barry fraser, 1940—2022
Sorry to see yesterday’s news that former Edmonton Oilers chief scout Barry Fraser has died at the age of 82. Condolences to his family. He was a son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who truly was one of the key architects of the juggernaut that the Oilers became in the 1980s.
“As Barry Fraser goes, so go the Edmonton Oilers,” Edmonton Journal columnist Terry Jones wrote in 1979, just as Fraser took up with the team (he stayed on until 2000). It was August of that watershed year, and Oilers were crossing over from the newly defunct WHA into the NHL by way of the entry draft. The team already an 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky aboard, but the future, still, was decidedly murky.
“Scouting,” Oilers coach and director of hockey operations Glen Sather was saying, “is going to be as important to this team as coaching in the next few years.”
“We won’t know if Fraser is a blooming genius or a silly fool,” Jones opined on the same Journal page that listed the players Edmonton secured that day:
Round One: defenceman Kevin Lowe of the Quebec Remparts. Round Three: underage forward Mark Messier from the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers. Round Four: underage forward Glenn Anderson from the University of Denver.
In 1980, the Oilers drafted Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Andy Moog. The following year they snagged Grant Fuhr. By 1983, of course, they were playing in their first Stanley Cup final in 1983. “I don’t know how to even describe it,” Fraser said that year. “It’s a great feeling when you start from scratch and all of a sudden you’re on the doorstep.” As director of scouting and player personnel, Fraser would get his name on the Cup five times, in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990.
Peter Gzowski included a memorable sketch of Fraser in The Game of Our Lives (1981):
Fraser is a deceptively naïve-looking man who, with his pompadour and generous belly, resembles a contented Elvis Presley. His own playing career stopped in B, when he broke a leg while trying to make a team in Cochrane, Ontario. After his injury, he retired to an office job with Ontario Hydro, but he maintained his interest in hockey by coaching young boys, and gradually the canny reports he sent in on prospects from his neck of the woods drew so much attention that he was swept into full-time scouting, ending up as a senior official of the Houston Aeros of the WHA. By the time the WHA folded, he had achieved such a reputation as a bloodhound that Sather snapped him up to head the Oilers’ scouting staff. Kevin Lowe, who had been the first draft he recommended, had worked out well, but the 1980-81 season would be a full test of Fraser’s powers of discrimination; it was on his word that the Oilers had spent their valuable first-round draft choice on Coffey, had courted Anderson, and had gambled yet another draft choice on being able to talk Jari Kurri into coming to North America. It was on his system, which Sather had urged him to perfect, that the future of the team and its young personnel would depend.
Kevin Lowe gets into hockey’s Hall of Fame next week; tonight the Edmonton Oilers raise his number 4 high into the rafters of Rogers Place ahead of their game against the New York Rangers. Lowe played his steady defence for the Oilers back in the heady ’80s and ’90s, winning five Stanley Cup championships in teams that featured Gretzkys and Messiers, Coffeys and Fuhrs. Born in Lachute, Quebec, he played 15 seasons in Edmonton in all, another four with the Rangers. He won another with New York in 1994. He’s 62 now; his number is the eighth the Oilers have honoured, after Al Hamilton’s 3, Coffey’s 7, the 9 Glenn Anderson wore, Messier’s 11, Jari Kurri’s 17, Fuhr’s 31, and Gretzky’s 99.
claim to fame
May 18 was a Wednesday in Helsinki in 1960, as it was elsewhere, too, but never mind them, it’s Finland we’re interested in here, for the purpose of observing Jari Kurri’s 60th birthday — here’s to him. His high-scoring, Hall-of-Fame career included stints right-winging for Jokerit and with Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Anaheim, and Colorado in the NHL, though of course it was as an Oiler in Edmonton, often at Wayne Gretzky’s side, that he had his heydays. He won five Stanley Cups and a Lady Byng Trophy, captaining the team to … wait, what? Kurri captained the Oilers?
Well, no, not according to the team’s own accounting. Doesn’t seem quite right to me, but the fact remains that you won’t find him listed in the list the Oilers make available in their media guide. There and in most other listings, you’ll see that in Kurri’s decade as an Oiler, four non-Finnish players wore the C: Blair MacDonald, Lee Fogolin, Gretzky, and Messier. But it’s true, too, that in the fall of 1988, captain Messier was suspended for six games for the damage he did with his stick to several teeth belonging to Rich Sutter of the Vancouver Canucks. During Messier’s absence, Kurri wore the C. He did it with aplomb, too, scoring a hattrick against Pittsburgh in his debut as skip, and leading the team to a 5-1 record overall. Is that service not deserving of, I don’t know, some sort of recognition or, um, asterisked notation in the Oiler annals? An added oddment: Kevin Lowe and Glenn Anderson were Edmonton’s assistant captains for the 1988-89 season. Kurri didn’t get an A until the following year, his last with the team, when he replaced Anderson. So when Kurri got his (brief) battlefield commission in ’88, he was promoted from the ranks.
With the Hockey Hall of Fame set to announce its 2109 class today, the hour is now for all those with an impassioned plea or petition for a player who might have been, to date, overlooked or grievously slighted. Who have you got? Jennifer Botterill or maybe Kim St. Pierre? Sven Tumba, Alexander Maltsev? You could make a reasonable argument for Herb Cain or Lorne Chabot, even if the Hall probably won’t any time soon. What about Kevin Lowe? Theo Fleury? Paul Henderson’s name comes up annually; this year, on the January day he turned 76, he even got a birthday boost from Canada’s House of Commons when MPs unanimously resolved to “encourage” the Hall to induct him ASAP “in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”
One cold night last November a distinguished panel of hockey pundits played the Hockey Hall parlour game at a rink of renown in midtown Toronto. In front of a small audience not far from the ice of St. Michael’s College School’s Arena the panel parleying who should be in the Hall of hockey’s Fame but isn’t featured historian Todd Denault; Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News; Steve Dryden, senior managing hockey editor for TSN and TSN.ca; and Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.
While there was some due given builders who deserve the Hall’s attention — Cecil Hart, Claude Ruel, and Bill Tobin got mentions — most of the talk was of players. Male players — arguments for outstanding women candidates like Maria Rooth or Kim Martin weren’t on the table.
There was plenty of discussion of just how measure greatness and of what constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s particularly difficult, the panelists agreed, to evaluate players from the distant past — “guys,” as Steve Dryden put it, “you haven’t seen.” Does Sid Smith deserve a place, with his three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s, two Lady Byngs, and a First Team All-Star selection? What about Herb Cain of the wartime Boston Bruins, the only player in history to have led the NHL in scoring not to have been elevated to the Hall?
Statistics tell a certain tale but not a complete one: how, for instance, do you properly appraise the career contributions of defensive defenceman (cf. the unrecognized likes of Lionel Hitchman, Bob Goldham, and Kevin Lowe) or of forwards who made a name as tenacious checkers and penalty-killers (hello, Claude Provost and Guy Carbonneau).
And what about Henderson? When his name came up, as it always does, the hero of the Luzhniki got both a hard nay and a robust yay. He was, Steve Simmons said, no more than a very good NHLer who had a great week in Moscow in September of 1972. Maybe so, but to historian Paul Patskou’s way of thinking, the cultural significance and legacy of his Summit Series performance is more than enough to earn him a place.
As the evening went on and the panelists made their presentations favouring particular players whom the Hall has (so far) failed to call up, the names of the missing kept coming: Lorne Chabot, Bernie Nicholls, Theo Fleury. Steve Dryden argued Keith Tkachuk’s cause while Simmons flew the flag for Rick Middleton.
Todd Denault made a compelling case for J.C. Tremblay, Montreal’s stellar defenceman who was a First Team All-Star in 1971 and helped Canadiens win five Stanley Cups. Asked once by Denault for the name of the one player he thought deserved a place in the Hall, Jean Béliveau didn’t hesitate to name Tremblay. Béliveau did, of course, serve on the Hall’s Selection Committee from 1981 to 1995, so it may well be that he did his best to make it happen. Tremblay jumped to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA in 1972, and was one of the players dropped from the original roster of the Canada’s Summit Series team for that reason. At the confab at St. Mike’s, there was speculation that maybe the politics of a lingering bias against the WHA may have affected Tremblay’s chances for getting the Hall’s call.
But maybe not. What we do know is that deliberations by members of the Selection Committee are more or less opaque, and for all the clamouring we do here beyond the confines of their consultations, clamour is mostly what it amounts to. Still, once you’re committed to reading the runes, it’s hard to stop. Along with your Cains and Chabots and Provosts, the recognition that J.C. Tremblay fails to get may just be a matter of time: it’s 40 years now since he retired.
Starting in 1998, the Hockey Hall of Fame did have a category for Veteran Players that saw the likes of Buddy O’Connor, Fern Flaman, Clint Smith, Lionel Conacher, and Woody Dumart plucked from the far past. But since that was curtailed in 2000, the Hall’s view of the past has dimmed. Willie O’Ree’s induction last year came 57 years after he played in the NHL, but he’s something of a special case, and thereby an outlier. Beyond him, only twice in the past 19 years have players who’ve been retired more than 30 years been inducted. In 2006, Dick Duff was recognized 34 years after he’d stowed his skates, and the gap was the same in 2016 when Rogie Vachon finally got the call.
(Images: Hockey Media & The Want List)
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.
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—
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?
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?)
this summer: dave farrish’s foyer + a tattoo of harry potter battling a giant blue dragon
“You don’t know how heavy it is,” Eric Fehr was saying, back in June. The Pittsburgh Penguins had just won the Stanley Cup and Fehr, a winger, was telling The Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen about the joy of the triumph and the subsequent uplift, and how he’d wondered, briefly, whether his two surgically repaired shoulders would be able to handle the heft. “You don’t know how it’s going to feel,” Fehr was saying. “You’ve pictured it for so many years. When you finally get your hands on it, it’s a pretty unbelievable feeling.”
The shoulders were fine. “It felt a lot lighter than I thought it would.”
Later, after a parade in Pittsburgh (400,000 were said to have come out), the Cup went on its annual pilgrimage to visit the hometowns of the players and coaches who’d won it. With Phil Pritchard, its Hockey Hall of Fame guardian, Cup travelled to Landshut, in Germany, and to Moscow, Russia. It visited Helsinki, in Finland, and Jyväskylä, too, in the Finnish Lakeland. Swedish stops included Stockholm, Sollentuna, Sundsvi, Södertälje, Luleå, and Nykvarn.
Canadian stops included Fehr’s hometown, Winkler, Manitoba, where it visited the Southland Mall.
“It still hasn’t fully kicked in,” said Fehr, who got a key to the city from Mayor Martin Harder. “Still kind of a wow factor for me, especially a day like today when you get to walk around with the cup and especially when you see everybody’s faces when they get a look at that cup.”
“We all squeezed the stick,” Gord Downie sang this summer, crossing the land one more time with The Tragically Hip, “and we all pulled the trigger.”
In Denver, Colorado lost its coach when Patrick Roy resigned. It was a surprise, maybe even a shock. Roy said he didn’t feel he had enough say in shaping the roster he was expected to command on the ice. “I remain forever loyal to the Avalanche,” he said, “with which I played 478 games, coached another 253, and won two Stanley Cups.”
GM Joe Sakic was sorry to see him go, but he respected the decision. “We’re all good,” he told Nicholas Cotsonika of NHL.com. It took Sakic just over a week to find a replacement: Jared Bednar, who last season won the AHL’s Calder Cup championship at the helm of the Lake Erie Monsters.
Was it worrisome that by early August Shea Weber still hadn’t travelled to Montreal? People were wondering, this summer, including several writers on the Habs beat.
His agent said no, not a problem, because … summer. Weber was at home in Kelowna, that’s all. “His initial reaction was there was a pause and a little bit of shock,” explained Jarrett Bousquet, the agent. “And then when he realized it was true, he was pretty excited. Obviously, now he’s extremely excited being back in Canada and the pieces that they’ve put together. And he knows Carey Price from B.C. and the Olympics and whatnot, so I know he’s very excited now.”
Man disguised as hockey goalie robs beer store in Manitoba
was a headline running amok across social media last week. It’s true; it happened, in Russell, Manitoba, about four hours’ journey to the northwest from Winkler. While police continue to search for the culprit, a consensus has solidified online that this was
the most Canadian crime story ever, Non-Moose Division (CBS Sports)
Most Canadian heist ever (Huffington Post)
The Most Canadian Thing Ever (@Breaking911)
a scene from a clichéd Canadian movie — if it wasn’t so bizarrely real. (CBC.ca)
Defenceman Justin Schultz welcomed the Stanley Cup to West Kelowna, B.C. His parents were there, at Royal LePage Place, beaming their pride.
“This is huge,” his mother Kim Schultz, told Carmen Weld of Castanet:
Kim said she tries to keep it all in perspective and keep Justin and the family grounded.
“It is a game, after all, and he just has a different job,” she said. “That is how I look at it, as his mom.”
Artist and writer Doug Coupland had a Stanley Cup question for his Twitter followers in August:
Answer: while interested parties suggested up Bell Centennial Bold Listing, Times New Ransom, and DIN Mittelscrift, the likeliest one seems to be … no font at all. As detailed here, at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Stanley Cup Journal, the cup’s engraver, Louise St. Jacques of Montreal, uses a collection of small hammers and custom-made letter stamps to knock each letter into the silverware.
Just so we’re clear, Justice Clément Gascon was at no time drafted by any NHL team, ever, and has refrained (so far) from saying he was.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s newest nominee, to the Supreme Court of Canada starts his new job next Monday.
His draft year would have been 1979, if he’d gone the hockey route, and flourished. That was a good one for actual hockey talent as opposed to notional: Ray Bourque, Michel Goulet, Mike Gartner, and Kevin Lowe were all selected in the first round.
the cons of prose
Jaromir Jagr isn’t the first right winger to be filing copy for newspapers even as he’s playing NHL hockey. Charlie Conacher was a Globe and Mail columnist in the 1930s, and an outspoken one at that. In the mid-1950s Boom-Boom Geoffrion had a writing gig at Parlons Sport around the same time that his fellow scribe and teammate Rocket Richard was using his column at Samedi-Dimanche as a platform from which (among other things) to blast away at NHL president Clarence Campbell.
And if you followed the syndicated column that Gordie Howe wrote in the 1960s you’d know that the reason the ice improved in the old Boston Garden around 1964 was because (in Gordie’s opinion) they’d reduced the number of trains through the North Station a level below. “They had little ripples in the ice from the vibrations caused by the trains,” Howe wrote. “The shaking also brought down dust filaments.”
Among left wingers, Montreal’s Aurele Joliat wrote a column for La Patrie in the 1930s, which appeared, sometimes, on the same page as that of a column by his friend and centreman Howie Morenz. Wayne Gretzky wrote for The National Post, of course, in the 1990s — although that was after he’d retired from the ice. I’m not sure that wrote is the right word, either: he helped Roy MacGregor write a column, is maybe what we’ll say. Continue reading