Kings’ Ryan Smyth carves out a career in combat zone
It’s difficult to imagine, but Ryan Smyth has scored from somewhere other than the slot.
“My first NHL goal was a slap shot from the blue line, coming across,” he said. “It was probably the last one.”
The area behind the net was Wayne Gretzky’s office, but the combat zone in front of opposing goaltenders has long been Smyth’s home. The Kings left wing routinely absorbs slashes across the hands and whacks on his back while chasing rebounds and deflections, and every scar is a badge of honor.
“That’s the way I’ve made a living. The puck’s got to end up toward the net so you might as well get your body there too,” he said. “And sometimes you have to pay a price. And in this case, I have over the years.”
After so many payments he’s approaching a great reward. Smyth will play the 999th game of his NHL career Thursday, and if all goes well, on Saturday will become the 256th NHL player to reach the 1,000-game milestone.
That’s a lot of crosschecks for 335 goals, 720 points and not much glory. Highlight shows feature end-to-end rushes, not the close-in battles in which Smyth excels. Since he scored that first goal for the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 24, 1995, he probably hasn’t been more than 10 feet away for any other goal.
“More like five or six, or combined for that,” said former Oilers general manager Glen Sather, who spotted Smyth as a kid in Banff, Canada, and chose him sixth overall in the 1994 entry draft. “You’ve got to go to the dirty areas to score. Ryan’s a great player. I’ve always admired the way he plays.”
Sather, now general manager of the New York Rangers, isn’t alone in respecting the man nicknamed “Captain Canada” for leading his homeland eight times at the World Championships — six times as captain — and twice at the Olympics.
The Kings acquired him from Colorado in July 2009 for his grit and experience, and he gives them that and more. He invited several teammates to his home for Canadian Thanksgiving last month, and it’s no coincidence he sits beside rookie Brayden Schenn at the team’s practice facility.
“He’s just a great pro. He comes to work every night, every practice,” said center Jarret Stoll, who played alongside Smyth in Edmonton. “He’s a guy that young guys look up to. I look up to him, even being in the league a number of years.”
Smyth, 34, credits his longevity to the healing power of NHL trainers, support from his wife, Stacey, and his coaches. He’s too humble to mention the work ethic he honed playing against older brother Kevin, who had a brief NHL career, and younger brother Jared.
“Kevin handled the boards probably better than I do. And I take pride in handling the puck down low and I think I learned a lot from him over the years,” he said. “We pushed each other.”
Playing for the Oilers was Smyth’s dream, and he spent parts of 12 seasons with them. He thought he’d be there for life but a contract impasse led them to trade him to the New York Islanders.
“I just had a great relationship there and then all of a sudden something went wrong,” he said. “And that’s part of business. I wouldn’t be here where I’m at today without seeing the other side of things.”
Smyth had signed as a free agent with Colorado, but when a management change led to payroll cuts, he waived his no-trade clause to join the Kings.
“It was a chance to narrow in on a Stanley Cup,” he said. “I knew some of the guys from playing with them in Edmonton. Talking to them and seeing how things were progressing here I felt that it was the best situation hockey-wise for myself.”
The adjustment hasn’t been entirely smooth. His kids — Isabella, 7, Elizabeth, 5, and Alex, 2 — miss Canada and snow, but he’s helping them get acclimated.
“As soon as I get home, I’ll be playing floor hockey with them,” he said.
And, surely, jamming a goal home from the slot.