Off the Top of My Head
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
4 months ago
There are many reasons to celebrate the NHL career of Ryan Smyth, as the Edmonton Oilers did Thursday in a ceremony that made him and Lee Fogolin the first inductees into the team’s hall of fame at Rogers Place, but one thing about No. 94 always stands out for me.
From his first shift with the Oilers on Jan. 22, 1995, to his final twirl during a tearful farewell on April 12, 2014 and for every day in between in a career spanning 19 years and 1,270 regular season games, I never once saw Smyth take being in the NHL for granted. He was always upbeat — sort of like a rink rat who’d snuck into the dressing room and hadn’t been caught. For me, that was his most endearing quality.
Hanging around in the room never got tired or became the same-old, same-old for Smyth. Neither did tossing three pucks over the glass to children before every home game. Nobody who witnessed it will ever forget the day Smyth left the Oilers for Long Island. Nobody will forget when he returned from Los Angeles for a much anticipated encore or the day when time finally caught up to him and he bid farewell.
Smyth wasn’t the most talented player on the post Stanley Cup teams, but he loved the game and he loved being on the ice — especially in front of the net where opponents couldn’t move him even if they knocked him around until he was blowing snot bubbles. Smyth was stubborn, relentless and more than anything else, he was always happy to be there.
Much has been said and written about Smyth and Fogolin in recent days and they both deserve every accolade as the initial inductees into the Oilers HOF. For me, Smyth perfectly framed his career and induction the way he described his first NHL game leading up to the ceremony before a 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
“Early on in my career, my first NHL game, was against the Los Angeles Kings, against Wayne Gretzky,” Smyth said. “My first NHL shift was against Wayne Gretzky. I was lined up on left wing and he was at centre, and he got kicked out. Now, I line up against him, right against me. It’s just like, ‘Wow, is this really true?’ I pinched myself as I’m saying it . . .”
It’s true, Smytty. All true.
In all my years watching hockey, I must have seen somebody look as helpless when the gloves came off as Jesse Puljujarvi did when Nashville’s Kiefer Sherwood went after him Tuesday after a hit on Alex Carrier, but I don’t remember who. Maybe Alex Semin, who at least threw some punches in a fight with Marc Staal years ago.
I like the physical dimension Puljujarvi has added to his repertoire in recent weeks. He’s got a big frame and he’s capable of imposing his physical will on opponents. Puljujarvi is effective when he hits. The thing is, though, when you hit people there will be times when they don’t like it and they or a teammate come back at you. That’s what happened in this case.
I’m not of the mind a player should have to fight for throwing a clean hard hit, but the reality is it happens. When it does, a player like Puljujarvi has to know how avoid getting speed-bagged. He doesn’t have to know how to fight, but he does have to know how to hang on, how to tie up an opponent and protect himself.
Puljujarvi reminds me a bit of Joe Hulbig, a big winger the Oilers drafted 13th overall in 1992. Joe Big wasn’t going to be able to rely on his offensive skills alone at the NHL level. He had to play with a physical edge and bang to be effective. That meant sometimes getting into situations like we saw Tuesday. Not ideal for kid coming out of college hockey.
Having spent four seasons at Providence College, Joe Big wasn’t much of a scrapper. When Hulbig tried to ratchet up his physical game to make an impression against Vancouver during pre-season, he got dummied on back-to-back nights by Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick. My read was that Hulbig was never the same after that. He would play just 24 games with the Oilers and 31 more with the Boston Bruins before retiring.
What we saw with Puljujarvi is not the same as what happened with Hulbig. Jesse never took a beating like Joe Big did, but he could have. If it was my call, I’d have Puljujarvi spend some time in the gym with somebody who could show him the ropes. Staios, now in player development with the Oilers, comes to mind.
THAT TKACHEV KID
Ever wonder whatever happened to Vladimir Tkachev, the talented but tiny Russian forward the Oilers signed during training camp in 2014 before the NHL voided the deal? Me either. Tkachev generated some curiosity at camp with the Oilers, but he wasn’t eligible to be signed.
I hadn’t given Tkachev any thought, actually, until I came across him while looking up former Oilers’ goaltender Ben Scrivens for the item below this — he and Scrivens were teammates with Salavat Yulayev in 2017-18.
Anyway, Tkachev, now 27, never did break big when he finally made it over here. He got a four-game cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Kings in 2021-22, scoring 0-2-2, but that’s it. He’s playing with Omsk Avangard now.
SCRIVENS OUT AND ABOUT
I came across an interesting post on Twitter the other day about Scrivens. Scrivens, who is now 36 and played 144 NHL games, 78 of those with the Oilers 2013-15, is a social worker these days and he spent some time door-knocking with NDP candidate Janis Irwin last week. Scrivens retired after the 2017-18 season.
With Smyth and Fogolin the initial inductees for the Oilers HOF, who would be next if you had your say? With a maximum of three entrants each year, there are so many worthy candidates. For me, it would be Charlie Huddy, Doug Weight and Joe Moss in 2023.
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