EDMONTON — Whether it’s the analytics set, or that crusty old scout whose eyeballs tell him everything he needs to know about a hockey player, Ryan Smyth’s most valuable qualities were always buried deep.
There was always a fancier player on the ice, or someone with more points. Few, however, took the qualities that Canadians value from their hockey players and wrapped them into a package that screamed “Sudbury, Saturday Night” the way Smyth did with his mullet, wooden blade and never-ending work ethic.
“I am who you see,” he said Friday, on the eve of his retirement from the National Hockey League. “I try to enjoy every moment and take time for people who pay a hard-earned buck to come watch us play.”
He entered as Edmonton’s second option behind — wait for it — Jason Bonsignore at the 1994 draft, and the truth is, Smyth would never have become that blood ‘n’ guts winger for the Edmonton Oilers for all these years had it not been for dearly departed scout Lorne Davis, who put his job on the line at that Hartford draft 20 years ago.
The Oilers took Bonsignore with the No. 4 overall pick in 1994, and they had the No. 6 pick too. Some of the scouts wanted to draft Ethan Moreau, Bonsignore’s linemate in Niagara Falls.
“Lorne says, ‘Why are we drafting the linemate of a guy who’s never going to play?’” recalls son Brad Davis, now an Oilers scout.
“If you’re not going to take Smyth, there’s no sense me being at this table,” Lorne told Glen Sather, according to son Darryl. Sather went with Davis, drafted Smyth, and “my Dad’s eyes would glisten every time he talked about Smytty.”
Bonsignore flamed out, playing 21 games with Edmonton and just 79 overall.
On Saturday night at Rexall Place in Edmonton, with the Vancouver Canucks in town for the season finale, Smyth, 38, will close his pregame warmup by tossing three pucks over the glass to three waiting kids. It will be the 1,270th time he has done it, marking his 1,270th and final game in the NHL. That’s 3,810 kids whose hearts were warmed by a player whose furnace always had heat to spare.
He became a player who mailed $1,000 envelopes to the trainers during the lockout, knowing they were likely running a little lean. A guy who loved to whack the announcer on the butt with his stick as he walked by, but would call that same reporter back from the cottage during a Stanley Cup final in June when you wanted some insight into what made Tomas Holmstrom’s job so tough.
His own coach, Craig MacTavish, once joked of Smyth’s shot, “You could read Gary Bettman’s signature as it flew past.” But a long-time opponent, Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, told me back in 2006, “there is no one better in front of the net than Ryan Smyth in this game. He’s not the biggest man, but you can’t get him out of there. He’s got that mastered.”
With his wrist shot, pure as a spun gold, Sakic’s goals were gourmet fare. Smyth? His style was more McRib. He could fit four goals into the same combined distance that Sakic would score one, but as the old line goes, “They don’t ask how, huh? They ask how many.”
Sakic had more goals, of course. But as someone asked Friday, “Who do you think had more stitches?”
Asked for his career highlight, after winning an Olympic gold, and reaching Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup, Smyth said, “The highlight of my career is playing 1,000 games, and coming back and being an Edmonton Oiler.”
You expected something complicated?
Not from a guy who was dumb like a fox, answering the questions about his net-crashing style by saying, “Well, I figured out pretty early on that that’s where the puck is supposed to end up.”
Smyth ended up playing more games than any other player from that 1994 draft class, and his goals (386) and points (842) trail only Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Elias. His hero’s office may have been behind the net, but Smyth’s was right at the top of the crease, where he wore the Derian Hatchers and Robyn Regehrs like winter parkas for 18 seasons.
Doug Weight was the Oilers’ first-line centre when Smyth showed up for the 1995-96 campaign, and Smyth would be his left-winger for a good five seasons in Edmonton.
“He was so eager when he showed up, to just to fit in. He was that character in Bull Durham, Nuke LaLoosh,” Weight recalls. “He was, ‘What do I need to learn? Teach me something!’ He was sitting at the back of the bus on his the first day, wanting to learn everything from every veteran. On the ice 20 minutes before the practice started, and 30 minutes after it ended.
“His wall play over that four-, five-year period was near the best in the game,” said Weight, a 1,000-point player who had 755 career assists. “The great thing for a passer, as much as I prided myself on making good passes, was that you didn’t have to be perfect with Ryan. Just get it to his area. He wasn’t a wheelhouse guy. He’d whack and smack with that big paddle, and had the ability to get pucks five-hole where for everyone else, it would just be a save.”
And if Plan A didn’t work, Plan B was obvious: “When in doubt throw it to the paint,” Weight said.
Plan B for the Edmonton Oilers back in 1994 worked out pretty well too.
I’d watch tonight. Smyth might have one goal left in him, and if he does, you’ll wish you were there.