Smitty the First

via view2.picapp.com

If I were going to enter the Witness Protection Program, I could do a lot worse than choose the name Steve Smith. Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 Steve Smiths (or derivative) on a "human name disambiguation page", two dozen athletes among them as well as 8 academics, 7 entertainers, 6 politicians, 5 musicians, and 4 "other people" including an astronaut and a Canadian chess master. Hockey-reference.com lists 61 guys named Smith, and 90 named Steve. No fewer than 5 Smiths have lined up for the Edmonton Oilers, not to mention a Smyth and a Smid. It would be easy to crawl under a rock with a name like Steve Smith, surely. 

OK, maybe not if you're that Steve Smith. The one whose name is famously tied to one of the biggest bloopers in the history of hockey, the blunder that putatively cost the Oilers their chance to win five Cups in a row.  No Witness Protection Program will help him, but to the guy's credit, rather than crawl under that rock, he faced the music that very night, came back to play 5 outstanding seasons for the Oilers, and last week returned to the organization in the role of Assistant Coach.

Steve Smith wasn't even the first Steve Smith to be chosen in the 1981 draft. That honour went to Philadelphia's Steve Smith, drafted in the first round, 16th overall. The 5'9, 215-lb (!) defender went on to play all of 18 NHL games over (small) parts of 6 seasons.

Ninety-five picks later, the Oilers took "the" Steve Smith in the 6th round, 111th overall. It was a typical steal by the organization with the Midas Touch. Smitty was the eighth impact player drafted by the Oilers in their first three drafts, including five Hall of Famers (Messier, Anderson, Coffey, Kurri, Fuhr) and three other core players (Lowe, Moog, Smith). Five of the eight won five Stanley Cups as an Oiler; the other three won three apiece. Throw in a couple of undrafted free agents signed in the same time frame (Huddy, Gregg - five Cups each), and you've got two outstanding goalies, a core group of five very solid blueliners, and three superstar forwards. Oh yeah, that doesn't include Wayne Gretzky.

I still remember going to training camp with my buds that fall of '81 and walking away from the first workout absolutely raving about Smith. He was raw, gangly, and awkward, but we all agreed he was a player to watch. It took a while, but he closed out his junior career with two solid seasons, then put in two more strong developmental years in the AHL as his offensive and all-around game developed and he filled out to a towering 6'4, 215. By 1985-86 the native of Glasgow, Scotland was ready for regular duty in the bigs, putting in a solid first season in largely sheltered minutes (55 GP, +30). He always did have the nasty edge, averaging 2.5 to 4 PiM per game every year in whatever league until the neck injury took its toll in his 30s.

Smith wasn't so much a late bloomer as a marigold in a field of daffodils. He turned 23 the night of his famous gaffe, an age when strapping defenders are generally just beginning to find their game. He wouldn't have played in that critical game but for an injury to Lee Fogolin in Game Five that forced Glen Sather to put in his seventh man.

I'll never forget that night, even though it is one game I have never been able to stomach watching a replay. Oh how I hated those '86 Flames, who had as scummy a group of players as you could imagine on one squad: Paul Baxter, Neil Sheehy, Gary Suter, Jim Peplinski, Doug Risebrough, Joel Otto, Nick Fotiu, Tim Hunter. The previous summer Flames' GM Cliff Fletcher had successfully introduced the Edmonton Oilers Rule to negate 4-on-4 play - an Oiler specialty - and which allowed these thugs to goon it up without open-ice consequences. Between the pipes was the loathsome Mike Vernon. Mixed in and among the goons and jerks was an array of real solid, even classy players, including Al MacInnis, Paul Reinhart, Lanny McDonald, Hakan Loob, Joe Mullen, John Tonelli, and Colin Patterson. They were a team to be feared and respected even as they were detested.

What was worse was we got a trash talking Flames fan in our section, which happened to be the area where the Oilers wives and girlfirends sat. She had the trashiest mouth I have ever heard on a hockey fan at a live game, to the point where mild-mannered me was sorely tempted to just turn around and physically confront her. You'll never read me say anything like that again, but she was just awful, and no, I didn't actually do it! It had been a hard-fought series, and the Oilers were by no means entirely innocent of the rough stuff, but by Game 7 the Coliseum was a powder keg.

It was a funny series in that the Oilers never once had the lead. The Flames won Games 1, 3, 5, and 7 and never trailed in any of those games. Edmonton battled back to win the even-numbered games, and to tie the score several times in the odd-numbered ones without ever once forging ahead. Sure enough in this one Calgary jumped to a 2-0 lead, with the second goal being an absolute fluke in its own right as Peplinski's shot deflected off of Fuhr's blocker, bounced high in the air, and somehow came down on the wrong side of the post. A one-in-a-thousand shot that was to be superseded by the one-in-a-million job that decided things. First though, the Oilers came roaring back with a strong second period, as Glenn Anderson, and then Mark Messier in the final minute, scored to even things up. Awaiting the third period, the series was tied 3-3, the game tied 2-2, and total goals tied 24-24. Victory was hardly assured even without the disaster that awaited.

I hardly need describe the play to Oiler buffs. It happened right in front of me. Perry Berezan shot the puck in and peeled off for a change. Smith picked up the puck to the left of his net, looked up to see Anderson breaking out on the right wing, and tried to hit him with a routine breakout pass. Fuhr meanwhile was unsettled between the pipes, didn't hug the post, had his left leg sticking out a little to the side. The darn puck hit Fuhr and settled into the goal. Smith took one horrified look before sinking to the ice, covering his face in disbelief and shame.

Still, 15 minutes remained, but the Flames had the lead back and checked like demons. The mighty Oil managed but 6 shots that whole third period, with perhaps their best opportunity happening on a similar blunder by Sheehy (IIRC) at the far end. He too fired an errant pass that bounced dangerously near the Flames net, but not in it. And that was the difference.

Some of us saw both Smith and Fuhr at fault on the play. Others blamed the caprice of the hockey gods, but the press was merciless. Terry Jones for one wrote one of his asshole columns, diplomatically titled BIGGEST BLUNDER EVER, which began with these harsh words:

On the back of a raw rookie, a dynasty died.

Steve Smith, on his 23rd birthday, ended one of the greatest series in the history of hockey with one of the biggest bonehead plays in the history of all sport.

(Hat tip to Regwald for the transcript)

To his everlasting credit, Smith came out and faced the music in the post-game scrum, which is a helluva lot more than some seasoned vets would have done. In the process he showed 100.0% more class than did Terry Jones.

Further to his credit, Steve didn't shrivel up and go away but came back to the Oilers a determined man in the fall of 1986, and played an important role on the squad that won the Stanley Cup the next spring. With the acquisition of Reijo Ruotsalainen at the trade deadline Smith was nominally still #7 on the depth chart, but he played fifteen games those playoffs, with the Oilers winning fourteen of them. They were 2-4 in the games he missed. Sather inserted Smith as a 7th defender (a tactic I don't recall Slats ever using otherwise) in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Flyers, and Steve played a regular shift as the Oil protected a 2-1 lead down the stretch. When the game was finally won and the Cup handed out, Gretzky accepted the silverware and immediately handed it over to the young blueliner, whose face was a joy to behold as the crowd roared our approval. What a great moment.

By the next year Coffey was gone and there was no question of Smith not being an every-night player. Besides being a defensive stalwart, he became a regular on the powerplay, pacing all defencemen in goals, assists and points with 12-43-55, led the entire squad with a +40 ranking, and set a club record that still stands with 286 PiM. He followed that up with a dynamite playoffs, again leading defencemen in points with twelve, while his +16 rating over nineteen games ranked second on the club, just one behind his defence partner Randy Gregg. The twosome was an absolute tower of power throughout the playoffs, in all aspects of the game. With his size and range, solid defence, strong offensive game, and nasty disposition, Smitty was by far the closest in style of the dynasty Oiler rearguards to Chris Pronger.    

Smith struggled with injury in the post-Gretzky season of 1988-89, but bounced back the next year with another solid season and great playoffs. Now paired with Jeff Beukeboom in the obviously-named Twin Towers, Steve paced all defenders with 5-10-15, and a team-leading +15, as the Gretzkyless dynasty made its unexpected last stand with a surprise fifth Cup. For the second time in three years Smith was tasked with the role of shutting down Boston ace Cam Neely in the SCF, and their ongoing battle was something to behold.

Smith enjoyed one last solid season with the Oilers in 1990-91 (fifty-four points, a career high thirteen goals), but the whole team was on the verge of pricing itself out and Steve was no exception. He played - and won - for Team Canada in the best-on-best Canada Cup that fall of '91, all the while holding out for the princely sum of $800,000. He was just one of several core players demanding the big bucks, and Sather/Pocklington responded by cleaning house. Determined to give his stars a soft landing in a big market, Sather sent Messier to New York, Fuhr and Anderson to Toronto, and Smith to Chicago. The returning players - Bernie Nicholls, Vince Damphousse, Luke Richardson, Dave Manson - were a clear step down and the end was nigh.

The Oilers had one last gasp in the spring of '92, upsetting the Kings and Canucks to win a surprise Smythe Division banner. From there they ran smack dab into Steve Smith's Blackhawks, who swept the Oilers and outscored them 21-8. Smith was featured in an All-World pairing with Chris Chelios, and simply put, they dominated the series. In the two games in Edmonton the Oilers did their level best to run Smith, try to distract and upset him, but he wasn't buying. After posting a career high 304 penalty minutes that season, Smitty emphasized discipline in the playoffs and simply skated away from all attempted scrums without so much as changing expression. It wasn't his usual style, but it was damned effective. He and Chelios played about half of each game, and the Hawks were rarely in trouble anytime they were out there, primarily against the toughs (the Oilers only scoring line of Damphousse-Nicholls-Murphy, who fell ice cold in the series). I was almost as frustrated as the overmatched Oilers, but I had to tip my hat to the dominant performance of the sterling defence pair. Smith ended those playoffs with a solid twelve points, +12, and just sixteen PiM in eighteen games.

The Hawks lost those Stanley Cup Finals to the Penguins of Mario and Mario Jr., and Smith never did get another shot at the Grail. He had one last great season in 1992-93, posting a career high fifty-seven points, but as he turned thirty his body started to break down. He suffered serious problems with his back and neck that forced him to retire in '97, whereupon he took on an assistant coaching job with the Flames. A year later he was deemed healthy enough to play again, and had one strong comeback season with the hapless Flames before the neck acted up again.

Another great Oiler playing out the string joined Smith in Calgary - none other than Grant Fuhr. It was high irony that the two who had conspired to "score" perhaps the biggest goal in Flames' history, wound up sharing time with the Flaming C.

After nine mostly quiet years still involved in the game, Smith earned a fourth Stanley Cup ring this past spring as a pro scout with the Blackhawks. Now he returns to his original team, tasked with helping a crew of gigantic young defencemen develop their game. While his coaching pedigree may be open to question, Steve's experience as a big, nasty defender is sure to help the play of Theo Peckham (6'2, 223), Alex Plante (6'4, 225), and perhaps especially the guy who wears his old #5, the 6'3, 226-lb Ladislav "Steve" Smid.

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