Glimpses of Gator

Gator

"He just led by example. It was hard not to follow. He never wanted the spotlight, never needed a lot of recognition, but when the puck dropped he was a mean guy out there. It was fun to watch him play."

-- Oilers captain Ethan Moreau, on Jason Smith

I loved watching Jason Smith play from the moment he arrived in Edmonton. From Day One Smith was exactly what the Oilers needed (and still need today, and always will need): a tough, stay-at-home, in-your-face defenceman who backed down from exactly nobody.

The man we came to know as Gator emerged from the stable of young blueline studs in Jersey. He was among several strong young defenders (Sheldon Souray, Willie Mitchell, Jaroslav Modry, and Cale Hulse to name a few) who were held back by the presence of Stevens, Niedermayer, Daneyko, Albelin, and ultimately traded by Schemin' Lou to fill current needs in the organization. In Smith's case he was dealt to Toronto with Steve Sullivan and Alyn McCauley for Doug Gilmour and Dave Ellett. In theory it was a good trade for Toronto: all three prospects turned out to be players, but in all cases not until after the Leafs practically gave them away to a third club. Oops. Oilers were the grateful beneficiaries of Smith at the deadline in 1999 for the low-low return of a 2nd and a 4th (for the record, Kris Vernarsky and Jonathan Zion, respectively). Thank you very much, T.O. 

Whatever warts the Leafs and their fans may have seen in young Jason's game, they never were apparent in Edmonton. The former first-rounder wasn't exactly polished, but with 326 games under his belt had kept just the right amount of rough edges. From the first game here he showed an aptitude for challenging both the man and the puck and getting at least a piece of each. It soon became apparent that the man was an old-time hockey player, an ultra-tough defender in the mould of dynasty Oilers Lee Fogolin, Kevin Lowe and Craig Muni (another gift from Toronto). Smith could have succeeded in any era, from Sprague Cleghorn's to Bobby Baun's. His type of player is always both welcome and in short supply.

Smith was never a big scorer, but he wasn't the complete zero some stay-at-home guys are, notching between 10 and 20 points 10 different times in his career. Just enough to make him an outscorer: in his first five years as an Oiler he scored 83 points and posted a net +62.

I could go on with anecdotes about Gator: the time he one-punched Jerkko Ruutu in the first minute of a game in which the rambunctious Canucks winger had run both Igor Ulanov and Mike Grier from behind on the first shift; the time he got stitched up behind the bench with play underway just feet away, never missing a shift; the one career playoff goal he scored on a glorious flying deke of the Sharks' Vesa Toskala that won a memorable Game 4 in 2006 and helped turn a series in Oilers' favour; the time he challenged and beat down Jay McKee after the Sabres defender had thrown a knee at Ales Hemsky (the old Gator-Aid play) Generally speaking, though, Jason was a prototypical stay-at-home defender, the type that has to be seen repeatedly to be appreciated.

Fortunately I got that opportunity many times over the years, especially during the 2000-01 season when I had a pipeline to outstanding (free!) tickets 14 rows directly behind the net and went to a bunch of games. That was long before blogs, so I scratched my hockey-writing itch by emailing game reports to my buddies in my keeper league hockey pool (1979-present). I tended to write thumbnail accounts of those players -- Oilers or visitors -- who caught my eye during games. Frequently that included Gator. Today I find it instructive to look at all those comments in sequence, game after game after game. Here we go:

Game 5: Oilers 3, Buffalo 2

"#21 Jason Smith: Led the Oilers in hits and blocked shots. Already +5 for the season."

Game 13: Oilers 5, Anaheim 3; Game 14: Oilers 3, Calgary 2 (dual report):

"#21 Jason Smith: Led Oilers in hits in both games, but was only second in blocked shots each night. Must be in some kind of a slump. Absolutely decked Selanne with a game-turning hit on Monday. Also seems to be getting more involved in the offence, adding an assist each game for something like a four- or five-game point streak. I asked [a friend who was a minor official], who sees all the games, whether he'd ever seen a game for which Smith didn't show  up, and he said 'Never! The guy is a horse!' Just what I expected him to say."

Game 21: Oilers 3, St. Louis 0

"#21 Jason Smith: (This is a recording) Led the Oilers in hits (4) and blocked shots (3, tied with Grier). Also got a well-deserved assist on the 2-0 goal when he took a drop pass from Weight, faked a shot and slipped the puck back to Weight for the goalmouth pass to Ryan Smyth."

Game 26: Oilers 3, Anaheim 2

"#21 Jason Smith: The bedrock of the Oilers' defence will never make the All-Star team but deserves very serious consideration for the Canadian Olympic team. Spent much of this night on the PK (a team-leading 8:22) and/or covering up for Ulanov's mistakes, so he was breaking up 2-on-1s and clearing rebounds rather than going for the hit (he had 'only' two). Took a vicious slapshot off the ankle, a reminder that Oilers' propensity for blocking shots (#1 in the NHL) will ultimately lead to a cracked bone for somebody important. But Lowe and MacTavish have taught them well."

Game 30: Oilers 4, Nashville 0

"#21 Jason Smith: One of the measures of a consistent player is his performance at home v. on the road. The Oilers are definitely a homer team this year, but check out Smith's stats: at home, 4 points, +5; on the road, 4 points, +5. On this night, and for the fourth time this calendar year, tied the Oilers' team record with seven blocked shots. Have I mentioned before that I really like this guy?"

Game 50: Oilers 2, Detroit 1

"#21 Jason Smith: Six hits (four more than any other Oiler), a set-to with Verbeek, a scrap with Shanahan, three blocked shots, and the usual yeoman work on the PK unit."

Game 51: Oilers 2, San Jose 2

"#21 Jason Smith: Led both teams in hits (6) and blocked shots (3). Situation normal."

Game 73: Philadelphia 4, Oilers 2

"#21 Jason Smith: Led the Oilers with eight hits, and also blocked 3 shots. Was saddled with a minus-2 on the night, as the rest of his unit - Ulanov, Marchant, Grier, Moreau - struggled badly in their matchup with the Flyers' big line. Smith was the best of the lot, by a lot."

Game 81: Oilers 2, Minnesota 2

"#21 Jason Smith: Named Oilers Defencemen of the Year for the second straight season, he had a decidedly un-Smith-like game. Tried to get involved in the attack, registering five shots on goal and only one block (the reverse of the norm), only one hit and three giveaways. Got his stick on Patera's blast, tipping it right into the top corner over Salo's shoulder." [Goes to show that nobody's perfect.]

 Playoff Game 4: Oilers 2, Dallas 1 (OT)

"#21 Jason Smith: This guy is one of the toughest people I've ever seen. Early in the second period Morrow crosschecked him to the ice just as Hull was whacking at a loose puck and he 'accidentally' caught Smith in the mouth with his stick. Right in the fresh stitches he took (without freezing) in OT the other night. No penalty of course. With the crowd screaming for the ref's blood and Smith no doubt tasting his own, he got up and went hunting for the first green sweater he could find. The unfortunate occupant was one Benoit Hogue. Perhaps enraged, more likely fully aware the ref wouldn't *dare* call anything now, Smith really hammered him with the high hard one. Smith hits high and follows through, but he usually does so at shoulder height. This time he pulled a Hatcher and went for the head. Later he caught Hogue in the trolley tracks again, cutting across the middle, and crushed him a la Scott Stevens. He decked Hull, Modano, Morrow, Van Allen. He took Hatcher's best shot with no more than a glance over his shoulder as he adjusted his helmet, going right back at the next Star who ventured into his territory. His game-high seven hits seemed like 14 and maybe would have been in Dallas [where they scored hits more liberally at the time]. He did yeoman service covering for Ulanov's several giveaways, and even went on the attack in OT with a dangerous wraparound stuff attempt. Played 31:32 without making a single obvious mistake. He's one Oiler that will stare down the Stars, or anybody, without blinking."

I think that series of comments, and especially the last one, does a fair job of capturing what an impact player Jason Smith was for the Oilers. The next year he would be named captain of the club, a distinction he would hold for six years, longer than any other Oiler. Or if you prefer, for five full seasons, tied with Wayne Gretzky. However you slice it, he was a leader of men and a helluva hockey player. It was fun to watch him play.

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