t conjure the name of a single DPS student to sign a contract to play the Coolest Game on Earth.

If you think that gives you some idea how special Smereck is, consider that this is a kid who grew up in a very, shall we say, “challenged” neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side, who went to MLK High School – where hockey is probably only slightly more popular than quidditch, the game J.K. Rowling invented in her Harry Potter series – and who went undrafted but still played his way into a three-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes of the NHL.

Papista, who played junior hockey about 30 years ago for the Sudbury Wolves, is now the president of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds. He says the team traded for Smereck last year because the Firebirds needed a good defenseman – and ended up getting a great person, too.

In this latest edition of our Chapter 10 series you’ll meet a great young man with a bright future – a Detroiter inspiring kids in Flint by showing them anything is possible.

Check it out. And if you dig it, please tell a friend. And check out all our previous stories on the Fox 2 mobile app or at

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Paid for by Michael Louis Elrick for Detroit