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ROBIN SHORT: Battlin’ was in the blood with Billy Smith and family

Billy Smith, shown here making a save off the Montreal Canadiens’ Bob Gainey, won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP.
Billy Smith, shown here making a save off the Montreal Canadiens’ Bob Gainey, won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP. - The Canadian Press

Brother of former Islanders' goaltending great was front and centre in famous 1975 Barrie Flyers-St. John's Capitals Allan Cup dustup

Billy Smith smiles and nods with a mischievous wink as the subject of the 1975 Allan Cup playdowns is raised.

Smith never did play in the Canadian senior hockey championship, and certainly by 1975, the New York Islanders goaltending icon was two years into a Hall of Fame career that would last parts of 18 winters.

Yet Billy is acutely aware of the series between the Barrie Flyers and St. John’s Capitals which ended in a bloodbath on Memorial Stadium ice, and is forever etched into the minds of those who witnessed it.

In the spring of ’75, the Caps had just come off their third straight Herder Memorial Trophy championship, and were hosting the Barrie, Ont. Flyers in the Allan Cup semifinal.

The Flyers, with ex-NHLer Darryl Sly as their playing-coach, were the defending Canadian senior hockey champs.

Barrie arrived in St. John’s and promptly won three straight games, but it was the third game that’s remembered for a bench-clearing brawl that occurred with 1:17 left in the third and Barrie leading 2-1.

At one point, there were 22 different fights going on at the same time, including tilts pitting the goaltenders against each other.

And looking on was the Flyers’ tough, little defenceman by the name of Jack Smith, who might have incited the whole thing.

Back in Game 1, on a Friday night before a full house at the Stadium, St. John’s hardrock Bob ‘Knobby’ Lambert crunched the Flyers’ Phil Branston with an open-ice hit. Smith reported skated several strides and cross-checked Lambert across the neck.

Lambert was knocked cold, sent to hospital and Smith, a Barrie cop, was given a match penalty and suspended for the remainder of the series.

On that play, the tone had been set.

A woozy Lambert dressed for Game 2, but saw little ice. By Game 3, he and the Caps were ready for business.

Barrie left St. John's without finishing the third game. A photo appeared in the Toronto Sun of the Flyers arriving at Pearson International Airport, some of them bandaged from their wounds.

The team was eventually awarded the series by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, but lost in the national final to the Thunder Bay Twins.

“We left Newfoundland battered up and with a bunch of guys suspended,” Sly, who has since passed away, told me back in 2000. “We left a war zone.”

The Smith brothers from Perth, Ont., weren’t very big, but they played for keeps. Jack, the oldest, didn’t play pro but Billy, his younger brother by two years, remembers watching him fight in junior with the Cornwall Royals.

The middle brother, Gordie, also played in the NHL, with Washington and Winnipeg. One season, Gordie Smith racked up 253 penalty minutes for his Eastern league team in New Haven, Conn. Only Kevin Morrison, who would fight his way to the WHA and NHL before enjoying a lengthy stretch playing senior hockey in Stephenville, would have more PIMS.

As for Billy, he’d backstop the powerhouse Isles to four Stanley Cups, cop a Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP.

And along the way, he’d prove time and again worthy of the nickname, “Battlin’ Billy.”

“Our backyard used to be pretty good,” Smith says today. “I was the youngest and I think in the end that’s what got me in the net.

“My brothers were so much better than I was, and the way I kept up with them was going in the net. Everybody wants somebody to shoot at, and turns out I was pretty good.

“And it’s where I learned to stand up for myself.”

The Islanders were only a few years into the NHL as an expansion team when the oldest Smith brother was skating for the Flyers, winners of Canada’s senior championship in 1974, and runners-up in ’75 and ’76.

“I’d heard about it, and I wasn’t surprised he did it,” Bill says of his brother’s shenanigans at the Allan Cup series in St. John’s. “Jack was probably the toughest guy you’d ever see. Maybe 5-10, 170 pounds at that time.

“I saw a lot of his fights when he played for Cornwall, and he was a really good fighter. I’d have put him up with just about anyone. He’d be like Garry Howatt or Bobby Nystrom … good on his feet, threw a lot of punches. He took on the big guys.”

Jack, now retired from the police force, didn’t talk a lot about the series, Billy says. And neither did Billy reminisce much about his many tussles over the years.

Old hockey players, you have to understand, don’t talk a lot about their past battles.

“We all did it, it’s over, so we all get on with our lives,” he says.

Make no mistake, part of what made Billy Smith so good in the late 70s and early 80s was the fire that burned inside, with a little intimidation thrown in for good measure.

Nobody wanted to win more than Smith, and those who stood in the way met the meaty end of his goal stick.

Even teammates.

Paul Boutilier, who won three rings as an Islanders defenceman, related a story to me a while ago involving Smith and Pat LaFontaine.

“Billy used to show up at camp every year with all new gear, except for that mask. For the first week or so, Billy could barely move.

“So we have this kid, a first-round pick named Pat LaFontaine. LaFontaine comes into camp and he’s dancing around the ice, skating in and deking Billy left and right. And the media’s watching, taking notes.

“Billy finally says to a couple of us, ‘Boys, ya better talk to the kid.’ So we take LaFontaine aside and tell him Billy’s got new gear that he’s breaking in and maybe you don’t want to make him look bad or anything.

“Next scrimmage, LaFontaine is skating in all alone on Billy and we see Billy’s hand slide up to the top of his stick. We’re like, ‘Oh @#$&!’”

Smith chopped LaFontaine across the arm and the rookie crumpled into the corner. The future Hall of Famer would be okay, but the message was delivered.

Asked about it today, Smith has little to say, only, “we had an incident, but that’s hockey.

“Look, the only thing I ever told the guys was, ‘I’ve never made a cent in practice.’ That’s how I took practice. Practice was to go get in shape and refine what you have to do for the season.

“To skate down the length of the ice, with nobody chasing you, and start deking and weaving, that just not going to happen in a game.”

Smith was in town last weekend for the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the Heart and Stroke Association’s Hockey Heroes Weekend fundraiser.

He was one of four Hall of Famers, joining Dale Hawerchuk, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.

And speaking of the Hall of Fame, there were five of them on those Islanders teams which won four straight Cups — Smith, along with captain Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies.

Outside the Montreal Canadiens (who won five Cups in a row from 1956-60, and four straight from 1976-79), the Isles are the only team to win four consecutive championships.

From 1980 until losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1984 final, the Islanders won a record 19 straight playoff series.

Given the salary cap era, that record and the four straight championships likely won’t be eclipsed any time soon.

Yet when it came to voting for the NHL’s greatest team during the league 100th anniversary celebrations, here was the 1982-83 version of the Islanders ranked No. 7 behind the 1984-85 Oilers, 91-92 Penguins, 76-77 Canadiens, 87-88 Oilers, 86-87 Oilers and 1997-98 Red Wings.

“A lot has to do with where you’re playing,” Smith said, “and if our team had been playing out of Madison Square Garden (home to the New York Rangers in New York City) and won all those Cups, you’d have never heard the end of it. It would have been up there with the Miracle on Ice.

“There’s a difference. Long Island is very low key compared to Manhattan.

“But we did what we did, and we’ll see if anybody can beat 19 in a row. That’s going to be a hard number to beat. The salary cap makes a huge difference. In all of our Cup wins, we had 16 guys there for each one of them. That’s hard to do.”

For as much as Potvin, Trottier, Bossy and Gillies figured in all the wins, Smith said a big reason for the Isles’ success had to do with the unheralded players like Gordie Lane, Ken Morrow and Anders Kallur.

“There are a lot of guys people tend to forget. Butchy Goring, for example. Why he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame I’ll never know. Bobby Bourne had unbelievable speed and he scored a lot of goals for us.

“Gordie Lane had a little bit of an edge to him, which was great. You put him on ice, with me at the same time as (Garry) Howatt and Bobby Nystrom ...

“Dave Langevin is another guy who didn’t get credit for being a great player in his own right. He was the only guy on our team that I’d let block a shot, because he was so good at it.”

Special teams, reminded Smith, often make the difference between good and great teams and while the Islanders could trot out a bunch of Hall of Famers on the power play — including Bossy, perhaps the greatest pure sniper the game has ever known — the penalty kill was just as effective.

“I still remember some games when we got major penalties and ended up scoring one or two goals,” he said. “Wayne Merrick, Billy Carroll, Butch Goring, Andy Kallur, Stefan Perrson, Tommy Jonsson … we were strong all the way through. We had a ton of guys who could do the job.

“And the thing is, we didn’t have to play our superstars if we didn’t want to.”

Smith still plays a bit these days when he’s not in Florida or helping out Dale Hawerchuk as a goalie consultant with the Barrie Colts junior squad.

But like all old goalies, he doesn’t don the pads anymore. Billy’s a defenceman now.

“I don’t want to get hurt,” he grins.

Or hurt anyone else, probably.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email robin.short@thetelegram.com Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

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