There is a hell. Steve Smith has been there.
There is a heaven. Steve Smith has been there, too.
On April 30, 1986, Smith, then a rookie defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, had one of the worst 23rd birthdays of all time. Late in the seventh game of the Smythe Division finals, Smith made a pass from behind his net that accidentally caromed off Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr and into Stanley Cup playoff history. The puck slid into the back of the Oilers' net for the tiebreaking goal that enabled the underdog Calgary Flames to win the game and the series.
Smith did not run. He did not hide. He did not move to Argentina. When unforgiving fans and members of the media made him a scapegoat for what would prove to be only a temporary hiatus in the Oiler dynasty, he simply shrugged. "I was not about to let one split second ruin my career," he says.
Six years, three Stanley Cups and one trade later, Smith is helping the Chicago Blackhawks blaze a trail of their own through the postseason. The Hawks, who finished second to the Detroit Red Wings in the Norris Division, swept the Wings out of Chicago Stadium and out of the playoffs last Saturday night with a 1-0 victory. Since losing Game 3 of the divisional semis to the St. Louis Blues on April 22, Chicago has won a team-record seven playoff games in a row. Eight more victories, and the Blackhawks will earn their first Cup since 1961.
They're winning with defense, playing the style demanded by their hardboiled coach and general manager, Mike Keenan. The series was a vindication of sorts for Keenan, who retooled the Blackhawks after they were upset by the Minnesota North Stars in the first round last year. In the search for players who would play the game his way, Keenan has made 17 trades since the end of last season. He figured Smith to be a perfect fit. He's rangy, strong (6'4", 215 pounds) and durable, and he was available because a contract dispute had kept him out of Edmonton's training camp. He was a little too offense-minded for Keenan's taste‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Ühe scored a career-high 13 goals last season‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Übut that would change. Keenan sent defenseman Dave Manson to the Oilers, and Smith, ready or not, was in the lineup for the opening game. He played 36 minutes. "My face was as red as the seats in the Chicago Stadium," he says, laughing.
It didn't take long for Smith to adjust. Predictably his offensive production fell, but his defense, his stamina and his toughness drew raves. "Smitty has just been a tower of strength," says associate coach Darryl Sutter.
Keenan was impressed with Smith's professionalism, his quiet calm after a terrific victory or a terrible defeat. "He's been a winner, but he's also been knocked down worse than anyone else in the league," Keenan says. "He responds well to the downs, and he's taught our team to respond to them as well."
Says Chris Chelios, Smith's partner on defense, "He has a certain confidence that rubs off on me and on everyone else."
Perhaps it's the confidence born of a man who knows the worst day of his athletic career is behind him. Says Smith, "If you can face humiliation the way that I did, and deal with it, it makes you a stronger person."
Many hockey players grow playoff beards for luck. As if to get the last laugh in a not-so-private joke, Smith has grown, of all things, a tiny goatee.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Bob Probert stuck it to Smith in Game 4, but the Blackhawks gave Detroit a bellyful.