Like most goaltenders, Gary Smith of the Vancouver Canucks qualifies as a minor eccentric. "Let's face it," Smith says, "goaltenders have basic insanity problems." Smith, for instance, removes all his equipment—from his shoulder pads to his chest protector to the seven pairs of socks he wears—between each period of every game, then puts it all back on. "I'll do anything to keep my mind off the game," says Smith, who, having been in 63 games, is the workhorse of NHL goalies. On the ice the combative Smith is called "Ax," because he likes to use his stick machete-style on rival players who challenge him. Smith has accumulated 31 minutes in penalties this season, including a record three overlapping penalties in one game.
There would also seem to be a touch of schizophrenia in Gary Smith's psychological profile. When the tension around the Vancouver goal becomes really unbearable, he is famous for going into either his Garo Yepremian act, drop-kicking the puck out to center ice, or a Bobby Orr imitation, skating the puck out to the blue line. The other night in St. Louis, Smith displayed both, kicking a 30-yarder against the Blues and also being body-checked so hard near the blue line that his face mask flew 25 feet into the air, almost landing in the seats.
Seven years of marriage should have conditioned Vicky Smith to what to expect from her husband, the eccentric goaltender, but she was hardly prepared for his latest. Last week, when the weary Canucks, having spent an NHL-record 15 days on the road, arrived back in Vancouver, Smith was sporting a scraggly beard. "The beard," Smith told Vicky, "is my way of protesting the ridiculous road trip we just finished. Sure it looks grubby, but I feel grubby, too." Smith looked so unappealing that his newborn daughter, Sunny, began to cry when he took her from his wife's arms.
For Smith and the Canucks that road trip, including six games in eight nights during one stretch, had been as disastrous as it was ridiculous, the Canucks losing six of the eight games. Fatigued mentally as well as physically, Smith played so poorly toward the end of the junket that Coach Phil Maloney pulled the Ax out of two games to spare him further embarrassment. When the Canucks returned to Vancouver they had lost their seemingly insurmountable 16-point lead over the preseason favorite Chicago Black Hawks in the Smythe Division, and trailed the Hawks by a point. And who was waiting for them in Vancouver? Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita, Bill White and friends, that's who. And, surprise, a suddenly hostile citizenry.
In many ways the Smythe Division is the poverty pocket of the NHL; indeed, when the Canucks and the Hawks squared off for first place last Friday night at the Pacific Coliseum, neither team had as many points as the third-place club in two of the other three divisions or the second-place team in the third. However, the division's low point total was more than offset by the fact that it offered the league's best title race, with Chicago and Vancouver changing places at the top three times in the last week and the third-place St. Louis Blues beginning to mount a serious challenge to both leaders.
The pressure on Smith and his teammates was severe as they prepared to face Chicago. Accustomed to the Canucks' back-of-the-pack finishes in their first four NHL seasons, the Vancouver fans, who have filled the Coliseum to its standing-room capacity of more than 16,000 for every game this season, now regard their team as a first-place club and are not about to accept anything less.
"I'm afraid these guys are a bunch of chokers," said one of the bartenders down at Pip's. Smith growled at the critique. "Realistically, the people around here hoped that we could finish in third place and make the playoffs," he said. "Now maybe we have spoiled them. Listen, when I look at our roster, I don't see any Mikitas or Whites. We've done damn well up to now, and we're not going to fold. But the people shouldn't expect the moon so soon."
Indeed, the Canucks have overcome overwhelming odds in their drive toward hockey respectability. "We don't have any hammers," complains Maloney. By "hammers," he is referring to tough guys who will dig into the corners and, more importantly, protect Andre Boudrias, Bobby Lalonde, Don Lever and the other diminutive skaters that predominate on the Canuck roster. Maloney introduced Operation Harmony to Vancouver last winter when he took complete control of the Canucks and issued a statement that "for the first time ever, the coach and the general manager of the Canucks will get along." Maloney is both the coach and the general manager. "Before he came along," said Smith, "the club was run by a committee of about 10 men—and they had to vote on everything. Things were so confusing that I told them I didn't want to play in Vancouver anymore unless they were willing to improve the hockey club. Now we all know where we're going for a change."
Maloney also laments the outrageous schedule that Vancouver has each season. On one trip the team was required to travel from Detroit to Buffalo with a 24-hour stopover in Vancouver, of all places. "The schedule costs us at least 10 points a year," Maloney says. "When we go on the road, it seems that we're gone for months. Last summer I made a number of trips to the NHL office in Montreal and lobbied for a better schedule. I was well received and the league office promised relief, but when the schedule came out, all we got was the ace of hearts." Then, his voice dripping with sarcasm, Maloney mumbles, "Of course, that's what happens when you don't have 18 championship flags hanging from your ceiling."
Despite these handicaps, the Canucks have endured, thanks to Smith's exceptional goaltending. "We've got one star on this team, Gary Smith," says Forward Chris Oddleifson. "We don't score a whole lot of goals. Heck, we've got only two players [Lever and Winger John Gould] who have scored more than 20, but we work our heads off. Gary appreciates what we do for him, and he works his head off in goal, and that's the whole story behind what we've managed to do."
Smith has taken the tourist route around the NHL, starting in Toronto, moving to California, Chicago and then to Vancouver. "The best two years of my career were spent in Chicago," says Smith, who worked infrequently as Tony Esposito's backup. "I became a real Tony Esposito fan. You can have Bernie Parent and Ken Dryden and that Russian guy, Tretiak, I'll take Esposito. He taught me how to concentrate, for one thing. I used to concentrate by periods, but I'd lose myself halfway through. Tony taught me to concentrate in five-minute cycles. After each five minutes I look at the clock, say 'great' or whatever, then start another five minutes. In other words, the game becomes 12 five-minute cycles."
Last Friday, one of the Black Hawks' trainers walked up to Smith and handed him a large box wrapped with pink paper and a blue bow. Inside the box was a gift from the Espositos for six-week-old Sunny Smith. "Tony would never give it to me himself on the day of a game," said Smith. "I know Tony. He is in his deep haze right now. Getting all psyched up for tonight. I know I'm going to play well. What I'm afraid of is that Tony will throw a big zero at us."
It was a wild but superbly played game, with the noisy Vancouver crowd saving its loudest jeers for the appearance of Chicago Defenseman Keith Magnuson. Earlier in the season Magnuson had broken Chris Oddleifson's jaw with a roundhouse punch. With the feisty Oddleifson on the bench for almost two months, the Canucks frittered away much of their lead. When Magnuson finally skated on the ice three minutes into the first period to help kill off a Chicago penalty, the Coliseum broke out in one loud boo. Moments later, though, the jeer became a cheer as little Boudrias dodged a Magnuson body check and slipped the puck behind Esposito on a Vancouver power play that gave the Canucks a 1-0 lead. As the game went on, it was obvious, too, that Maloney had discovered the "hammer" he insisted the Canucks needed so desperately.
At 6'5" and 225 pounds, 21-year-old Defenseman Bob (Waldo) Dailey is the biggest player in the NHL. Dailey had been on the bench with an injured wrist during most of the disastrous road trip, but now he was returning with a vengeance. In order, he crashed Mikita, Cliff Koroll, Pit Martin and Dennis Hull to the ice, then he removed Hull from a goal-mouth melee with a Mean Joe Greene-style tackle. Aroused by Dailey's aggressiveness, the Canucks recorded a season-high 19 hits during the first period, including eight by Dailey that matched the entire Chicago total. A hit is body contact that leads directly to a loss of the puck. Then, late in the second period, with the Black Hawks looking over their shoulders for the omnipresent Mean Mr. Dailey, the Canucks took a 2-0 lead as Leon (Cheesy) Rochefort, alone in front of the Chicago net, took a pass from Dailey and sent a quick flip past Esposito.
Seconds later the game threatened to get out of hand when Referee Bruce Hood's arm shot up as he passed the Black Hawk bench. One of the Hawks had yelled a not-so-sweet nothing at Hood, and the referee retorted with a bench minor penalty on the Hawks. Then, as the Canucks continued to control the puck, one of the Hawks tapped the referee on the back with his stick. Hood called another bench minor on Chicago. Enraged at the referee, Chicago Coach Billy Reay tried to have spare goaltender Michel Dumas serve one of the bench penalties, clearly a breach of the rules. Spotting Dumas on the ice, Hood called a third bench minor on the Black Hawks for delay of game.
Chicago managed to close the score to 2-1 in the third period when Center Dale Tallon beat Smith from in close, following a Dennis Hull shot that had taken a crazy bounce off the glass. But with two minutes to play Smith and Dailey combined to preserve the Canucks' lead. First Smith tipped a head-on Mikita blast over the net, then Dailey flicked aside a Hull shot that had gotten by his goalie and was going into the net. And so the Canucks were back in first place by a point (at least until the next night when they lost to the New York Islanders 7-5, while Chicago beat Los Angeles 6-1). And what did Smith—now beardless—say to Esposito after the game? Did he thank him for the baby gift? "I didn't say anything," Smith said. "Tony just wanted to know if I had left some cold beers for him with the bus driver." The way the poverty pocket division lead has been seesawing between the Canucks and the Black Hawks, Smith and Esposito will have plenty of chances for conversation come Stanley Cup time.