Whenever anyone brings up Bird Dog, I often think of Greg Smyth, four days beyond his 33rd birthday and almost at the end of his playing career, sitting in a stall in the St. John’s Maple Leafs’ dressing room at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton, N.B.
Bon Jovi’s “Keep the Faith” was blaring from a boom box that late April night in 1999 — it was the AHL Leafs’ theme song as they took on their arch-rivals, the Fredericton Canadiens in an opening-round playoff series — and it was playing because St. John’s had staved off elimination with an overtime win thanks to a goal from second-year forward Ryan Pepperall.
I’m not sure how much Bird liked the music, but he appreciated the refrain. With his head bobbing a bit to the beat, he looked up from untying his skate laces and across the way at Pepperall. He sent over a little smile.
“Peppy kept the faith, didn’t he? Never forget that, Peppy. Keep on keeping the faith,” and then went back to the laces.
To see the look on Pepperall’s face, you might have thought he’d just been given a one-way contract extension.
For whatever reason, that little scene will be how I will most remember Smyth, who died Friday in St. John’s after a lengthy and uncompromising battle with cancer.
He was just 51.
Smyth’s words to Pepperall came at the end of what had been a wild, gut-wrenching, memorable day.
During the game, a high stick got under the visor of Maple Leafs’ forward Mark Deyell, damaging the latter’s eye, an injury that eventually ended Deyell’s playing career.
In the morning, Smyth had caused chaos when he determined the Canadiens had tarried too long during their morning skate and were cutting into the Leafs’ allotted time. Wearing only half his equipment, he headed onto the rink with his stick and a bucket of pucks and proceeded to fire slapshots at what he saw as procrastinating Fredericton coaches and players, sending them scurrying to their dressing room. Then he came back and informed his teammates the ice would be ready for them presently.
Smyth was big on doing, even when the doing might border on the unconventionally outrageous as it did that morning in Fredericton.
He did not put much stock in talking, certainly not speeches and he would be perturbed at the number of lines used on him here.
He believed in an economy of words (perhaps a few more when a beer or two was involved), but when he offered some, they were soaked up, as they were by Pepperall after that Game 3 in Fredericton.
His opinions were appreciated by his teammates, even if they could be just a tad afraid of him at times.
Opponents were a lot afraid.
Fierce. Feared. Hard-nosed. Look up “tough” in a thesaurus and you will find all adjectives that will be attached to Smyth’s name when describing his playing style.
“Old school” is another, but in this case, the old school would have been in the meanest part of town.
The 22nd overall draft pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1984, the big defenceman played over 200 NHL games for the Flyers, Quebec Nordiques, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks, registering 20 points and 779 penalty minutes. In just over 650 combined games in the NHL, AHL and IHL, he had 3,100 PIMs and about a dozen suspensions.
Of that penalty minute total, 785 came in the 146 games he played with the AHL Leafs after joining them in 1996..
Smyth may have been the most physically intimidating player ever to suit up with a St. John’s team during the city’s two decades in the AHL. And this was someone who was teammates with Shawn Thornton, St. John’s all-time penalty minute leader.
Smyth’s approach to playing was simple. For example, when backing up on a rushing left-winger, he’d often leave a little more space between himself and the boards than what was called for in coaching manuals.
He was inviting the forwards to try to take advantage of the extra space and bust through. Most often, they ended up splattered on the boards by the 225 penance-seeking pounds in Smyth’s 6-4 frame. And those few that did discover a little skating daylight usually found themselves paying a toll meted out by the defenceman’s stick.
But make no mistake, there was more to Smyth’s talents than brute force. He studied the game and he knew it well. And he could teach hockey, too.
In 2004, he was the playing-coach for senior hockey’s Southern Shore Breakers and led them to a Herder Memorial championship. Veteran Breakers defenceman Donny Gosse said Smyth was the best coach he ever had, and told former Telegram reporter Darcy MacRae, then working for The Independent, that Smyth had “more hockey sense in his big toe than most guys do in their entire bodies.”
Former St. John’s head coach Al MacAdam had thought so.
After Smyth retired, MacAdam made him an AHL Leafs’ assistant coach in 1999-2000. Over the previous two seasons, he had come to appreciate Smyth’s hockey IQ while at the same time trying to get a read on all that burned inside the player.
Every so often, MacAdam would make Smyth a healthy scratch, and when asked why, the coach would usually say “I saw something in his eyes,” as if those eyes were the gauges on a boiler from which some steam needed to be released.
You might call it passion. Whatever it was, it probably contributed to a quick end to Smyth’s AHL coaching career.
Less than a month into the 1999-2000 season, Smyth got into a physical altercation with St. John’s forwards David Nemirovsky and Jason Bonsignore in a Portland, Me., diner after a game against the Pirates.
It was well-known that Smyth saw Bonsignore, a former fifth overall draft pick, in particular as a player who was squandering his talents.
Strong feelings. Wrong place. Wrong time. No excuses to be made. None offered.
Smyth was let go the next day. For the record, Bonsignore was gone from St. John’s 29 games into that same season and didn’t play hockey again until almost three years later.
Smyth briefly returned to playing, suiting up for nine games with the London Knights of the British Superleague that 1999-2000 campaign (interestingly, he had first gained notoriety playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League).
But he returned to Newfoundland and remained. His birth certificate might have said Oakville, Ont., but this was where he felt he belonged.
The truest explanation of that decision probably begins with — as it often does for mainland men who come to stay here — the phrase “He met a girl …”
But while Tammy Tilley had become his anchorage, Smyth’s choice to harbour in Newfoundland was also influenced by his love of the outdoors and what he saw as a simpler lifestyle and a straightforward man’s appreciation for the basic straightforwardness of the people who lived here.
There were no corners with Greg Smyth and he had a finely-tuned and supremely accurate radar when it came to detecting — and calling out — falseness.
This was also someone whose principles once led him to turn down a promotion from the AHL’s Halifax Citadels to the NHL’s Nordiques (and the substantial pay increase that would come with it).
In an interview with The Hockey News, he was upfront about why he had taken the stance in February of 1991.
"I told the Nordiques I'm not going to be their babysitter, I’m tired of getting called up for one game just to fight and then being sent back to the minors,” said Smyth, who had spent three seasons bouncing between Halifax and Quebec.
It did not bring an end to his big-league career. Smyth would go on to play 127 of his career 228 NHL games (including 29 more with Quebec) after declining the call-up to the Nordiques.
At one point during Smyth’s playing time here, some opponent described him as “a tough egg to crack.” I can’t remember who, what or when, but I remember the words, because that was a better description of Smyth than that player knew.
Smyth certainly had that hard outer shell that comes with a tough guy’s reputation. But those that knew him best will tell you more about what was inside, about a core that had little to do with his being a hockey player or a tough guy and much about him being a person of substance and steadfastness. And yes, quite a bit of softness, too.
Ask former St. John’s defenceman Danny Markov, who shared a house with Smyth during his first season in St. John’s after arriving from his native Russia.
Smyth patiently guided the young defenceman — who knew barely any English — through a difficult first year in North America, and about all the veteran rearguard asked for was a steady supply of borscht (with a heavy dollop of sour cream), the Russian beet soup for which he had acquired a taste.
The confidence he gained helped launch Markov onto a career that saw him play in well over NHL games, a half-dozen seasons in the KHL, two world championships and two Olympic Games.
Two weeks ago, on learning Smyth’s cancer was terminal, Markov tweeted “My dear friend, great teammate, roommate, mentor, man with a huge heart, Birddog-Greg Smyth, who always supported me, if not (for) you I would not survive my first year in Canada… Please pray for Birddog.”
That pretty much says it all.
When taking the measure of Greg Smyth, gone far too soon, don’t do so in games played or penalty minutes or crazy stories.
Measure him by the respect of his teammates and opponents. Measure him by his friends. Measure him by the love of those closest to him. You’ll find he was much, much bigger than you ever realized.