Exclusive interview with Ryan Smyth

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.

Smytty

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.

 And
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.

THE
PADDLE…

CanoePaddle

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.

GETTING BENCHED…

Smytty

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.

Gregor: Really?

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.

Recently by Jason Gregor:        

  • Oiler Fan 16

    Outstanding interview Gregor. You are the best interviewer on TSN by far. I was only 10 when Oilers beat the Stars and didn’t even know Smyth was benched. That would be a huge story today.

    Great reading that he learned from it. Today if a young Oilers gets benched in the regular season people lose it. I hope we see more tough love. It worked for Smitty. Great stuff.

  • TheBirdOfAnger

    Love the content. Thank you Gregor, Smyth is just a crazy guy I’ve respected so much ever since I was little so it’s nice to hear from him now that he’s retired.

  • Miss him.
    Wish we had a guy to go to the net now like he did.
    An Oilers gem, he’ll be spoken in the same breath as the dynasty boys for as long as I’m around.
    Glad to hear he’s doing well.

  • He say’s he would like to get into management side of hockey…I’m hoping the Oilers hire Ryan…perhaps he can mentor under Kevin Lowe and someday in the future when Kevin retires Ryan can take over….

  • Paq Twinn

    Great interview. Throughly enjoyed part 1. On a side note I wish little 4 yr old Smitty had included winning the Stanley Cup in ‘Magical Sneakers’. Oh what might have been.

  • Smyth94ever

    Sigh… I could read this all day every day. Great interview, Jason. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s Part 2.

    I also hope one day Smytty writes a book about his career. It was a pretty great one and no doubt full of anecdotes galore! *dreams*

  • bradleypi

    Is and always will be my favorite oiler. Will never forget getting his autograph in front of rexall. I’ve only ever been to a couple oiler games and he made that one unforgettable. His energy and enthusiasm was amazing. Classy guy all the way.

  • Anton CP

    Oh how I love the love in, thanks for this. I laugh at the comments about how some of him did not rub off on the “wunder kids” and wish to transplant his heart to all the players – is that the same heart that tried to play hardball with the organization twice ? oh yeah real heart and soul guy. Or I sthat the same heart that was the face of a loser franchise – the two times the oilers had ANY success it was because of guys like Weight, Arnott/Guerin, and Joseph or Pronger, Roloson, Peca, Pisani, Hemsky, and Horcoff at the very least. Was he the best at what he did for a few years – yes until Holmstrom became as good at sitting in front of the net and could skate, pass, and shoot better than him

    • Jason Gregor

      Holmstrom was a better skater and passer? Please show us evidence of this.

      Smyth had 143 more goals and 169 more assists, and never played with players like Lidstrom, Yzerman, Federov, Shanahan and others.

      Other than your opinion, which is uninformed, there is no evidence Holmstrom was any better than Smyth in any regard.

      Are you actually saying Smyth didn’t play hard, because his agent had tough negotiations with the Oilers? The two have no connection.