Ryan Smyth was the only post-dynasty Oiler to get his name on Bruce McCurdy's metaphorical mountain. He was the (not always pretty) face of "The Little Team That Could," earning his spot alongside Oiler greats Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Kevin Lowe. But as Bruce said, "The Little Team That Could had a face all its own, and again it will prove difficult to limit that to a single representative." So here at The Copper and Blue, we've decided to throw that limitation out the window. Smyth was the last man on Mount Puckmore, but today he's kicking off our series on each writer's favourite post-dynasty Oiler.Ryan Smyth was and is a special player for me. I was ten years old when Smyth was drafted, a kid who loved watching and playing the game, but whose ideas of strategy came mostly from EA Sports classic series of video games (JR!), and ball hockey in the basement (bouncing shots of the wall was always a solid play). At the pro level, I knew that the Oilers had been good, and had quickly become very, very bad. That's why they had two of the first six picks. After watching Jason Arnott come straight to the NHL to score 68 points after being taken seventh overall in 1993, I was pretty darn excited that day in 1994. Expectations were high.
That draft didn't produce the immediate results I had expected. Both Smyth and Bonsignore failed to make the team in 1994-95, and when they were both there for part of 1995-96, they weren't very good. Just like the Oilers. As I headed to junior high school, it seemed that my team would be awful forever. But the 1996-97 season was different. The Oilers didn't have a winning record, but it sure felt like they did. Between the acquisition of Curtis Joseph and Mike Grier, the departure of Shayne Corson, the return of Kevin Lowe, and of course, the arrival of Ryan Smyth as a player, the Oilers were back in the playoffs and the city was abuzz. From a personal standpoint, that series against Dallas included the first playoff game I ever attended, and some of the first "no-parents" parties too. One of the finest of the latter was the day we celebrated an Oilers' overtime victory over the Dallas Stars with Ryan Smyth potting the winner with a slap-shot off the rush from a terrible angle. Smyth probably tries that shot twenty times a season now, and it never works. But on that fine April night, Smyth made sure that room of hormones, and many others, had something to celebrate.
Smyth wasn't always my favourite player. Two years later he held out for a better contract, and proceeded to have a terrible season after missing training camp. It wasn't exactly endearing. But as time wore on and great players like Curtis Joseph, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, and Todd Marchant moved along for more money elsewhere, Ryan Smyth was the constant. And watching him night after night helped you to appreciate the little things he did to help the team win. Things like playing through pain, blocking shots, standing in the crease, flat-out cheating in the crease. One of my favourite live goals was a night when I and a friend who cheered on the Canucks watched the two teams play at Rexall. With a shot on the way to the net, Smyth hit the goalie's glove down with his stick as the puck snuck past him. Both the 'tender and my friend looked apoplectic. Both Smyth and I wore huge grins. One of my favourite sequences on tape is this one from 2005-06. Ryan Smyth drove poor J.S. Giguere mad.
By 2005-06 my interest in how the game actually worked had grown, and my appreciation of Smyth grew with it. I don't know if it was the case every year before the lockout, but I had alwyas assumed that the various incarnations of the RPM line were the ones taking on the big baddies on the other side. In 2005-06, it was often Smyth out there against the big boys, and getting results. He wasn't the superstar on the team - a role that unquestionably belonged to Chris Pronger - but he and Jason Smith were, at least in my opinion, the personification of the team's identity. They both left everything on the ice, leading primarily by example, playing through pain for the love of the game. When Smyth took that puck to the face against the Sharks, and collected his teeth off of the ice, there was no question about whether Smyth would try to come back, and not much question about whether he would. He ended up missing about half a period. It was during that run (and maybe after that game) that Kevin Lowe described Ryan Smyth as "an Oiler for life."
Less than a year later, it was time for the Mark Messier Gala, an event at the Winspear Centre that both Smyth and I attended. The event was staged that night before the trade deadline, which also happened to be the night before Mark Messier's jersey would be retired. The event itself was wonderful, but the part that stands out was Smyth standing up to receive an ovation from the crowd. One of the patrons made an uncomfortable call for Smyth and Lowe to sign the contract right there. That would have been a splendid end to that evening, but it wasn't to be. Instead, Smyth was off to the Islanders, Lowe went into hiding, the fans tried to honour a departed hero (more helium!), and the Oilers went into a Nortel-esque tailspin that still may not have hit bottom.
The trade was a sad day in Oilers' history, summed up concisely by Tyler Dellow: "This may be the day that’s most emblematic of the Oilers as a franchise in history. They celebrate the past, point the fans to the future and screw the present." But Tyler's article didn't quite hit me as hard as E's. Every once in a while, when I find myself cheering for Smyth as much as I do for the current club, it's an article I go back and read. Ryan Smyth wasn't just an Oiler. He was, in some odd way, a childhood friend that stuck with me. He was a player who loved the game of hockey. He was a player who loved my country and especially my city. And now, even though he's gone, I can't help but think that Kevin Lowe was still right in 2006. Even though he's gone, and even if Smyth never comes back, he'll still always be an Oiler for life.