It was St. Patrick's Day in Denver. Lot of Irishmen in that town, lot of red faces, but none redder than that of the man standing at the London House bar drinking his beer on the rocks. Billy Smith had played goal that night for the New York Islanders in a 5-2 win over the Colorado Rockies, and while that portion of Smith's face not covered by his full, brown beard is always a glowing pink, after a hockey game and some libation it blooms like a rose. He was talking with Glenn (Chico) Resch about the old days. Smith and Resch shared the Islander goaltending duties for nearly eight seasons as New York grew from a struggling expansion club to Stanley Cup champion. Then on March 10, 1981 Resch was traded to the Rockies, now the worst team in hockey, to make room for Rollie Melanson, a hot young prospect.
"There are no surprises in hockey," says Smith. "We knew it was coming, just like I know that in three or four years, I'll be gone. I'll be great trade bait just like Chico was." The Islanders dealt Resch instead of Smith because they had determined that Smith was the best playoff goalie in the NHL. A money goalie. The record proves it: 52 wins and 21 losses in postseason play, a 2.77 playoff goals-against average, two Stanley Cups. This year he has been outstanding again. On Friday night Smith was the difference as the Islanders rolled into the semifinals by eliminating the New York Rangers in six games. While Smith played every game for the Islanders, the Rangers tried three different goalies. Says Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, "When I want to win a hockey game or walk down a dark alley, I know where Smitty will be. He'll be there."
Unfortunately, hockey and dark alleys have gone together since the legendary Conn Smythe, the man who built Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931, declared, "If you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice." Smith is a throwback to that era. "I'm a dying breed," he says. "Not too many guys play like I do anymore. My motto is: 'You live by the sword and you die by it.' And I'm willing to die by it. I've already told my wife that my career is going to end when, sooner or later, somebody gets through to me. But before then a lot of guys are going to fall."
The list of those who have fallen at the hands—or, more accurately, at the stick—of Smith is already substantial. And he's only 31. He has four or five years of his goaltending prime still ahead of him. When Plutarch wrote, "When men are arrived at the goal, they should not turn back," he obviously hadn't foreseen the emergence of Smith. Listen for starters to a 168-pound forward for the Montreal Canadiens named Rejean Houle, who had a run-in with Smith two years ago. "The puck was shot from one point and went straight out to the other point," recalls Houle. "I went behind the net, and when I came out the other side, his [Smith's] stick was ready for me. It was intentional. He had three or four inches of it not taped. In fact, they changed the rule because or him. He took my skin away from my face. I had about 30 stitches, most of them in my chin."
May 2, 1982
Houle is describing a "butt-end," the tactic of hitting someone with the top end of a hockey stick. Except for the "spear," which is stabbing a player with the blade of a stick, the butt-end is probably the most vicious act in the game. Most netminders have always covered the butt-end of their sticks with multiple wrappings of tape. The tape makes it easier to grip the stick and, in effect, puts a cushion on the butt-end. But, as Houle points out, Smith used to start his tape several inches down the handle to leave the top exposed. Smith claims beginning the tape low helped him handle the puck, though he wasn't unaware of the other benefits. "This is a game of intimidation," says Smith, who's 5'10", 195 pounds. "So I said to myself, 'Why play it down?' Guys were skating around going, 'Look at that butt-end of his.' Everyone was scared of it. When you're intimidating—and I'm an intimidating person—why change? It got lots of reactions, and when you hit somebody with an untaped butt-end, it hurt a lot more." (Because of Smith, all NHL goalies now must tape the butt-end of their sticks.)
Such candor is vintage Smith. "They ask me about my violence, and I tell them," he says. "I see guys who spear people—Bobby Clarke, for instance—and then they'll turn around and say, 'I didn't do it.' That's a joke. It's so obvious on television. I'm the type of person who says, 'Yeah, I did it,' when I do something, and I get static because of it. But I don't lie."
"His honesty makes him so vulnerable," said Resch on St. Patrick's Day. Smith listened. The two share a genuine affection for each other, but except for the position they play, they're opposites. Resch is a college graduate, loquacious, friendly and about as violent as a spaniel. Smith never went to college, is abrupt, and for good reason is nicknamed Battlin' Billy. "The only way Smitty can survive is by being honest," Resch said. "Otherwise too much would fester underneath the surface. My only fear is that if he really hurts someone, he'll be crucified. All that stick stuff tends to take away from his real talent. He's one of the best angles goalies in the league. Smitty's play in goal is going to be overshadowed by all this."
"Chico will talk to a wall if it lets him," said Smith.
"He's not as tough as he thinks he is," said Resch. He looked at Smith. "Like, you cry at some movies."
"Only when the bad guy gets shot," said Smith, smiling.
"What's your favorite movie?"
Smith answered without hesitation, "Dirty Harry." They laughed.
Finally Resch said, "Sport can be idealized or you can be brutally realistic about it. You have got to decide how you want to play. Smitty has. He's the epitome of what pro sport is all about—win at all costs. Only five percent of the people will go to the limit that Smitty goes to." Then: "All that about idealism is total hypocrisy."
Goalies have long been a misunderstood lot. They play one of the most demanding positions in sports, psychologically punishing and physically painful. The pain is one-sided: Goaltenders don't hurt a puck; the puck hurts them. The fear of humiliation is great, and few feelings can compare with the millisecond of terror a goalie experiences when an errant shot comes hurtling through space at his head, the crushing blow as it strikes the mask, the immediate blackness. Hall of Fame Goalie Jacques Plante, the inventor of the modern-day face mask, once said, "You can't be a goalkeeper and be afraid to get hit in the face. But you can't be a human being and not think about it."
In the past five years two goalies, Gerry Desjardins and Bernie Parent, have had their careers shortened by eye injuries. Hall-of-Famer Glenn Hall has described goaltending as "60 minutes of hell." Hall used to sit before his locker on game nights, pale as death, holding a towel to his mouth, burping up vomit. Night after night over an 18-year career with Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. Former Bruins netminder Eddie Johnston, now coach of Pittsburgh, was once struck on the temple in a pregame warmup by a shot off Bobby Orr's stick. Johnston was taken to a hospital, where doctors discovered a blood clot on his brain. He lost nearly 40 pounds in three days and experienced memory lapses for more than a month.
The pressures of the position stay with a goaltender. He can't help but take them home. Roger Crozier developed ulcers at 17. Plante was known as a hypochondriac, constantly complaining of skin rashes, migraines and sinus problems—all of which he blamed on the strain of tending goal. A goalie named Wilf Cude, who played for four NHL teams from 1930 to 1941, was having a steak one night when his wife made an innocuous comment about a hockey game. In at least one version of the story, the red light of the stove flashed on as she was talking, and something in Cude snapped. He picked up the steak and fired it at his wife. He missed, and before the meat had slithered down the wall, Cude had decided to retire.
Suffice it to say that hockey fans have come to expect peculiar behavior from goaltenders. It goes with the turf. In a recent Playboy magazine interview, the comedian George Carlin said, "There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment; the other strives not to let his environment control him." Goalies are almost exclusively the latter. As puck and players whirl about the rink, the goaltender is an observer, trying to keep control of his faculties for the moment when he will have to react to a shot. In fact, almost every action a goalkeeper takes is a reaction to something over which he has no control. He's constantly on the defensive, and even when he has the opportunity to pass the puck, his purpose is more often to get it out of his territory than to initiate an offensive rush.
The position seems to demand a humble, fatalistic temperament, perhaps because the scoreboard keeps such relentless track of a goalie's errors: one...two...three.... There's always something the goaltender could have done differently. And if there isn't, if he has done everything right and the puck has still eluded him, well, what could be more humbling than that? When his club falls behind, four...five.... six..., all a goalie can do is hope his teammates will bail him out. Most often that's like waiting for Godot.
Not Smith. He's that other type of person, who strives to control his environment. He may react to pucks, but he also acts upon opposing forwards like a barroom bouncer. Smith's 281 career penalty minutes are an NHL record for goalies, and he shows no signs of mellowing with age. "He's meaner than ever, but he controls his anger better these days," says Islander Captain Denis Potvin. Fittingly, Smith is the only goaltender ever to score a goal in the NHL. It happened against Colorado in 1979, after the Rockies had pulled their goalie. Smith made a save, and a Colorado player passed the rebound blindly back to his defense. The puck slid all the way down the ice into the empty net, and because Smith was the last Islander to touch the puck, he was credited with the goal.
Smith had nearly scored two years earlier against Colorado, but that time matters ended in disaster. The Rockies, trailing 3-2, pulled their goalie in the closing seconds of a game. Smith made a save, but this time he was the first player to the loose puck. "He saw that empty net and fired the puck looking for history," recalls Torrey. "But Paul Gardner knocked it out of the air and put it in the net Smitty had vacated, tying the game. Smitty wasn't fined, but he sure got his butt chewed for that."
Smith simply refuses to play defensively. Nor is he humble or fatalistic. Asked if any other position in sport is similar to that of goaltender, Smith answers quarterback. He's at the center. The action revolves around him, and he has as much to say about the pace of a game as any player on the ice. "We had one game in Los Angeles when Bryan Trottier was tackled—literally tackled—behind the net," says Smith. "He got up and told the ref to get into the damn game, and the guy gave Trottier an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Los Angeles scored while we were shorthanded, so Bobby Bourne skated by the ref and said, 'Way to go, homer.' The ref gave Bourne an unsportsmanlike conduct. We were behind, so I went up to the ref and said, 'O.K., we've lost the game; it's over as far as I'm concerned. You've cost me a hockey game, and I'm going to make you pay!' So when [Dave] Taylor went through my crease, I butt-ended him and then I tried to start a riot."
"He nailed me right in the solar plexus," says Taylor. "I was laid out a couple of minutes. I was pretty stunned."
The list of players Smith has antagonized over the years reads like a Who's Who of hockey tough guys. Dave Semenko. Dave (Tiger) Williams. Larry Robinson. Terry O'Reilly. Paul Holmgren. Lindy Ruff. "He's not prejudiced," says Philadelphia's Holmgren, who received five stitches in his chin last season courtesy of Smith. "He'll whack at anybody who goes into his territory."
"When I first came into the league we went at it every game," says Williams, who started his career in Toronto before being traded to Vancouver. "I had a stick swinging fight with him one time—I've still got a picture of it hanging on my wall. The thing about Billy is that he doesn't make any attempt to hide the fact that he's hitting you. He just clubs you. But he only does it when his team is either way ahead or losing. He picks his spots and doesn't get burned by a penalty at the wrong time very often."
Smith recalls the Williams incident well. "Tiger almost broke my neck that night," he says. "I whacked him around the ankles, and he swung his stick baseball-bat style as hard as he could. I put my head down, but he caught me right behind the ear and shoved my head all the way across to my other shoulder. My neck was stiff for about three days, but I held no grudge against Tiger. I laughed. Today we have sort of an unspoken agreement to give each other a little extra room."
Ordinarily, if an opponent slashes at a goaltender—never mind nearly decapitates him—the goalie's entire team rushes to his defense. Not so with Smith and the Islanders. "I have a standing agreement with my guys that if I start something, I handle it," he says. "I don't want them coming in. Why should one of our valuable guys risk getting thrown out of the game when they know that three-quarters of the time I instigate the incident? If you're going to play dirty, if you're going to hit a Holmgren, you're going to have to drop your gloves and be a man. If he's going to pound you, let him pound you. I feel I'm a pretty good fighter, and I enjoy it. If I have time, I'll take my helmet off. When he was with Toronto, Lanny McDonald gave me time one night, and I took my helmet off for him."
That wasn't one of Smith's smarter moves, according to Williams, who was with the Maple Leafs when Smith and McDonald squared off. "It was one of the few fights Lanny had that year," says Williams, "and he landed some good shots. Smith said after the game his mistake was taking off his mask."
The territory Smith unapologetically defends is the crease, that four-by-eight-foot section in front of the net that is the exclusive domain of the goaltender until the puck enters the area. Anything or anyone that a goalie can belt with his stick while he's within it is, according to Smith's way of looking at things, fair game. "I will never take two steps out of my net to hit anybody," says Smith. "Unless I can just reach out and do it comfortably, then I'm not going to do it. But if a guy is coming right in front of me, I'll give it to him. I have to."
Or if a guy's coming around in back of Smith, as Wayne Gretzky learned earlier this season. The Islanders were trailing Edmonton 3-1 when Gretzky circled behind the New York net to make a play. "I never let anybody come out from behind my net," says Smith. "It's a major asset of mine." To protect his rear, he swings his stick in a low arc around one side of the net and behind it with such force that the stick has been known to knock an opponent's stick from his hands. Smith works on this move in practice, as Trottier can attest, and has strengthened his right hand by practicing with a specially made, extra-heavy goalie stick.
Smith's stick struck Gretzky between the left Shinpad and the thighpad, and Gretzky crumpled. After trying to skate a couple of more shifts, he was forced to leave the game, and the Islanders came back to win 4-3. The predictable furor that followed has given Smith no pause. "The only thing I hate about Wayne is he's getting to be too much of a crybaby," Smith says. "Take your lumps and accept them. I got a lot of aggravation from the league and bad press because of that incident. It's not like I went for his guts or his head. I just threw my stick behind the net and he took a dive. I'll tell you one thing right now—the next time I hit him it won't be a dive."
Why does Smith do it? He says he's merely trying to do his job, trying to keep the puck out of the net. To a man, NHL coaches are devotees of Plutarch: "When men are arrived at the goal, they should not turn back." Smith estimates that 30% of the goals scored in the NHL are screen shots, and another 40% are tipped in from directly in front of the net. He says unless the puck is in the corner, a goalie should never back into his net farther than the outside edge of the crease, so if an opponent stands with his skates inches outside the crease, contact is inevitable. And the slightest bump can knock the goalie off-balance.
"Montreal and Philadelphia are the worst at interfering," says Smith. "And Buffalo. All of Scotty Bowman's teams do it. One time I hit Larry Robinson of Montreal in the face with my stick. He'd gone by me as a shot was coming on a power play and speared my pads. You see, that's all legal to them. 'I didn't hurt you,' Robinson said. 'All I did was hit your pad.' Meanwhile your foot goes back, you're off-balance and you can't do anything. They feel that's O.K. I feel my butt-ending is O.K."
Smith is not making this up. All goal-tenders experience constant interference, though few can do much about it. Says Quebec Goalie Dan Bouchard, "Some nights I try to be more aggressive, but I find it very difficult to watch the play, the puck and the other team all at the same time. If Smith can do it all, good for him."
Adds Resch, "Smitty has this idea that to play well he has got to go outside the limits of playing goal. The last time we played the Islanders one of our guys, Bobby MacMillan, broke in alone on him. Smitty came out and checked him with a shoulder. I mean he stood MacMillan up. No one had ever seen anything like it—it was like everyone had missed a beat out there. You could see MacMillan give Smitty a look like, 'Why can't you just play goal?' Really, no one-had ever seen anything like it. Some of the guys on our bench started yelling. 'Shoot the puck at Smith's head.' I was saying, 'What are you, crazy? He's got a mask on. Shoot it by him.' Physical intimidation by a goaltender? That's bizarre. That's coming from a different zone."
The bottom line—whether it's despite of or because of his combative style—is that Smith is a winner. Indeed, no goal-tender had as good a regular season. He led the NHL in wins with 32 in 46 games, and his goals-against average was 2.97, third-best in the league. Says Buffalo's Bowman, who has coached Hall, Plante and Ken Dryden, "The most important thing about a goalie is how the team plays in front of him. If the Islanders are battling, they're so much harder to beat, and a lot of times Smith will start something in the third or fourth minute of a game just to get them going. He definitely arouses his team. If he were more placid, the Islanders wouldn't be as effective."
The "book" on Smith—where to shoot on him—is pretty confusing. Buffalo says to aim low to his glove side; Los Angeles says to go high to his glove side; Montreal says to shoot low, either side; St. Louis says to shoot high. Houle says, "Smith makes saves and tries to hit you with his glove at the same time." Obviously, Houle is still very bitter. Some teams, particularly Philadelphia and Boston, attempt to distract Smith by bumping him in an effort to make him angry, while others believe this ploy only improves his concentration. Smith agrees.
Fact is, Smith has no exploitable weakness, and he has different styles for different teams. "Some teams you protect low, some you protect high." he says. "You have to do that. Chico and I are the only goalies in the league who can change our styles."
Says Resch, who probably knows his old partner's techniques better than anyone, "I try to give our guys some tips on how to beat Smitty, but the way he'll play depends on what mood he's in that night. What makes Gretzky so great? He's unpredictable. That's what makes Smitty a great goalie."
And maybe the best rule when playing against him is to keep your head up.
Smith grew up in Perth, Ontario, a town of about 5,000 that didn't have an indoor hockey rink—at least not one that wasn't condemned. His father, Joe, who died of cancer six years ago, had come over from Belfast as a 16-year-old. Joe worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and painted houses in his free time to buy his three sons hockey equipment. William, as Smith is called by his family, was the youngest of the children (he has one sister), and in the great tradition of Canadian families, he was coaxed into the nets by his older brothers, Gordie, now 32, and Jack, now 36. Gordie played six years in the NHL as a defenseman for Washington and Winnipeg.
Joe coached the boys until they were 14. He flooded the backyard and strung up lights so they could play after dark. If it snowed during the night, he would shovel the rink before going to work. "My father was a typical Irishman," says Smith. "He always said, 'If you can't stand somebody and he's hanging around, tell him right to his face. Don't say it behind his back.' The town youth teams he coached made the all-Ontario tournament so many times it would make your head spin, and you know why? He had kids playing for him that nobody else would even go near because they were supposedly problem kids. But they loved my dad. He used to go up to the older kids in town and say, 'You're going to be nothing but a bum if you don't smarten up.' If anybody else had said that to them, they would've pounded the hell out of him, but they all respected my father."
When Billy turned 14 he began playing for the nearby Smith Falls junior team. For three years he was a backup and rarely got into a game. In his last season of junior hockey, 1969-70, he performed for the Cornwall (Ontario) Royals, and then he was drafted by the L.A. Kings, who offered him a $7,000 contract and a $2,000 signing bonus. That was in 1970. "I'd heard about all these other guys making a lot of money," says Smith, "so I called up my dad and asked him if I should try to get some more. He said, 'What do you mean, more? What have you done? You haven't proved yourself. You take what they offer you and you play and prove yourself.' I made $10,000 the next year. I have the worst luck negotiating contracts."
The Kings sent Smith to the Springfield Indians, and he led them to the AHL championship. The next season he again played at Springfield, though Los Angeles brought him up for the last two months of the schedule. In one of the five games he played, he got into a fight, attracting the attention of Torrey, who was putting together the expansion Islanders of 1972. "He was playing against the Canadiens, and the Kings were losing about 8-1," recalls Torrey. "Even with eight goals in his net, he was playing like it was the last game of the Stanley Cup. He was a battler even then, and that's an ingredient that can have very positive effects. When you looked at comparative statistics, the best minor league goalie at that time was Dan Bouchard. But I had a friend who said that, even though Bouchard was better mechanically, he wasn't the team man Smith was. So we preferred Smith."
The Islanders needed only three seasons to become a winning club, and by 1978-79 New York had passed Montreal as the premier team in the NHL in the regular season. In the playoffs, however, the Islanders were known as chokers, having never advanced past the semifinals. In 1978 they lost to a clearly inferior Toronto team in the quarterfinals, and disaster struck again in 1979, when the hated Rangers humiliated the Islanders in the semis.
"The reason we lost to Toronto was we weren't willing to get hurt to win," says Smith. "Too many guys on our team weren't willing to sacrifice. Same thing happened against the Rangers." Smith played only 2½ periods in the Maple Leaf series. Against the Rangers he won two of the three games he started.
"The next year I heard [Boston's] Gerry Cheevers say he was a money goal-tender," says Smith, "and I thought, 'I'm as much a money goaltender as he is.' So I came out and said it: I play when it counts.' The pressure of playing in the playoffs is bad enough, but I came out and put my name on the line and said, 'Hey, I'm not going to be the one to screw up; I'm going to give you great hockey, and all I want you guys to do is work for me.' "
In the 1980 playoffs the Islanders played Smith ahead of Resch, and New York defeated Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo and Philadelphia en route to its first Stanley Cup. Smith was spectacular throughout, and the Islanders showed the combativeness they had lacked in their previous postseason appearances.
"Trottier and Smitty were our two key players in the first Stanley Cup," says Torrey. "Goalkeeping was a major factor that year. Last season, when we won again, Smitty wasn't as indispensable, but he was always there, and the players had confidence that he would be there when they were off their game. He could carry the team until it got back on the right track."
You never really know how valuable a particular goalie is to a championship team until he's missing. Bowman sees a parallel between Smith and Dryden, who back-stopped Montreal to six Stanley Cups in his eight playoffs. "Dryden never got the acclaim he should have, but it really built the confidence of a coach having a goalie like that," says Bowman. "He could sense when the club was having an off night, and he seemed to play harder at those times."
In the three years since Dry-den's retirement, the Canadiens and the Islanders both have amassed 319 points in regular season play, tops in the NHL. However, Montreal has yet to advance beyond the second round in the playoffs, while the Islanders, who have two consecutive Stanley Cups under their belt and are the favorites now to win a third, are viewed as the dominant team in the league. "When clubs are that close over that long a time," says Bowman, "the difference comes from goaltending in the playoffs. That Islander team is just more confident when Smith is in the net."
Bowman had a chance to view Smith's skills firsthand last summer as coach of Team Canada during the Canada Cup series. He came away from the experience with renewed admiration for Islander Coach Al Arbour. "Scotty told someone that Al and I deserved a medal for dealing with Smitty all year long," says Torrey. Smith, who had just opened the Billy Smith Employment Agency in Melville, N.Y., wasn't wild about the idea of playing in the Canada Cup in the first place, especially when he wasn't guaranteed a starting spot—that would go to St. Louis' Mike Liut, everyone's first-team All-Star goaltender in the NHL last year. Smith hates to practice. Can't stand it. And the Team Canada training camp opened more than a month before the Islander camp. But Torrey was an adviser to Team Canada, and he talked Smith into attending.
"It was a no-win situation for me," says Smith. "If I didn't go, I'd get cut up in the press. If I went, I knew I wouldn't play. I'm the type of guy who's got to be pampered. I've got to know that you've either put, your money on me or you haven't. I'm not a practice goaltender. But I went, and let me tell you, I raised a lot of gray hairs on some guys."
Smith has an acute fear of getting injured in practice. One of the drills Team Canada used had forwards cutting in front of the net and backhanding shots toward the top corner of the goal. Smith took one look at this drill and said, "Yeah, fine." He stood against a goalpost, with his stick glove covering his groin and his catching glove over his face and wouldn't move. "Assistant Coach Red Berenson came up to me and said, 'My God, what are you doing?' " recalls Smith. "I told him, 'This drill is no damn good. Have you ever played nets?' He said, 'No.' And I said, 'Well, I do. I know what I'm talking about; this drill is useless.' " And that was that. Smith refused to participate. He started hiding in the whirlpool when the team went for its daily run, and if someone discovered him, he'd moan about a sore back.
"At the Team Canada camp everybody was working hard," says Potvin, one of six Islanders on the squad, "but Smitty didn't work on or off the ice. People would ask us, 'Is he always like that?' and Clarkie [Gillies] would say, 'No, he's usually worse.' It wouldn't have been fair to Liut, who also had a great year, if they'd played Smitty in the games, but knowing what I know, I would have chosen Smitty. I don't think the Europeans have ever seen anybody like him. It is completely different when somebody breaks away against Liut and when somebody breaks away against Smitty. With Smitty, the puck may go into the net, but that player may never want to break away again."
Smith's worst fears about practicing were confirmed when he broke the middle finger on his left hand in a workout during the Canada Cup series. Mike Bossy, his Islander teammate, slapped a puck rolling near the cage, and it shot up at Smith's head. Smith threw his glove up to deflect the puck, and it struck the back of his hand. "It was a dumb, dumb thing that Bossy did," says Smith. "I have great reflexes, but there's no way in a million years I can move when he's that close. I said to him, 'Where's your head?' What the skaters don't realize is that if I get hit high in practice, the next day I'm automatically going to pull up in the game. There's no way I can stop it, because they have put the fear in me. I can't shake it. When I first came up and guys did that, I speared them. I've dropped gloves with teammates several times. I hit Potvin once and almost put him out. Al finally said, 'You've got to stop it.' But they were trying to hurt me, so I was going to hurt them."
Smith doesn't distinguish between deliberate and accidental injury. Injury is injury. If you're a professional, either you can play or you can't. "He sees things in black and white," says Resch. "There are no grays. It's like he's got blinders on, and in pro sports that works."
One aspect of hockey that definitely falls into the black category for Smith is off-ice conditioning. One year Arbour asked him to ride a stationary bicycle at the start of training camp. He did so, and returned the next day stiff and sore. "I told Al, 'Do you want a hockey player or a bicyclist?' " says Smith. " 'If you want a bicyclist, I'll ride that thing into the ground. If you want a hockey player, I won't get on it again.' " He didn't.
Another time Arbour wanted his goalies, Smith and Resch, to lift weights and play soccer with the rest of the team instead of playing tennis to work on their hand-eye coordination. "Al was trying to be nice about it, saying we could play tomorrow if we'd just go along with him that once," says Resch. "Smitty's voice started to crack and his legs began shaking—that's when you can really tell he's mad—and I swear Al was physically intimidated. 'All right, all right, go play tennis,' he told us."
Says Potvin, "You don't handle Smitty. You give him enough room and try to put a corral around him."
Off the ice, however, Smith is anything but a mad dog. He has not, as yet, fired a T-bone at his wife, Debbie, or butt-ended either of his two boys, Chad, 6, or Corey, 5. He's a good, attentive father and husband who can leave behind the pressures of his position as well as any goaltender can. On game days he likes to keep to himself, sleeping most of the time and making as few decisions as possible, right down to what clothes to wear, which he leaves to Debbie's discretion. Occasionally, he'll take in a war movie to get in the mood for hockey, but as a rule he won't watch television the day of a game. "You can't go to the rink and play mean if you're laughing and joking before," says Smith. "But I'm better than I used to be. Now on a game day, I can talk to Debbie, even straighten out the kids if they're doing something wrong. Before I couldn't do that."
One matter Smith is straightening his boys out on is the notion of getting into the goal. "I won't allow my kids to play it," he says. "Chad is always trying to get into the net in ball hockey or whatever. I tell him to get out of there, because I know what I have to go through. Because of the pressure. It tears your guts apart in the playoffs."
Smith arrives at the rink on game days in a near trance. He doesn't talk to teammates, and during the warmups he just hopes some fool doesn't blast one at his noggin. He saves all his energy for the game. Afterward it's time to quaff lager, win or lose. "The league's dying," he says. "All the partyers are gone."
Two years ago Smith ran into the Oilers' Semenko in a Long Island bar. In the game that night Smith had hit Semenko in the face, opening a cut that required six stitches. Semenko had responded by blind-siding Smith with his gloved fist, knocking Smith's mask high into the air. In the bar, when Smith saw Semenko's stitches, he laughed and offered him his hand. Semenko refused to shake it. "What is it, bad attitude?" Smith asked Semenko's companion.
"I'm going to get even," Semenko said.
"O.K., just don't miss, 'cause I won't," Smith replied.
Says Smith now, "You couldn't get me in a fight in a bar if you poured a drink on me. Not that anyone's ever really tried. A lot of players think I'm crazy, so a lot of fans must think I'm crazy, too."
Even some of his teammates might agree. Potvin never feels totally secure around Smith's net—in practice or in games. "I get whacked, too, sometimes," he says, "or his stick will come right by my nose when he swings to clear the puck. I'll go along with anybody who says he could tone that down." Assistant Coach Lorne Henning delicately says that "a lot of the forwards on the team really don't like that sort of thing." In nine years playing for the Islanders, Henning was only cut once by a goalie. Guess who? "Smitty tried to tap Phil Esposito as Espo was coming by the net," recalls Henning. "He missed and got me for six stitches." No one is safe.
"A lot of the Islanders don't understand what he does," says Resch, "but they want him beside them in a pinch. It's the old theory: All goons are bad—except my goon. You can only blame Smitty to a point, and then the blame has to be switched to the Islanders' management and the league. The NHL hasn't disciplined him. Look at football; I see a guy was fined $2,000 for spearing a quarterback. I see guys swinging their sticks in hockey, and not just Smitty, who don't get fined." Indeed, the NHL has never fined Smith a dime for wielding his stick, and the Islander management openly admires his combativeness.
So what should we think of him? First, he doesn't really care what outsiders think of him. Oh sure, everyone likes to be loved a little bit, but public opinion will never change this man. "That's me," says Smith unrepentantly. If you number among his close friends or his family, he cares deeply what you think of him. And he cares what Torrey thinks of him, seeing as Torrey determines Smith's salary; he is finishing the first season of a six-year deal that pays him about $250,000 per annum including bonuses.
The money motivates Smith, and he doesn't pretend otherwise. So don't be surprised when, at the completion of the Islanders' last playoff game, win or lose, he refuses to line up with his teammates and shake the hands of the opposing team. He never has, and he says he never will. Handshakes are for the bars. On the ice, he is all business. Hockey is his business.
"I would give my kids a damn good licking if they played tennis and wouldn't shake hands afterward," says Smith. "My words would be, 'Son, are you losing any money from playing tennis?' They'd say, 'No.' 'You're doing this for fun, right?' 'Yes.' 'When Daddy's on the ice, Daddy's doing it because he has to feed you and pay the bills. I don't want to do it; I have to do it. It's my livelihood. You do what you have to do to make money.' "
That is, more or less, Smith's philosophy. Resch is right; Smith is the epitome of pro sports. He is brutally honest in the way that professional sports are brutally honest when it comes time to cut a veteran. The lesson Smith teaches us is that the difference between the amateur and the professional is the same as the difference between the amateur fisherman and the fish. For one, the fight is sport; for the other, it is life. Smith knows the difference more clearly, perhaps, than we are prepared to hear. Or see. Pro sport is a world of blacks and whites ideally suited for his talents.