the right way to rout: do not purposely avoid scoring against a team that has already lost

While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincingand a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).

Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18thin the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?

There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.

If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.

Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”

Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”

And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”

Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.

Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?

W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”

Final score: 11-0.

Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”

A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”

One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of ourteams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.

Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.

Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”

By The Banks Of The Not-So-Blue Danube: Wilf Paiement’s 1977 World Championships sweater, and the team in happier, pre-rout formation. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.

A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.

“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”

Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”

The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.

The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”

In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.

Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.

Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.

And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?

Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”

That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.

“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.

GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.

Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easypoor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.

“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.

The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”

She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”

Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”

Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”

Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.

Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.

You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.

Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t ant to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”

 

happy birthday, 1986: fuhrsie was late getting back in the net, and smitty just tried to cut the corner

It was his birthday, of course, happened to be. I can’t say how much that multiplied the misery for the man in question, if at all, or how much of a sting he still feels, 32 years on from that day in 1986 — like yesterday, April’s last — when, as a rookie defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers, he scored what has become hockey’s most famous self-inflicted goal, which I (obviously) don’t have to specify further due to how notorious it is, though maybe I should all the same (just to be clear) by naming the man now synonymous with putting a puck past your own surprised goaltender: Steve Smith.

Calgary was in Edmonton that long-ago day, playing Game 7 of the Smythe Division Final. Smith was 63 games into his career with the Oilers, who were hunting their third Stanley Cup in a row. He’d just turned — was still not finished turning — 23. The score was tied 2-2 when, at 5:14 of the third period, Smith found himself behind his own net, rapping the puck off Grant Fuhr’s leg, into that net, to score the goal that not only won the reviled Flames the game but eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs.

Owning It: Smith sags, Flames celebrate

So, a big mistake. But other defencemen have done what Steve Smith did, in important games, as have lots of forwards. He’s the only one to have had his entire career as a hockey player reduced to a single misdirected pass. As recently as 2016, a writer in a major American magazine referred to Smith as having suffered “perhaps the most devastating embarrassment the NHL has ever seen.”Really — ever? How is it that his goal has become both the exemplar for hockey self-scoring and, for Smith, the act that has come to define an otherwise distinguished 16-year career on NHL bluelines to those of us who were watching the game in the 1980s? And how can that be fair?

I take this all a little personally. Smith is a player I’ve followed with special interest since he first skated into the NHL. At first my attention was almost entirely nominal. He’s not much older than me, and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario, just to the south of where I was in Peterborough. I ended up taller; he managed to win many more Stanley Cups than I ever could. It wasn’t hard to imagine his career as my own. No problem at all: I’ve got way more imagination, in fact, than I do actual hockey skills, so it was easy to fancy myself out there, numbered 5, in William-of-Orange/Oiler colours, alongside the most exciting players of the age, Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and Coffey. Smith wasn’t exciting, but I liked his lanky style, which had just a hint, in those early years, of my own trying-too-hard clumsiness. I felt for him in 1986, and maybe even thought I could help him shoulder the burden. I couldn’t, of course — how could I? For a long time, years, any time I got on the ice for a beer-league game I did think demon thoughts about shooting the puck past my own goaltender midway through the third period. I never did it, though I’m pretty sure some of my teammates expected me to, also — especially the goaltenders.

•••

Smith’s old goal is old news, but it’s also (like everything else) as current and quick-to-the-fore as your Google search window. Search (go on) and the page that beams up with an efficiency that’s easy to mistake for eagerness shows Smith prostrate on the ice after the goal and tearful in the dressing room.

The goal has eternal life, of course, on YouTube. Funny Moments In Sports — Steve Smith Scores On Himself the footage there tends to be titled, and the commentaries run on and on. Some of them do their best to exonerate Smith —

Grant Fuhr should have been hugging the post when Smith attempted his pass

— while others are more interested in forensic dissections:

After about 50 viewings over 20 years, I finally see how it happened… Fuhr’s stick came downwards just as Smith passed the puck, and it went off Fuhr’s stick and in, Smith thought there was a lane there to clear it cause Fuhr’s stick was up at the time… does that sound right?

There’s every degree of pity, and plenty of character-witnessing—

Poor guy

if i didnt know any better it looks almost as if that was purposely done. but still i feel sorry for smith

this isnt funny

i played for steve smith. greatest guy in the world.

People enjoy the goal as entertainment —

lol you know whats funny. next season, when the oilers played the flames in the saddledome, flames fans would yell “SHOOOOT!!” when smith was behind his net looking for a play LOLOLOL. by the way, the 07 stanley cup was won by almost the exact same “anti-play”

and also count it as revenge —

Steve Smith is also the guy who made a dirty play that took Pavel Bure into the boards and hurt his knee. Bure was never the same again. Smith took out the most exciting player in the game at that time, what a jerk.

A conclusion drawn by some online commentators on the Smith goal?

oilers suck.

More formal reviews of what happened were plentiful, of course. Terry Jones was one who described the goal for newspaper readers the next morning with minimal drama:

When Steve Smith passed the puck from behind his net and hit goaltender Grant Fuhr on the back of his left leg, the puck bounced into the net, breaking a 2-2 tie and breaking the backs of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

Jones wrote for The Edmonton Sun, so the headline went for maximum blare:

BIGGEST BLUNDER EVER?

For a lede he went with “one of the biggest bonehead plays in the history of all sport.” There was a lot of that. Infamyis another  word that repeats through subsequent accounts of the goal, almost as abundantly as gaffe. Mentions of mortal woundsand witness protection programsfollow on allusions to the caprice of the hockey gods. The Oilers’ collective overconfidencewas seen early on as a contributing factor to what happened to them via Smith’s own goal, along with their arrogance.

Smith’s birthday featured prominently in the coverage, e.g. Rex MacLeod’s Toronto Star lede asserting that he will never forget the one in which he aged a lifetime.

Often recalled in the aftermath was the fact that Smith only played that night because Lee Fogolin was injured.

Flames’ winger Perry Berezan got the credit for the goal as the last Calgary player to touch the puck. “I think I am the only man in history to score a series-winning goal from the bench,” he said later. “I had dumped the puck into the Edmonton zone when I was front of my own bench, and I didn’t even see it go in. I remember how strange it was on the bench when the goal was scored. It was quiet. We were asking, What just happened?and guys were saying, Steve Smith bounced the puck off of Fuhr. It’s a goal!

That’s a later take, so far as I can determine. On the night, Berezan was quoted as saying, “This is too unbelievable to be true” and “I couldn’t dream it any better.”

There was wide acknowledgement in those contemporary accounts that Berezan was the only native-born Edmontonian on Calgary’s roster, and that his birthday was Christmas Day, following which he grew up as an Oilers’ fan. Also: his uncle was the organist at the Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.

Berezan’s sympathy took year’s to emerge into the wild: until 2016, in fact, when Ben Arledge at ESPN The Magazine stirred the grave of Smith’s unmeant goal. This is the piece wherein you’ll see Smith’s mortification rated “the most devastating” the NHL has ever witnessed; other than that, it’s plausible. Berezan, interestingly, tells Arledge that he wanted to say something to Smith back in ’86, but he was 21, and some of the Flames veterans told him never to feel sorry for a beaten opponent, and so he kept quiet, not a word. “But,” he says, “I felt terrible for the guy.”

I doubt that Lanny McDonald was one of those unnamed veterans implicated here — that just doesn’t sound like Lanny. In the moment, right after it was over, McDonald made clear that Smith really had no choice in the matter. “When I saw the goal go in,” McDonald confided in the Calgary dressing room that night, “I couldn’t believe it. Then I felt it was meant to be. We did a lot of praying in this room and God finally answered our prayers.”

Huge, if true.

At the time, the Oilers seemed to have no inkling that He’d forsaken them. Over in their room, they were still focussed on the passion of Steve Smith.

“It’s not his fault,” Wayne Gretzky was saying after the Oilers had failed to tie it up. “One goal did not lose these playoffs.”

Rex MacLeod of The Toronto Star described him and several of his teammates as “red-eyed from weeping. “It was an unfortunate goal,” Gretzky said. “We tried not to let it bother us. We tried to keep our energy at a high level and I think we did. It was a big disappointment, but I’ve had a few before. It hurts when you’re good enough to win and you expect to win. That’s tough, but we lost fair and square to a team with a lot of heart.”

“I don’t think anyone in this room should be pointing a finger at another guy,” Gretzky also said. “I think you should look yourself in the mirror.

That raw-eyed 99 from just now I imagine standing there with his gear only half-off, naked to the shoulderpads, sadly sockfooted. But by the time Robin Finn of The New York Times got to studying him, he was showered and dressed. “His face freshly scrubbed and every burnished hair in place,” Finn wrote, “he stood and faced wave upon wave of microphones and pointed questions. He wore a white shirt and a brown tie flecked with dots of royal colors, and flecked, too, with stray tears. But Gretzky was in control, and the only evidence of his distress was in the fluttering of his eyelids as he politely answered all queries concerning his dethroning.”

Grant Fuhr said, “It was right on the back of my leg. I was trying to get back in the net, but I didn’t expect it to go through the crease.” He told someone else, “I can never recall a goal going in in like that. You never expect something like that. I’m not real big on losing.”

Smith played not another second of the third period following the goal he scored on Berezan’s behalf. That was Edmonton coach Glen Sather’s decision, of course. “I feel sorry for Smith,” he told reporters when it was all over, “but I told him he can’t let it devastate him. He’s gonna be a good hockey player. I still think we’re a great hockey club, but I guess we still have some growing to do.”

Smith was devastated, but that didn’t stop him from facing the press. His eyes were wet and red, according to most accounts; Al Strachan, then of The Globe and Mail, has him “sobbing.” Either way, he would be roundly commended for failing to hide himself away. “Sooner or later I have to face it,” he said. Of course he was expected to explain what had happened. “I was just trying to make a pass out front to two guys circling,” an Associated Press dispatch has him saying. “It was a human error. I got good wood on it, it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.”

Was there not one of those scribbling correspondents who might have stepped up to give the man a hug?

I guess not. Smith went on talking. “I’ve got to keep on living,” the papers all reported next day. “I don’t know if I’ll ever live this down, but I have to keep on living. The sun will come up tomorrow.”

It did, revealing new newspaper analyses of what Smith had wrought. George Vecsey of The New York Times called it a “true disaster.” Another reporter there tracked down Rangers’ defenceman Larry Melynk. He’d started the season as an Oiler, only to lose Sather’s confidence and have Smith supplant him before a trade took him to New York. “I would have fired it around the boards,” Melnyk opined. “Just stay with my game. Shoot it around the boards.” He wasn’t gloating, though. “What happened to him could have happened to anybody.”

There were examinations of what had gone wrong with the Oilers for every taste, including the worst possible. David Johnston of The Gazette felt sure that once “hockey pathologists” got around to conducting an autopsy, they would discover that the team had been suffering from “cancers” of both the soul and the mind, which would account for their having (“like Ernest Hemingway”) “turned their formidable weapons on themselves and committed suicide.”

•••

After I published my book Puckstruck in 2014, I had several conversations with passersby at bookstore events who saw my name on the cover and lit up under the lightbulb that appeared over their heads.

Them: Hey. You played for the Oilers.
Me: No, no, not me, different guy. Better hockey player in terms of … everything hockey. And I go by Stephen, mostly.
Them: Oh. So you wrote Steve Smith’s biography?

No. That’s a book, so far, that’s still to be published. Smith hasn’t seen fit to/hasn’t had time for/has no interest in autobiographying — maybe one day? Several other frontline Oilers who’ve written memoirs have, of course, revisited that night in ’86.

Start with Kevin Lowe, whose autobiography/history of Edmonton hockey was guided by Stan and Shirley Fischler. Champions (1988) has this to say:

Steve Smith, our big young defenseman who had replaced the injured Fogie, was behind our net in the left corner looking to make our standard fast-break play. That means the puck goes up the ice pretty quick. Unfortunately, Steve kind of bobbled the puck a bit and he never did get good wood or a handle on it. Since he knew that the objective of the play was to do it as quickly as possible, he moved the rubber without having all the control he should. The puck just sprayed off his stick, hit the back of Grant’s left leg and went into the net. Just like that!

Here’s Jari Kurri, from 17 (2001), in an autobiography he authorized himself to write with Ari Mennander and Jim Matheson:

He tried a long cross-ice pass, but it bounced off the leg of Fuhr and into the net. Fuhr wasn’t hugging the post and Smith was a little too adventuresome. When the puck went in, Smith dove to the ice, covering his face, looking like he wanted the ice to open and swallow him up.

Grant Fuhr has published a couple of books of his own, starting with a manual for would-be puckstops, Fuhr On Goaltending, written with Bob Mummery’s aid and published in 1988. The Smith goal might seem like a perfect teaching moment for such a project as this, but there’s no mention of it, not on the page headed Asleep At The Switch, and not in Communication, either. “Be alert, concentrate on the puck, and stay in the game,” Fuhr advises in the former; in the latter, he specifically references teammates handling the puck behind the net. But only, as it turns out, to remind novice goalkeeps that a defenceman back there must be kept informed about incoming opponents. “Keep up the chatter,” he says.

In 2014, with Bruce Dowbiggin lending a hand, the goaltender published a fuller memoir. But Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend doesn’t go into even as much detail when it comes to “the lovely Steve Smith goal” as Fuhr did the night of. The playoffs, Fuhr concedes, ended on “a crushing note,” which marked “kind of a gloomy end to a gloomy month:” his father had died two weeks earlier. Next up: the Oilers were only a few days into their off-season when Sports Illustrated published an exposé alleging cocaine use by sundry Oilers, including Fuhr.

“That month,” he concludes, “kind of turned everything bad.”

Number 99 got his account out in Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990), which he crafted with Rick Reilly’s help. Here’s how they frame the goal:

Steve Smith was this big, good-looking defenseman of ours, only twenty-three years old, a future star, a Kevin Lowe protégé. He is a real smart player, but that night he made a mistake. He took the puck in our own corner and tried to clear it across the crease: the cardinal no-no in hockey. It’s like setting a glass of grape juice on your new white cashmere rug. You could do it, but what’s the percentage in it? Without a single Flame around, the puck hit the back of Grant’s left calf and caromed back into our net. Hardly anybody in the arena saw it but the goal judge did. The Flames suddenly led 3-2. It was a horrible, unlucky, incredible accident, but it happened. Steve came back to the bench and, for a minute, looked like he’d be all right. But then he broke down in tears.

The fact that Gretzky’s most recent book, 99 Stories of the Game (2016, assist to Kirstie McLellan Day), makes only passing mention of Smith, and none of his infamous goal, might seem to signal that the story has been wholly written, nothing more to say. Two books from 2015 undermine that notion.

I briefly held out some hope that Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky? might prove to be an existential tell-all by 99’s rogue therapist, but it’s nothing like that.

It is, instead, a handsome 106-page biography intended for younger readers. It’s abundantly illustrated by Ted Hammond and (if it does say so itself) “fun and exciting!” The young readers it’s intended for, I’d have to say, would non-Canadian and hockey-oblivious. If you are such a youthful person, an 11-year-old, say, living on a far-flung Scotland Hebride that wifi has yet to reach, and yet still, somehow, you’ve developed a curiosity about hockey that so far hasn’t divulged what exactly Brantford, Ontario’s own paragon could do and did, then this is just the book for you, congratulations, and hold on: you are going to learn a lot about Gretzky.

You’re also going to come away with a full understanding of Smith’s renowned goal. Chapter 8 is the where you’ll find what you’re after on that count, the one entitled “Dynasties and Dating.” The latter has to do with what followed after Wayne went to a basketball game in 1987 in Los Angeles and this happened: “American actress and dancer Janet Jones came over to say hello.” More important for our purposes here is what happens two pages earlier, back on the ice as the Oilers battle for the 1986 Cup, and well, guess what.

To Herman, no matter what Steve Smith did, the puck had its own agenda:

Oilers defenseman Steve Smith skated to the net to stop a goal by the Flames. He tried to clear the puck. But the puck hit the Oilers’ goalie, Grant Fuhr, on the leg. Then it bounced into the net.

The graphic generosity Herman pays to Smith is worth noting, too: in Chapter Eight’s six pages, he features in no fewer than three line-drawings, which is as many as Janet Jones gets, just before she becomes Mrs. Gretzky in Chapter Nine.

The Battle of Alberta can’t compete when it comes to illustrations. But what Mark Spector’s 2015 history of the years of Oiler-Flame rivalry lacks in artwork, it makes up with what may be the definitive post mortem, devoting a full 15 pages to what happened that night in a chapter titled “The Right Play The Wrong Way: Oiler Steve Smith’s Unforgettable Goal.”

Spector begins by recounting how, in the immediate aftermath of what he calls “the worst experience of [Smith’s] life,” the wretched defenceman found a grim joke to offer. “I got good wood on it,” Spector has him telling reporters. “I thought the puck went in fast.”

Maybe that’s right. But looking back at the contemporary accounts, only the first phrase seems to have appeared in any of the immediate coverage of the game in the spring of 1986.

Reporters at the scene who took down “I got good wood on it” tend to have heard what came next as “it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.” (Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe heard “but not in the direction I hoped.”) The original is self-deprecating rather than actually humorous, and doesn’t so fully support Spector’s framing premise that Smith was “having a laugh at his own misfortune.” It’s no more than a minor mystery, I’ll grant you. But given the descriptions of the mood in the Oiler room, and of Smith’s own demeanor on the night, I’m skeptical that anyone heard him jibing about the speed of the puck that night. From what I can glean, Spector’s amended version doesn’t seem to have shown up before a 2010 article of Jim Matheson’s in The Edmonton Journal.

Otherwise? Spector calls Smith another mobile defenceman who could fight and play. He describes him as gangly. He asserts that he took nothing for granted and (cleverly) not good enough to feel any entitlement.

Spector does provide a valuable service in breaking down just what Smith was attempting to do. As Kevin Lowe tells him, this was the Oilers’ new quick-up play designed to catch an opponent offguard as they dumped the puck in and changed. The centreman and maybe a winger would be waiting high up on the opposite boards, over by the penalty boxes. “You just went back and you almost didn’t look,” Lowe explained. “You just forced it up to the spot.”

But then: “Fuhrsie was a little late getting back in the net, and Smitty just tried to cut the corner a bit.”

“He’s gonna be a good hockey player,” Glen Sather said back on that April night, and so it proved. When the Oilers roared back in 1987 to win another Cup, Smith and his story arc’d to a perfect redemptive close. “A year after Smith’s mistake,” Spector writes,

after the Oilers had regained their place atop the hockey world with a seven-game ouster of Philadelphia in the Final, Gretzky made a classy gesture when he handed the Stanley Cup to Smith and sent him off on a celebratory whirl around the Northlands Coliseum ice.

It didn’t end there, of course. As noted on the Oilers’ own Heritage website,

Smith persevered and became one of the key players of the team’s drive for three more Cups in 1987, 1988, and 1990. Smith best year came in 1987-88, when he scored 12 goals, added 43 assists, and received 286 penalty minutes. Smith proved he was a tough customer, and the disastrous goal was nothing more than a fluke.

Gretzky has gone even further. Diligent, down the years, in making sure Smith’s name stays cleared, Gretzky has even claimed that the Oilers were actually fortunate to lose in ’86. “I know that sounds strange,” he’s reasoned, “but sometimes you lose for a reason. After that season, we made some changes, got hungrier, and stopped thinking we had sole rights to the Stanley Cup. Maybe Smith wonus two more Cups. Who knows?”

Smith himself has said that the whole experience was life-changing. “It taught me humility,” he told Spector. Ben Arledge talked to him about this, too, in the ESPN piece. “I really believe that incident had a lot to do with making me a much humbler person,” Smith said to him. “It probably taught me more about humility than a person could ever learn. From that day forward, I sincerely cheered for people. I didn’t want to see people fail. I didn’t want to ever see people have that type of day.”

Mark Spector’s Battle of Alberta chapter comes with a fairly perfect ending, in which Smith tells of playing a subsequent pre-season game in Calgary. The fact that Spector doesn’t bother to date it could indicate that he (a) preferred to render it as legend as much as a fact or (b) couldn’t be bothered. It did happen, on a Tuesday night, September 25, 1990, in front of a crowd of 20,132 fans who, as usual, called for Smith to “shooooot” every time he touched the puck. Smith was prepared, having warned Oilers’ goaltender Bill Ranford that there might come a point in the game where he actually did just that. “And,” Smith told him, “you’d better fuckin’ stop it.”

And so it happened, in the first period, that Smith lobbed a backhand at Ranford that the goaltender did, indeed, save. Smith raised his stick to the Calgary faithful who, it’s reported, laughed.

“The whole place stood up and gave me a standing ovation,” Smith tells Spector. “It was kinda cool. For the most part, they left me alone after that.”

(Drawings: Ted Hammond, from Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky?)

 

 

 

 

bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)

strach’s gretz

gretz sweater

Number of sticks Strach says Wayne Gretzky gave away each year of his career: 700.

According to Strach, autographs Gretzky signed each day during that same career: 200.

Strach? Gretzky’s pal Al Strachan, former sportswriter for The Globe and Mail and Toronto’s Sun, whose new book, 99, contains many pieces of information that you didn’t know not to mention all the quotes you’ve never heard.

How many pieces? Thousands, Strach says.

Quotes? An equal number.

Number of sticks all those giveaways add up to, mathwise, over Gretzky’s 30-year professional career: 14,000.

Autographs: 1,460,000.

Assistance Gretzky gave to Strach over the years: Virtually limitless.

Frequency with which Strach says he’s made fun of Gretzky face-to-face: Often.

And in print? Never.

Number of temper tantrums Gretzky has had, ever, it says here: Zero.

Number of jabs, digs, and/or sneers, both head-on and side-swiping, of which NHL commissioner Gray Bettman is the target: 6, at least.

Vertebrae Gretzky injured in his career: T6, C5.

Age at which he started skating: 2 ½.

Number of goals he scored in his first year playing organized hockey: 1.

Number of goals he scored in his fifth year: 378.

Number of chin-ups Gretzky can do: 2.

Unflattering references herein to former NHL president John Ziegler: 1.

Plenty of disdain for, also: Stan Fischler, Brian Burke, the media sharks, Andy Murray, Pat Quinn, Ed Snider, Chris Gratton, Marc Crawford, Bob Nicholson.

Price Gretzky paid for his first car, a used Pontiac Trans-Am, in 1978: $3,800.

Amount of Gretzky’s signing bonus that year from the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA: $25,000.

Amount Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher offered Gretzky in 1996 to sign with the Leafs: $3 million a year.

Guy who nixed the deal: Leafs’ owner Steve Stavro.

Other team Gretzky was willing to sign with, except for they blew it: Vancouver.

Blame: Pat Quinn.

What anyone who knows Gretzky at all knows about the notion that he’d risk his reputation for a relatively small endorsement fee from a stick manufacturer, or ever get involved in sports betting: He never would.

What Marty McSorley used to let other teams know: “You go after Gretz and you’re going to get hurt. You may get hurt so bad that I’ll get suspended, but I don’t care. You should, though.”

Dave Semenko’s preferred method to deliver the same message: “A stony — and scary — glare.”

Cost, per person, to participate in Gretzky’s summertime Las Vegas fantasy camp with which he raises money for the good causes supported by his foundation: $11,999.

The craziest thing about pro sports, according to Gretzky: “If you don’t play with confidence, you can’t play.”

Theoren Fleury’s (possibly derisive) thoughts on the 1998 Olympic semi-final in which Canada lost in a shoot-out to the Czech Republic: “Perhaps next time, they can set up a Scrabble board at centre ice and we’ll play Scrabble to see who wins.”

Whether he admits it or not, guy responsible for not selecting Gretzky to shoot in that crushing loss: Marc Crawford.

What Gretzky says: “I really don’t believe I would have made any difference.”

According to Strach, number of goals/points Gretzky would register in a season if he were playing in today’s NHL: 130, 300.

Gretzky’s Q score: the highest of any hockey player.

His impression of Queen Elizabeth II? “Really nice.”

Number of days he works as a spokesman for TD Bank: 10/year.

Does he favour enlarging hockey’s net, to help with scoring? “No chance. That would be criminal.”

Thoughts on head hits and the scourge of concussions? Not included.

Whether there’s a place in the game for fighting? No comment.

Number of times it should be mentioned (and is) that Gretzky is a better human being than he ever was a hockey player: Twice.

99 
Gretzky: His Game, His Story
Al Strachan, assisted by Wayne Gretzky
(Fenn/M&S, 324 pp., $32.95)

(Photo courtesy of The Want List http://www.flickr.com/photos/hockeymedia/)