VANCOUVER — It is an oft-told tale, but Ryan Smyth told it again anyway Monday, by request: How, as a 10-year-old stick boy working at the Banff training camp of the 1987 Canada Cup team, he was waiting for Glenn Anderson to drive him to the golf course for a team outing when Anderson backed over him with his car.
“Andy was always running late, I didn’t know which car was his, and I was tying up my shoe down by the wheel and he got in the car and just put it in reverse right away — I guess he stopped when he heard me screaming. I had rolled over on my ankle, so he drove me to the hospital,” said the now 37-year-old Banff native, whose 125th power-play goal Sunday night tied him with some guy named Gretzky for second place on the Edmonton Oilers’ all-time list.
One more, and he ties Anderson, the franchise leader.
“He drove over me, so I owe him one, hopefully sooner than later,” Smyth laughed, the morning after converting No. 125 from the usual distance — inside the blue paint — in a 5-1 victory over Nashville, with his next opportunity looming immediately Monday night in Vancouver.
Joking about his mystifying prowess around the net is an easy fallback position for Smyth, and easier still for skeptics who wonder what he really has to offer an NHL club at this late stage of his career, a fourth-liner now, this throwback to old-style hockey hair, old-style wooden-bladed stick and old-style fearlessness in front of the opposition net.
But the numbers are dead serious. Despite the fact that Gretzky and Smyth had little in common besides the usual number of limbs, The Great One — the most prolific offensive machine ever to lace up a pair of skates — didn’t put up his 125 power-play markers in half the time it took Smyth, or one-third, as you might suppose.
It took Gretzky 768 games in an Oilers uniform to amass that total; Smyth did it in 943.
So Smyth will take the barbs in good humour, he’ll laugh along with everyone else about his outmoded stick with the straight blade (“I can’t believe he can raise the puck with that thing,” says coach Dallas Eakins), and his three-foot scoring radius and the dubious strength of his shot, but underneath the aw-shucks exterior there is, in Eakins’ words, “a fire that’s still burning very, very hot.”
“The veteran guys that are able to play to his age have unbelievable hockey sense. They think the game so well, and that makes up for the loss of their quick-twitch muscles and fibres, because that’s what happens as you get older. You lose your power, your quickness,” Eakins said.
“So Ryan’s not as quick as he was 10 years ago, but his head’s still there.
“The other thing that certainly hasn’t gone away is his will and his competitiveness. A lot of times as guys get later in their careers, that kind of goes away. It’s not that they’re not trying, it’s that they don’t have that fire that they had at 24 or 25. But that hasn’t gone away with him.”
“He’s got to be one of the best players ever to play the game in front of the net,” said Jordan Eberle, one of the Oilers’ young guns, who admits to having watched Smyth “as a kid.”
“It’s not an easy job there. You definitely get abused with sticks and slashes, but the way that he fights through it and to do it as long as he has, is amazing.
“And honestly, in the locker room, I don’t know if there’s another guy that loves hockey more than him. He loves everything about it. He loves going to the rink, he’s got a rink at his house, and he shovels that every day ... it’s really contagious.”
There aren’t many highlight-reel goals among the 383 Smyth has scored over an 18-season NHL career. Most went in from close range, tips and jams and rebounds. Front-of-the-net stuff. Physical punishment was involved in the vast majority.
“I identified that early on in my career, thinking you know what: the puck’s gotta go there, might as well get your body there and create a little havoc,” Smyth said. “And it just evolved into this.
“(Detroit’s Tomas) Holmstrom was one of the best, if not the best, in my opinion, but if you watch a lot of hockey around the league, you see the results of guys going to the net and creating traffic. It’s just instilled in me, the willingness to pay a price, that’s my skill.”
Eakins said Smyth “likes” going to the front of the net. That has to be a misnomer.
“No, I disagree. I think there’s a certain sick thing that goes on with pain, and there’s a quiet enjoyment of it,” said the Oilers’ rookie coach. “That knowledge, after the game, that I went there for my team so we could score goals ... it’s hard to explain. Like people who run marathons: that’s a lot of pain, and you have to enjoy some pain to have the high you get from doing it.
“Anybody can play around the outside, that’s easy. But you look at the really good teams, especially in our conference. They go to those areas, and it’s not because they’re told to. They want to go there, they’re proud to go there. And that’s what Smytty’s doing.”
For how much longer, no one knows.
But if this is it, he will go out a gold medallist at world juniors, world championships (twice), 2002 Winter Olympics and 2004 World Cup. He’ll have answered the call every time Hockey Canada asked, captained a bunch of terrific pros ... he’ll have done everything but that which his childhood idols, the Oilers of Wayne Gretzky and Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey and all the rest did so many times.
He won’t win a Stanley Cup with these Oilers, who have too much growing to do, growth that will take more time than Ryan Smyth has left. So the blood and sweat he has given, and the power-play goals record, will have to do.
That, and the shooting-accuracy contest he won at this year’s Oiler skills competition. Yes, he broke all four targets in four shots with that old wooden blade.
“I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best,” Smyth said.
“My first year I had used (an all-wood stick). I remember Slatsy (Glen Sather) coming up to me and picking up my stick, twirling it around and he says, ‘You gotta change your curve,’” he said, smiling at the memory. “I said OK, took it back and never did change it. He probably still thinks to this day that I did.
“But I’ve enjoyed the wood blade. Guys bug me about it, but it works for me.”
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