Al Smith’s best year in the nets might have been in 1977-78, with the New England Whalers, when he won the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA’s best goaltender. Smith, who died on a Wednesday of this date in 2002 at the age of 56, got his pro start as a Toronto Maple Leaf in 1966. Before he retired from puckstopping in 1981, he also saw NHL service with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Hartford, and the Colorado Rockies. He subsequently worked selling cars and ads, picking fruit, and driving taxis. He wrote, too, in his later years, novels, including The Parade Has Passed and The Tragedy of Lake Tuscarora, and a long poem called Raymond Hollywood, and the play Confessions To Anne Sexton.
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That’s a very interesting post-hockey career, and he died scary young. He frustrated the Bruins at times, and it makes me wonder why he never found his spot, not necessarily as a No. 1 but in an NHL tandem like Vachon-Worsley, Cheevers-Johnston, Giacomin-Villemure or Cheevers-Gilbert. Good goalie, but I guess it happened in the WHA. Good for him finding somebody who wanted him.
The very first NHL game that I attended was because of Al Smith. During the summer of 1971 he played defence for the Owen Sound North Stars Sr. A lacrosse team. During the subsequent 1971/72 hockey season, his teammates organized a bus trip to see him play in net for the Detroit Red Wings and fortunately there were a few spare seats, three of which my stepdad secured for us.
The highlight of the game? Not sure who the Wings played or what the score was but I’m pretty sure they lost….the highlight was Smith taking the busload of lacrosse players et al back to his house after the game for a pizza before we wound our way back up the Huron shore to Owen Sound.
From that first game, I realized that pro hockey players were regular guys first and foremost. Smith may have been an NHLer and eligible for all the adulation that goes with the role but for that evening at least I saw him revel in being one of the LAX guys.
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