Billy Smith Biography
Chronology, Career Statistics, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information
Canadian hockey player
Billy Smith was the National Hockey League's (NHL) dominant goalie of the early 1980s. A clutch performer who shone particularly bright in the post-season, Smith's goaltending led the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1979 and 1983, during which he set an NHL record for goalies, winning eighty-eight of 132 playoff games. Smith's playoff performance led Islander coach Al Arbour to call Smith "the greatest money goaltender of all time" in Newsday. But more than his dogged Stanley Cup play, "Battlin' Billy" was famous for his unrelenting aggression—some would have called it viciousness—in the goal crease. He used his stick like a battle axe on the bodies of opponents who came too close and he regularly led NHL goalies in penalty minutes. In 1979, Smith earned a place in NHL history, becoming the first goalie in NHL history to score a goal.
William John Smith was born in Perth, Ontario. Growing up with his brother Gord, who would later play with the NHL's Washington Capitals. Billy played junior hockey in the Perth area, first with the Smiths Falls Bears and then with the Cornwall Royals. The sixth round choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the 1970 amateur draft, Smith was sent to the Kings' Springfield farm club in the American Hockey League where he spent the 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons. In 1971, with Smith in the net, Springfield won the Calder Cup.
Replacing the King's injured Rogie Vachon, Smith played five games with Los Angeles, winning one, with the Kings during the 1971-72 campaign. His violent style of play was already in evidence. The fights he was involved in those five games had repercussions for his future with the less aggressive Kings. "Rumor has it," he told Brian Biggane of the Palm Beach Post, "I was too violent for that team, so they left me unprotected in the 1972 expansion draft." The newborn New York Islanders grabbed him. In New York Smith continued his rough and tumble ways, fearlessly defending his goal crease against encroachment by opponents. He used whatever tactics were necessary—in one game against Buffalo he broke three of his sticks on the ankles of Sabres players—and along the way he set a season record for penalty minutes by a goalie.
Smith, though, was more than simply the brutal goalie the press would later make him out as. He trimmed a full goal from his goals against average in his second season, lowering it from 4.16 to 3.07. After sharing net-minding responsibilities with Gerry Dejardins for two years, Smith was made the Islanders number one goalie in 1974-75. He took the team to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time that season, attracting attention for his tenacious defense in a hard-fought overtime victory against the rival New York Rangers.
In 1975-76, Smith was platooned again, this time with Islander goalie Glenn "Chico" Resch, an arrangement Smith accepted graciously. On November 28, 1979, Smith made history in a game against the Colorado Rockies. When a delayed penalty against the Islanders was blown, the Rockies pulled their goalie. After an errant pass by a Rockies defenseman sailed into the team's undefended net, tape replays showed that Smith had been the last Islander to touch the puck, when it bounced off his chest. As a result he became the first goalie in NHL history to be credited with scoring a goal.
By the end of the 1970s, Smith had established himself as a goalie who refused to be intimidated. At the time, the NHL's smaller crease gave goalies less room to maneuver against opposing forwards who frequently threw violent body checks to get at the puck. Smith, concerned that such play could result in a career-shortening injury, fought for his ground. All was fair in the on-ice war. His chopping attacks at opponents' legs earned him the moniker "Hatchet Man." He jabbed opponents regularly with the butt end of this stick; however, after Smith hit Lindy Ruff in the eye, the NHL initiated a rule that required goalies to have a large knob on the end of their stick's handle. In 1987, largely as a consequence of Smith's aggressively violent play, the NHL enlarged the goal crease to a six-foot semicircle.
Smith was his own man in every way. After an Islander loss in a playoff round, Smith refused to take part in the traditional NHL handshakes, finding the ritual hypocritical. Even among his own teammates, Smith had a reputation as a loner. He avoided team meetings. He disliked practice and training camp, seeing them as likely opportunities for an unnecessary injury. He got into fights with teammates who shot too high in practice rounds, and he would whack his own defensemen on the leg with his stick if they got in his line of sight during a game.
The Islanders appreciated his play however. "Playing with Billy Smith you knew what was expected," teammate Denis Potvin told Brian Biggane. "He wouldn't overhandle the puck ever, and if he went out and handled it behind the net he always left it. So there was no guessing or hesitation on our part, and his whole game was like that, to us very predictable." Smith revolutionized the goalie's conditioning regimen, playing tennis to improve his footwork and video games to sharpen his hand-eye coordination.
Billy Smith came into his own in the 1979-80 season and when Resch left the team late in the year, Smith was left to mind the net for Stanley Cup play. The Islanders won the Cup, a feat they repeated in the next three seasons as well. The playoffs brought out the best in Smith. His goal against average was consistently better in the playoffs than in the regular season. The high-point was his play in the hard-fought 1983 Stanley Cup finals, in which the Islanders swept the Vancouver Canucks and Smith allowed only six goals, holding Wayne Gretzky scoreless for the entire series. Smith's performance led to his being awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 1983 playoffs.
In 1985 the aging Islanders launched a youth movement that saw Smith share net-minding duties with new players. In the 1988-89 season, he played in a mere seventeen games. Seeing the writing on the wall, the 38-year-old Smith announced his retirement in June 1989. When he ended his playing career, his eighty-eight playoff victories and 489 penalty minutes were NHL records for goalies. Smith stayed on with the Islanders as an assistant coach through the end of the 1992-93 season. In 1993 he was signed as goal-tending coach by the expansion Florida Panthers. He became the Panthers' assistant head coach in 1999. In 2001 Smith rejoined the New York Islanders as the team's goaltending coach.
With 305 regular season victories and his remarkable playoff record—eighty-eight victories and a 2.73 goal against average—Billy Smith proved himself one of the great goalies of the last three decades of the 20th century. In February 1993, his number was retired by the New York Islanders. That same year, Smith was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan
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