February 05 2015 05:15PM
I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Ryan Smyth earlier this week discussing his career. He joined me in the TSN 1260 studio for his first lengthy interview since retiring last April.
Today, in part one he discusses retirement, how his childhood dream came true, being drafted by the Oilers and how Ron Low shaped his career.
Jason Gregor: How are you? How’s retirement?
Ryan Smyth: It’s been not bad actually. I think early on it was tough, it was really tough mentally. I was trying to stay active, stay doing stuff but my wife booked a holiday for us early in November so it would take my mind off of it and more so lately it’s been a little bit more laid back, a little bit easier.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being around, being a dad and a husband, and do I miss the game? Absolutely I miss the game. Do I love watching it? I do and it’s a thrill.
Gregor: Are you watching most games?
Smyth: For the most part I do. I try to if I’m not in a rink with my son or my daughter from that. But it’s ah… it’s never ending. There’s lots to do with four kids and it’s active, which is fun.
Gregor: Did you speak with former player about how to handle retirement?
Smyth: Yeah. The best advice I got, was from Craig MacTavish. He said, ‘if I were you, and you can do what you want, but if I were you I would take a year off and just let yourself try to figure things out. Be a husband, be a father and enjoy that side of it because you’re going to want to get back into something and go from there.’ It was the best advice I received and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
Gregor: If an opportunity arose, do you have any ideas what area you’d want to work in? Is coaching something that interests you? Is it scouting? Player personal?
Smyth: I’ll just say this, I’ll say I have a huge passion for the game. Would I like to get involved in some capacity? Yes. When? I don’t know. Coaching is extremely demanding, would I like to be in the management side? [Laughs] I don’t know. There are times where it could be good, and obviously there’s times where it can be bad. I’m sort of just enjoying this, trying to figure out what my avenue would be for the hockey front if that’s what I decide to do. My wife wants to start up a business herself, so I want to allow her, not allow her, but just be there to support her through this after she supported me through the twenty one years.
Gregor: That makes sense. We’ll get into your career in a bit, but I know this Friday night is a big night for you as they retire your jersey in Moose Jaw. They keep tweeting out your baby face picture when you were a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors and I laugh every time. Your nose is straight in that picture.
Smyth: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m going to go and get it done sooner rather than later so that I can get back to the straightness. It’s going to be fun going into Moose Jaw again. My wife and her family are from there. It’s obviously a great honour to be recognized with your jersey in the rafter, especially next to Kelly Buchberger, Theo Fleury, Mike Keenan, guys that have paved the way and shown what it takes to win and to be recognized is pretty special.
Gregor: Let’s talk about your career. It started in Moose Jaw. When did you start to think the NHL was more than just a dream, but a reality?
Smyth: That’s a great question. You know Gregs, you go back, even before Moose Jaw days and your dream is that. Your dream is to be in the NHL and as a young kid you try to follow that dream. When I was in Moose Jaw, I had Mike Babcock as my coach the first year and he really drove the pace of practices, and drove the pace in the games and it just became relentless to us as players. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of knowing that and seeing that and not that he was in the NHL at that time, but obviously you can recognize where he is at now to where he was then, it’s just very comparable. He was on a path to success.
So when you’re getting coaches or teachers that inspire you that way, it’s a great tribute to those guys and Al Tuer was another one. He was more of a rugged one but he was another coach who really helped form who I was as a player. But to specifically sit here and say at what point it was I can’t pinpoint it, other than learning how to work hard in junior and then the hype from the media heading into the draft. The talk of the draft, Central Scouting and that front, so that would probably be the only thing.
Gregor: Twenty years ago when you were drafted there was no social media or multiple drafting sites. People were following the draft, but not nearly like it is now. Back then it was basically Central Scouting with their mid term and final rankings. As a player, how much were you aware of what scouts were thinking about you?
Smyth: Not even close compared to how it is today. You hit it right on there Gregs. And the fact that now you’re getting specials on TV with the top two, three or four players, who are well deserving of it, but it’s magnified to another level.
I do remember when the top eight of us got to go to the Stanley Cup finals and it was Vancouver vs. the Rangers. It was in MSG and we got to meet Don Cherry and we were on his show. It was like holy cow, this is huge.
now, that’s not as big, so to speak. I remember the draft, the days leading up
to it with my agent and there are meetings going on. He told me I was going to
meet with this team or that team. I remember one meeting was with Tampa Bay
and it was the Espositos, (Phil and Tony) both of them.
I was in awe. My father-in-law Ken is a goalie and he was a huge Tony Esposito fan and I mentioned that when I was the meeting (laughs), I’m sure I said many odd things. I was just a seventeen, eighteen year old kid just in awe. And during the meeting he says to me, ‘if you’re available, we’re taking you.’ And the were picking eighth overall and I’m like holy cow. For him to come out and say that, that was pretty special for me to hear.
And then obviously getting drafted by the Oilers was unreal. That was the team that I’d always wanted to be a part of and my dream came true from that front. But it inspired me when you hear those types of things and I was very blessed over the course of my career.
Gregor: It’s interesting to hear them say, ‘ we’re going to take you if you’re there.’ Was that really the first time you thought you could be a top-ten NHL pick’?
Smyth: Yeah, that was the first time for sure. Even though I had been in that top eight block of guys, and rated, but that’s just Central Scouting. So at that point, it’s just a crap shoot. But now, you’re hearing this out of this guy’s mouth. He’s the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and he told me that you are going to be eighth overall, if you’re available; we’re going to take you. And that was a pretty significant statement.
Gregor: I would think so. When you went home, I’m assuming you told your parents. What did they say?
Smyth: ‘Wow. Holy cow, I never would have thought that,” they both said. My agent was like, ‘yeah, it’s legit. These are legit things’ and your mind just starts going crazy. I couldn’t sleep the night before and then I got drafted and I couldn’t sleep that night. I’m wore my jersey to bed [laughs].
Gregor: That is awesome. I think we forget how excited players are and they are still only just kids. Had the Oilers talked to you before the draft? Did you know they were interested?
Smyth: Yeah, I had a meeting with them also, and no lead way did they give me any insight that they were going to take me. They were just, ‘we like your play and one of our scouts has been watching you over the course of your career in Moose Jaw.’ So I mean, that was Glen Sather playing it coy [laughs].
Gregor: When you got drafted by the Oilers, what was your original thought?
Smyth: Well… I was just, I was… I think my whole body just went numb. As you’re walking up to the podium to put on your jersey and your ball cap, and it’s just like, this is coming true. I have a piece of art down in my basement that I made. I wrote a letter called magical sneakers. And these magical sneakers could take me to the NHL, play for the Edmonton Oilers and go to the Stanley Cup Finals and I think I was four or five years old when I did this, my dream came true. So it’s very humbling.
Thankfully, we went to commercial break at this point, because that story choked me up. We get so cynical in hockey sometimes that we forget for many players they are fulfilling a lifetime dream, and many, like Smyth, have thought about it since they were very young. Many don’t make it, I’ve seen that firsthand, but for those who do the satisfaction of achieving your goal must be electric.
Gregor: Let’s talk about that paddle, because I’m not sure a guy got chirped more about his stick than you (laughs). Obviously it worked well, because you scored 386 goals, 101st overall in the history of the game. But, did you ever try a new stick for an extended period of time?
Smyth: Well, first of all, it’s a canoe paddle. (laughs). Second of all, Glen Sather came to me my first year after I had my stick, my heavy stick, thick blade, not much of a curve and he’s like, ‘give me that thing, let me look at it. You need more of a curve, and your lie is wrong.’ And as a young kid you nod. He grabs it and takes me back to Barry Stafford and says, “Staffy, change his stick out for him and get him something else.’ Slats heads back into his back room with his dogs and I said to Staff, ‘give me that thing back; it’s going to work for me. Just leave me alone, I’ll be fine. Thanks for the advice,’ and I continued using it.
The only time I did change was when I first got traded back here. Somebody made a graphite blade, still heavy and a little bit more of a curve because my back was starting to get a little bit sore, so raising the puck was a little difficult. I did try this carbon graphite blade and people called it the prosthetic blade because I painted the blade the colour of a wood so that nobody would know. I tried it for that lockout year, and what did I only get two goals, so it didn’t work out that well. So I went back to the wood.
Gregor: I get it, when you’ve had success with something you want to keep using it. If you don’t believe it in, that’s half of the battle in hockey, especially in the NHL. If you don’t have faith in what you’re doing or what your coach is trying to tell you guys to do as a team, you’re pretty much sunk.
Smyth: You’ve have to believe in what’s got you there and that’s where guys come in and say confidence is a big thing, and it is. Your ability in delivering what you can on a nightly basis, consistently, you’re going to be successful and that’s why the Sydney Crosbys and the Jonathan Toews of the world are so successful, because they’re consistent in doing what they’re told to do, every day.
Gregor: Let's go to your first NHL training camp. You basically had two training camps that year didn't you?
Smyth: Yep, my first year I went through camp, and then the lockout. And going through the meetings with these guys and I’m eighteen years old at the time and I’m trying to figure out what in the world is going on here. And these guys are defending their jobs at the end of their career for us young kids that are coming in.
So I went through the three lockouts and that was one of them. I was fortunate the timing was okay for me to go back to junior and I got to go back and play. I went back and I was thinking, ‘oh my goodness, what’s going on up there,’ but at least I could play and not think about it and worry about it too much.
And then the league started up again in January and I came to camp and did very good and played exhibition games and then they sent me back and I got a little taste of it and then we got beat out by Brandon. I got called up and that’s when I played my first three games and that was a big transition to me.
It was learning the fact that it’s a desperate time when you’re on a team that hadn’t been successful in the last few years. The Oilers were going through a tough time. They were trying to showcase some of the younger kids and that’s where we got our opportunity. But the next year after that I had Ronnie Lowe. And Ronnie Lowe was excellent. He spotted me in at times (only played 48 games) and I got to go to the minors in Cape Breton.
Gregor: And played ten games, correct?
Smyth: Yup, got a two week conditioning stint and Slats he tried to keep me down there. He tried to beat the rule, or change the rule so that I could stay down there. But I ended up coming back up and got spotted in for forty eight games. It was different. I realized quickly this is a man’s game; you have to make sure that you’re ready.
Gregor: I was looking up players who scored two goals in their first NHL season, granted limited games, but then scored 39 in their second season. I couldn't find many other than you.. You adapted pretty quickly..
Smyth: Well I wish that that first year, I only would have played forty one or forty (laughs)
Gregor: So if you had played ten fewer games you might have won the Calder!
Smyth: Probably not (laughs), but honestly I owe a lot of credit to my teammates, one in particular was Dougie Weight. I was fortunate to be on his wing and he was very a crafty player. Stanley Cup champion, All Star, obviously he’s a coach on the Island now, but a guy that just saw the ice, probably as close as Gretz [Wayne Gretzky] and he had eyes in the back of his head. He controlled the play on the half-wall, set up Boris Miranov or [Jason] Arnott on the point for one T. It was incredible to play with him and a lot of credit goes to him for sure.
Gregor: Your first year you didn't play much and the team didn't win very often. The next year you become a competitive team and made the playoffs. We always hear how much more intense they are than the regular season, how much different was it?
Smyth: It’s night and day. It’s phenomenal. It’s a whole new season. It’s a phenomenal level of intensity, how magnified every shift is. It comes down to the individual against the guy that you’re going against. It’s phenomenal. It’s great to be a part of and I fortunate to experience it early in my career. We squeaked into the playoffs a lot early on. And I think that the when we were sixth in LA was the highest team I'd ever been on, but it doesn’t matter because once you are in anything can happens. It’s equal.
Gregor: You scored 39 goals in the regular season, but then Ron Low benched you in the playoffs.
Smyth: He benched me in game two. I
remember like it was yesterday.
Gregor: What did he say to you?
Smyth: I went out for warmup and I came back in the room and he says, "You’re done, you’re not going.’ I was mad, but the best thing to happen to me as a young kid, was that Frankie Musil was around. He wasn’t dressed that night either. He says, ‘You get on the bike right next to me.’
I got undressed, got right next to him on the bike. The bikes were side by side and the players had to walk right by us to go out to the ice surface. Frankie says, ‘Just start riding, just do this program,’ so I bury my head and start riding.
Then coach did his speech and everybody starts coming out. Finally Ron Lowe comes out and Frankie Musil lit right into him. ‘This is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, this guy deserves to be playing,’ and I’m riding right beside him...I did 500 calories just like that! I wanted to hide (laughs). Looking back, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Smyth: Yup. Taught me never to take things for granted.
Gregor: Ron was on my show last year and he said benching you was the worst coaching decision he ever made.
Smyth: Yeah, I owe a lot to Low Tide. Just how he conducted himself as a person and as a coach. He handled himself with great dignity and I don’t regret one bit. It made me who I was as a player after that day.
Gregor: Did he ever give you an explanation as to why he benched you?
Smyth: He didn't say.
Gregor: Even to this day? You’ve never had a beer and asked him what he was thinking?’
Smyth: Now that I'm done I might talk about it with him, but no I haven’t. I think, looking back at it that maybe he was making a statement through the team or not, I don’t know. But I know that the next game he inspired me. He inspired me not only the next game, but my whole career. What I took from it was that he didn't care what people thought. He made the choice that he wanted to go with. To this day I think that’s great, and in some capacity that (not caring what others think) is needed when it comes down to coaching.
Tomorrow, I will have part two of this interview.
Smyth discusses if there is a need for some "tough love" on the Oilers currently, similar to what happened to him with Ron Low.
He also shares some stories about the magical 2006 Stanley Cup run and more.
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