Monday, May 30, 2011

Mr.Smith Goes to Montreal

Most Habs fans of a certain age recall May 5, 1986 with more than a touch of fond nostalgia. It was Game Three, Habs versus Rangers in the conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canadiens had won the first two games, so Game Three was, by no means, a do-or-die contest. It was, however, a game of Meaning in Habs' lore. Canadiens fans remember it as the beginning of Patrick Roy's metamorphasis as the original butterfly superstar. The 20-year-old rookie goalie faced 13 Rangers' shots in OT stopping them all, many spectacularly. He held his team in it until New York's James Patrick bumped a linesman and took himself out of the play, allowing Claude Lemieux enough of a break to bury the winner. That's what Habs fans remember about that night. Bobby Smith, the lanky, silky-handed centreman on the Canadiens top line at the time, recalls something other than Roy's heroics.

"My memory of that game is tying it up with about a minute left, so I have a different memory of it than most other people," Smith laughs.

A look back at the box score from that night proves his sense of recall is still pretty sharp a quarter century after the fact. The Rangers were up 3-2 and took a penalty with about three-and-a-half minutes to go. With 8 seconds left in the PP and 2 minutes in the period, Smith tipped a Larry Robinson shot behind John Vanbiesbrouck and set the stage for Patrick Roy's command performance.

The goal was typical of the very good, but understated...some would say underappreciated...player Smith was in his seven seasons as a Hab. In that Cup year, for example, he scored 31 goals and 86 points, but played second fiddle to Mats Naslund's 110 points. In 1988, Smith put up his best numbers in Montreal with 93 points, but the Habs lost out to Boston in the post-season and a great year was forgotten. The truth, though, is that Naslund would never have had his best season without Smith. And a player who was nearly a point-a-game through more than a thousand NHL games shouldn't be forgotten.

Bobby Smith arrived in Montreal in 1983, shortly after requesting a trade from the Minnesota North Stars. The Stars had hired a new coach with a different philosophy and Smith wanted a change of scenery. In this age of "Codes" and strange notions of what constitutes "respect," players are villified for asking to be traded. Smith thinks that's unfair.

"I used to always say it's the best job in the world except you spend too much time in the dentist chair and you don't get to choose where you live," he quips.

When he got the word that the trade to Montreal went through, the kid who grew up in nearby Ottawa was delighted.

"I can still remember the surreal feeling of my first practice with the Canadiens, and skating around and looking at my reflection with the CH on my chest in the glass," he recalls. "I always thought if you played baseball, you should play a few years with the Yankees, or football with the Dallas Cowboys. It's the same thing with the Canadiens. It was special in Montreal. I thought it was the centre of the hockey universe. Game night was a big special occasion. We played at about 107 percent of capacity most nights. There was a serious attitude there that was a surprise, even coming from a good team like Minnesota."

Smith says some of his most cherished hockey memories come from his time in Montreal, including what was, for him, the greatest moment of the 1986 Stanley Cup finals.

"No question. Being on the bench as the clock ticked down against Calgary. The score was 4-3 and the puck went across our blueline and you knew it was over. That was the moment. It wasn't clear until that moment that we were going to win the Stanley Cup, but I remember that moment very well," he says. He modestly neglects to mention that he was the one who scored the Cup-winning goal for the Habs, converting a Naslund feed about halfway through the third.

"For a point during my career,it was like that was a thing guys on other teams got to do," he continues. "For a while, the Islanders had three of the best six or seven players in the world and they kept winning. Then the OIlers seemed like they were going to win every year. It seemed that winning the Stanley Cup was something other teams did. Then all of a sudden, I was playing for the Montreal Canadiens and we weren't the best team in the league, as we may have been in '89, and we won."

Ah, yes. Eighty-nine. "The year that should have been" for many Canadiens fans who've never gotten over watching the best team in the league lose in the finals, while Lanny McDonald skated the Cup around Forum ice. Fortunately for Bobby Smith's peace of mind, however, he's able to put that loss in perspective.

"I played in 35 playoff series during my career. It's a tremendous accomplishment to win a playoff series," he explains. "It's far different from beating a team in the regular season, where you play a team on October 13, then you play them again on December 5. When you play against each other every second night and your team wins, that's a major accomplishment. Even at the end of a season, if you've won three playoff rounds and lost in the final, when the disappointment wears off, you say, hey, we won three playoff rounds. We're a good team."

The Canadiens were a good team in the '80s, and Bobby Smith was a big part of the club's success. Eventually, though, he decided it was time to move on. The Habs were bringing in younger centres and he could see a shrinking role in his future. He once again took control of his own hockey fate and asked for a trade back to Minnesota. He finished his last three years in the NHL back in the city where it all began. When the end came, he had no regrets.

"I was completely ready for it. I feel bad for the guys who leave and really have a tough adjustment," he muses. "Our final game was on a Sunday. I think I had a press conference on Tuesday. I was not a good player in my last year in the league, which made it a lot easier. I was a full-time student at the University of Minnesota and I did that for three years. So I never had a single day where I looked back and said, Oh, I wish I were still playing."

Of course, Bobby Smith and hockey have never been very far apart. The 1979 first-overall draft pick and Calder Trophy winner, who still holds the OHL single-season scoring record, is deeply involved in junior hockey. He's the majority owner of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads, and spent the season just past behind the team's bench. Being Coach Smith wasn't something he'd envisioned for himself, but he says it was a valuable experience.

"I enjoyed it. I had a lot of experiences to pass on to those guys. I liked being around it all the time."

Even so, Smith has no desire to be a career coach. He's passed the reins in Halifax on to Dominique Ducharme, but will continue to be a hands-on owner with the Mooseheads. He lives in Arizona these days, where he moved when he took over as GM of the NHL's Coyotes after completing his B.S. and MBA degrees in 1996, but he makes several trips a year to catch his team in action and stay abreast of the daily details. He also keeps in touch with some old Habs teammates, including Mike McPhee who's now living in Halifax. The pair of them got together with the best and brightest of their former mates last year to talk about old times and celebrate the Canadiens' Centennial in Montreal.

On December 4, 2010, management invited the hundred players who contributed most to its century of success to come back for the big party. The official photo from the night shows Bobby Smith, the tallest guy in the back row, proudly wearing the CH one more time. He says the night was special, almost as though he never left.

"That's a bond that's always there, with those guys who you spend so much time with," Smith reminisces. "There are certain friends who you don't need a lot of time to reconnect very easily, so that hundredth anniversary was a lot of fun. If you're going to play a few years in the NHL, it's a treat to spend some of them in Montreal."

Smith says now he also received one of the best pieces of advice he ever got when he played for the Habs, but it didn't come from a coach or teammate. Even in the '80s, before the internet-fuelled obsessions of the new millenium, the Canadiens were the living competitive heartbeat of Montreal. Fans would gather outside the Forum before and after every practice and game, in the hope of making contact with their heroes. After one particularly bad night, Smith recalls being in no mood to greet the people who wanted to talk about what went wrong. His wife, Beth, caught his arm as they were about to walk out of the building.

"She said, these people will see you for two minutes and you will never see them again. If you make a bad impression, they'll remember that for the next twenty-five years," Smith laughs. "She was right."

Bobby Smith made very few bad impressions in his NHL career. While he remembers Montreal fondly, twenty-five years after he watched the clock tick down on a Habs Stanley Cup victory, Canadiens fans remember him with a smile as well.


moeman said...

FANtastic read.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Mike McPhee and Bobby Smith but forgot to mention Cape Breton, their home.

-Hab Diehard in Cape Breton

Marco said...

Very interesting, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was at a Jets-Habs game one night in Wpg, Bobby was facing off against Hawerchuk. Push turned to shove and Bobby high sticked Ducky in the helmet. Big Paul Maclean (asst coach of Redwings now) jumped in and dropped his gloves and started throwing punches. Bobby survived the onslaught and ended the fight with a draw. It was a spirited scrap with both players throwing quality punches.

Bobby had great skills but could also handle the rough stuff when necessary.


Anonymous said...

History changes daily and Habs fans galore will tell you stories of St Patrick. What is often forgotten is how Serge Savard rebuilt that team after the post Pollock mess. The talent was there, a lot of it young and feeling their oats. Teams win Cups, not individuals, and Mr. Smith was central to those teams.

And yeah, they should have had three cups between 86-89. They won one together in 86, and Doug Gilmour took one away in 89. But the other chances, they lost those themselves but I suspect had a heck of a good time doing so.

Anonymous said...

I have that game on tape and they blew the call. It actually was not a block at the blue line at all. The defenseman fanned on the puck and away they broke down the ice.

Patrick was outstanding. You could tell he had the confidence and was in the zone.

Woodvid said...

When are you going to post something about Horton and the lastest evidence of NHL random punishments? Looking for your usual insightful take on things.

Unknown said...

Good on Mrs. Smith - she was absolutely right - and good for Bobby Smith to take her advice. He was fabulous in Montreal and the number 15 has been cursed since he removed it.