I don’t really have too much to say about Ryan Smyth retiring. I’ve said a lot about him over the years and I thought he was a great player and a great Oiler. I’m not sure I have anything new to add on that front.
It was a very cool scene, one of the things that draws people to sports. I’m a guy who’s kind of obsessive about figuring out how things work but like anyone else, I was drawn to sports in part because it’s exciting and in part because sport gives you moments like that. They aren’t always good – they usually aren’t, because there are 30 teams and 29 lose every year – but when they’re good, they’re really good.
Smyth’s retirement in Edmonton kind of closed a lot of circles for the Oilers and their fans. The way he left was so unexpected and abrupt, there was never really a chance for an evening like that. With the Oilers’ history of guys moving on well before they retired, Smyth was really the first guy who’d be on your list of ten guys who defined the club who retired as an Oiler in circumstances in which he got to play a final game with the whole rink knowing it was his final game. Kevin Lowe’s the only other guy who really comes close but his career kind of petered out due to an ear problem, as I recall. For a team that’s as glittery as the Oilers, something like Saturday night has been a long time coming.
As a fan of the team, hopefully it kind of closes the circle on the really awful years as well. Those years started when Smyth was dealt. Many of us were exceedingly unhappy with it, unhappy with how certain elements of the club talked about him afterwards, unhappy with the way it was spun and unhappy with what it said about the club’s willingness to spend money to compete. The next two years didn’t exactly assuage that. Then things got really bad. Smyth getting his evening would be a nice bookend (mainly in that it would mean it’s over) to the truly awful part of making the Oilers competitive again.
One of the great things about having a guy like Smyth close his account in Edmonton after a long, long career is that you think back on it. There was some joking on Twitter as Smyth did his lap of the ice about how twenty years from now Yakupov would be taking a spin while the camera panned to Lowe and Smyth, somewhere in the rafters, watching. (To me, Lowe is the defining Oiler of all the Glory Boys, what with being the first draft pick, scoring the first goal, winning five Cups and, perhaps most importantly, being the one who came back).
It sounds ridiculous, given the season that Yakupov’s had and the sort of pervasive sense that he isn’t seen as being part of the inner core of the team but it’s worth pointing out that there was a point, early in Smyth’s career, when that was true of him as well. Smyth had a great season scoring his goals his second full year in the NHL, putting 39 on the board. His second and third years didn’t go well – the third year in particular.
In his first 27 games of the 1998-99 season, Smyth put up…one goal. And two assists. He was playing about 10:30 per night. His season improved the rest of the way – he scored 12-16-28 in his final 44 games – but it wasn’t a banner year. There were scratches. Including a healthy scratch in the playoffs that year. It was tough sledding.
Along the way, the Oilers went out and got a goalie to replace Curtis Joseph, who’d left town for Toronto the previous summer. The Bob Essensa/Mikhail Shtalenkov duo was no longer cutting it. They ended up trading Mats Lindgren for Tommy Salo. It was widely reported at the time that the Islanders had been pushing for Ryan Smyth but that Glen Sather refused to cave on that. So the Isles got Lindgren and the Oilers kept Smyth.
Everything we saw on Saturday night was because the Oilers decided not to give up on a guy who had all sorts of wonderful characteristics in a hockey player but was taking longer than he should to put it together. If Slats had been unwilling to play a bit of poker with Mike Milbury, if the Oilers had just decided that they were sick of dealing with Smyth’s bad habits (and, if he was getting healthy scratched as a guy with his track record of goal scoring, he must have had some horrific habits), it wouldn’t have happened.
If nothing else, Smyth’s lap in Edmonton the other night was a pretty good reminder that the long run is a long time. I’m pretty sure that twenty years from now, at least one of the 23 and younger group on this Oilers team will be having a night similar to the one Smyth had. I wouldn’t want to guess which one it is though.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org