Oiler Hall of Famer Ryan Smyth truly a man of the people
Ryan Smyth’s back should be donated to science. No defenseman has ever taken more abuse from hockey’s Bruise Brothers Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk.
His Edmonton Oilers jersey was black and blue and orange as he parked himself around the crease in those epic games with the Dallas Stars. There was never any idle time for the No. 94. Once he got to the blue paint, slid through traffic, he didn’t leave. And the Stars knew it, along with every other NHL team.
“We said all along that Ryan was the head of the snake,” said Ken Hitchcock, the former Dallas coach. “He dragged everyone else into the competition. He could really inspire players. Our feeling was that if you didn’t come to Ryan, you couldn’t come to the Oilers. We had to make it very difficult for him.”
There has never been anyone like No. 94 as an Oiler—truly a man of the people, the last man off the ice in pregame warmups tossing pucks over the glass to fans—the only player to hold that number through 971 games (296 goals, 631 points). He is second only to Kevin Lowe’s 1,037 games. If he’s not going to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and his number isn’t hanging from the rafters here, his 94 will probably never be worn by anyone else.
That’s why Smyth, sporting the ever-present mullet, was honored as part of the first Oiler Hall of Fame on Thursday. His name and number went up on the club’s new ring of honor above the PCL Loge area at Rogers Place along with Lee Fogolin, first WHA captain Al Hamilton and Oiler HHOFers-Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Lowe , Glenn Anderson, Glen Sather and Rod Phillips.
All those cross checks? “I still have back problems at times,” said Smyth, who lives in Nashville and coaches son Alex, 14, on a rep team (he’s also 94).
“Those two guys… man, it was a battle. It felt like every shift there was a cross check on the back of my legs or my back. I figured if I was going to pay a price, that’s what I had to do, ” said Smyth, who needed extra padding.
“Staffie (former Oiler equipment manager Barrie Stafford) came up with a flak jacket that attached to the back of my shoulder pads. But there were two years in the league without one, Smyth said.
“When we beat them in the (1997) playoffs, as we were going through the (handshake) lineup, both of them said they had tremendous respect for me and the beating I took. I really appreciated them saying that,” he said.
Hitchcock, who coached 1,598 NHL games, hated seeing Smyth against his teams.
“We always played our most competitive players and defensemen against Ryan,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he scored so many goals where he had worked his way from the corner or behind the net to where it was just him and the goalkeeper. He came up with the puck every damn time and he was so calm in the scoring areas.
“You are talking about players with second and third stakes. We showed clips of Ryan, saying ‘if you want to beat that (Oiler) team, you had to hang in there longer than Ryan did (danger zones).”
Smyth’s kit, from the head down, was modeled after No. 99.
“He idolized Wayne Gretzky, so he had Wayne’s helmet (Jofa), gloves like Wayne (longer cuffs) and not much for shoulder pads like Wayne, even though he was hacked and beaten (shoulders),” said Stafford, who later got Smyth to to wear something custom-made (with extra foam padding) from his friend Red Batty, the Green Bay Packers’ longtime equipment manager.
Smyth was one of the first NHL players to wear custom shin guards along with Drake Berehowsky, who had knee braces on both knees. Smyth was wearing a knee brace on his left knee after a Rick Tocchet collision.
“We had Smytty’s made by Frank Hayday at Karl Hager Limb and Brace, the same people who made his brace. Smytty was wearing old CCM shin guards that no one made anymore, archaic … he would wear the messed up pieces of crap until they fell apart, Stafford said.
Smyth’s sticks were heavy oars. “Smytty kept the old wooden blades when the sticks (shafts and blades) were changed (carbon/graphite). He heated the blade with a torch and bent it under a door to bend them, even though sticks were custom made for the players (pattern),” Stafford said.
“(Jason) Spezza and I were probably the last (three) holdouts, even though he had a full stick, me just the blade. I felt like when people would pass to me, the puck would go dead into my wood blade where carbon/graphite, the puck would bounce off. “Nowadays the kids have better hands than me,” Smyth said.
Smyth’s shot from distance was generally a muffin, but it was the odd benefactor in the net. “Hey, my first NHL goal was a shot just inside the blue line … on Trevor Kidd, sneaking through the five-hole against Calgary,” he said. “But 90 percent of my goals, you know where they came from?”
Smyth, who wore 3 in minor hockey and 28 while playing junior in Moose Jaw, has always been 94 as an NHLer (1,267 total) for the year he was born, except for the 2007 all-star game in Dallas.
“Yanic Perreault and I were both there. I had used 94 longer, but Yanic was two weeks older. He had the upper hand. I offered him something and he said no. So I was 93, but only for one day, ever, Smyth said.