C.J. Smith had never been to Buffalo, but he knew the city’s reputation. He wanted in.
“It just kind of fits the person I am,” the Sabres’ newest forward said Thursday. “I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, blue-collar city. I played in Lowell and played in Austin, Minn., all kind of blue-collar communities, and they all play blue-collar hockey.
“I think that’s kind of what the Buffalo Sabres are about, and I think I kind of fit their identity.”
The college standout at UMass Lowell signed a two-year deal with the Sabres for the rookie maximum. He’ll make a prorated $925,000 this year and $925,000 next season.
After signing, Smith looked around and saw Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson, a couple of guys he used to watch on television. Then he went out and practiced with them.
“It was pretty awesome,” the 22-year-old said in KeyBank Center. “It was a dream come true. Obviously, every child’s dream is to play in the NHL, and finally the moment came.
“I got some jitters. It’s a little different. You’re not used to the bigger guys, more skilled guys. I was a little anxious, but I think I held my own out there.”
Smith is expected to make his debut Sunday when Buffalo hosts the New York Islanders. He left college after his junior year because he was ready for a challenge.
“Just being able to get more experience playing against bigger guys,” the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder said. “I could hold my own against smaller guys, so just being able to get that experience at the pro level.
“I think I’ve got speed and skill, but I also just play a hard game. I like to play a heavy game. Coming from Lowell, play a heavy puck-possession game, and I think that kind of is my identity and who I am.”
Coach Dan Bylsma noticed immediately.
“One of the things I think he demonstrated today was, yes, he’s got some speed and he’s got some skill, but he was tenacious on the puck and relentless on the puck,” Bylsma said. “We had some battle situations and some battle drills out there, and for a guy his size he showed that he had that.”
The left winger practiced on a line with Moulson and center Zemgus Girgensons. The Sabres have another practice day Saturday before determining the combinations.
Smith tied for eighth among NCAA skaters with 23 goals this season and ranked 12th with 51 points. In 120 collegiate games, he totaled 125 points.
“I had some other teams, had some options,” Smith said, “but there’s a good group, a young core here, a lot of potential for this team to be successful.”
Smith is still enrolled at school, and he needed to take a test following practice.
“We introduced him to the team, and we told him that in addition to his 2 o’clock test he’d have to remember all the guys’ names,” Bylsma said. “The kid’s head’s kind of spinning.”
Right wing Kyle Okposo, who missed Tuesday’s 3-1 loss in Columbus due to illness, did not practice. Defenseman Cody Franson rejoined his teammates. He has missed five games with an upper-body injury.
The Sabres are not planning to practice Friday.
The Sabres’ alumni association held its wine festival Wednesday, and the pink-trimmed jerseys worn by the former players are up for auction. Proceeds will benefit breast cancer care in Western New York. Bidding is up at Sabres.com/auctions and will run until 9 p.m. April 9.
Jerseys belonging to Gilbert Perreault, Danny Gare, Rene Robert, Don Luce, Michael Peca, Brad May and Rick Jeanneret are among those available.
The Sabres, meanwhile, are auctioning items worn by Jack Eichel during the season and at the World Cup of Hockey. Proceeds will benefit the team’s foundation and Carly’s Club. Those items are also available until 9 p.m. April 9 at Sabres.com/auctions.