1. Steve Smith is pictured here at the inaugural Cobourg and District Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in June of 2019.
Photo by Pete Fisher/Today’s Northumberland
Q & A with Steve Smith
Jeff Gard of JG Sports Media recently spoke with Cobourg native Steve Smith, a former NHL defenceman and current assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres, for his website jgsportsmedia.com.
JG: In June of 2019, you were one of inaugural inductees into the Cobourg & District Sports Hall of Fame. What did that honour mean to you?
Smith: It was just a wonderful experience, Jeff. The family were able to get together and truly experience a very fun night, well put together, I was honoured to be put into the Hall of Fame in Cobourg and I’m very proud to say that I’m part of the Cobourg alumni.
JG: This past January, it was great to see you on the Hometown Hockey broadcast. It must have been nice, once again, to come back and reminisce some more.
Smith: It was a fun night. It was an opportunity for me to spend a little more time with my mother, which is always great. I took the opportunity to get down to the waterfront and see just a wonderful production of the way they did everything. It was really something special. I got an opportunity to spend a little bit of time with Justin Williams’ parents, which were in for the event, and Chris Johnston. It turned out to be just a great day. It was a short visit, it was jammed between two (Sabres) games, but it turned out to be wonderful for me.
JG: I think I remember Ron MacLean saying your mom was in the mobile studio during your interview, so she must have enjoyed the experience and having you home for a quick visit.
Smith: Yeah she had a blast. It was really good for her. It was an opportunity for her to spend time with (hosts) Ron and Tara, they couldn’t have been friendlier, they couldn’t have been better, they couldn’t have been more accommodating for her and really made her feel welcome so it was a nice experience for her.
JG: Can you share a little bit about how your family came to Cobourg from Scotland and how you got into hockey once you were here?
Smith: My dad immigrated with the Wilson family, actually, in town probably in 1964. I was about 18-months-old when he came over and my mom and I came a few months later. We moved into the Cobourg depot, which is where we spent most of my childhood and I think if you think back to that Malcolm Gladwell book (Outliers) that he talks about 10,000 hours, it was the perfect storm for me. We had a rink in front of our place and I just skated each and every day, started out about 3 and I still haven’t stopped til today, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to grow up in a really special place and develop my love and addiction to that game.”
JG: A lot of time spent around the hockey rinks, too, and your mom I believe volunteered in the canteen?
Smith: We had three boys and everybody was into hockey and my parents, they wanted to be around us. My mom, her opportunity to be around us was to volunteer at the rink so she was up there selling hot chocolate and coffee all day long and got opportunities to come out and watch her boys play. I’m sure that helped with the fees as well. We were very well off, but we wanted for nothing. My father when he finished work each day would rush over there and usually catch at least part of most of our games and they always did what they could to be there, for sure.”
JG: What are some of your other fond memories in Cobourg from growing up or other sports you played?
Smith: I played virtually everything. I was an adequate lacrosse player, an adequate baseball, nothing special, I played volleyball, I was in track and field, I played basketball, I played pretty much everything. Now today’s kids are very much into one sport, but at that point in time it was whatever was going on I wanted to be part of. Hockey was the one thing that was really special to me. If I had an opportunity to get to the rink, I was always there whether I was watching other games, watching other players, opportunity to practice with other teams, I always took advantage, and playing shinny in and around the old Cobourg rink, I was always in a corner somewhere shooting balls or shooting pucks around and having fun and truly enjoying the game and the camaraderie of being around those kids.”
JG: What was it like to move away when you made the London Knights? From then on, you played hockey for many more years after that so I guess once you left, you never came home for very long because you were always off playing hockey?
Smith: Well that’s exactly right. I moved away at age 17, I was actually just lucky enough to get a tryout to go to the London Knights. I was a walk-on, at that point in time clearly the favourites for spots on the team were their draft picks and I was not recognized or seen being in the town of Cobourg, scouts didn’t get an opportunity to watch me, so I was lucky enough to make the team. It was a traumatic experience the first year where I spent probably up until Christmas in a motel by myself and then eventually moved into a billet family home and spent three years there. Truly enjoyed the experience of being away in London and then married a girl from London and quite frankly I only go back to Cobourg for visits ever since.
JG: You were drafted by Edmonton and eventually make the Oilers. I’ve got to talk about your rookie season. Obviously there’s a goal fans associate you with all the time. You’re playing for the Oilers, Game 7 Division final against Calgary, you try to clear the puck out of your zone and it banks in off Grant Fuhr. It’s also your birthday on April 30 of all things. That goal came in the third period, snapped a 2-2 tie, Calgary ultimately won the game and the series. How did that goal affect you at the time?
Smith: At the time it was clearly a very devastating day and it was very difficult for a long time to get over, but I think what it did is it taught me an awful lot about humility, it taught me an awful lot about success and failure in sports and the meaning of it. It made me certainly a lot better person and since that day I’ve always cheered for people dealing with adversity and I do know the old saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is certainly very evident in that whole set of circumstances because it did make me a stronger person and made me resilient to failure and know that at any point in time during the course of your life and career it could happen and you have to bounce and move past it. It happened and I’ll take credit for what happened. It’s over, it’s done, I had a very successful career, went on to win a Stanley Cup the very following year and had lots of fun there in Edmonton, won some Stanley Cups. You can look at the negative part of it or you look at the positives and something I learned from.”
JG: The next season, the Oilers win the Cup and Wayne Gretzky hands it to you first. Describe that moment because the joy on your face was evident.
Smith: One of the very few hockey pictures I do have is that picture just after Gretz had handed me the Cup. I turned and looked to the stands, I was looking for my parents, I knew they were there, I wanted the opportunity to share the moment with them. It was a special moment, I know that Gretz and some of the leadership in the locker room had decided prior to the game should we win that that’s what they were going to do. I feel fortunate to be the recipient of that and it shows you the character of the people and players that I was fortunate enough to play with in Edmonton.
JG: When something happens to you like when you scored the unfortunate goal the year before, it must really show you how those around you support you or don’t.
Smith: It was more how I reacted to it. It’s not always what happens to you in this world, it’s how you react to it and how you bounce back from it. You’re only as good as you are prepared and I was young and I probably wasn’t always prepared for it and really quite frankly didn’t think an awful lot about how other people reacted to it. It was more important that I reacted the right way, did the right things, showed up, claimed it as a mistake and moved past it.”
JG: After (the first Stanley Cup), you did go on to win two more with the Oilers, 1988 and 1990, defeating Boston both times. Ron MacLean always says to me about the job you did defending against Cam Neely. How big of a task was that and just how tough were those Boston teams that you faced?
Smith: They were clearly the best in the East for a bunch of those years. Philadelphia was the other team we played twice in the finals, but after the Islanders sort of went sideways, Boston started emerging as one of the best teams in the East. With Neely and Ray Bourque and the likes they had a heckuva group. Neely was tough to handle, he was a big strong guy that could run you over or he could go around you and he could do it all. He had no fear…and you paid the price. If you were going to stop him, you had to pay the price so it was always a difficult task to play against him.”
JG: Those were some great Oilers teams back in that day. What did you enjoy about being a part of those teams?
Smith: I think it was just one of those opportunities to really learn from a bunch of guys that were true winners and knew how to treat people and knew how to treat people right. First and foremost, the important part was how we were so included in everything that happened. From the first day that we walked into the locker room we became one big family and whether it was me, my brothers, my dad, my uncle, whoever came to the rink they were always welcome in the locker room, they were welcomed with open arms with the likes of Gretzky and Messier and all these guys were just incredible people first and foremost. Then to go out and win championships together, it was certainly a lot of fun.
JG: Like you mentioned, you had a great career. What are some of your other memories that you have during your NHL career?
Smith: The very next year after I left Edmonton in 1991, we had won in ’90 and we went to the semifinals in ’91 and then going to Chicago which was a powerhouse of its own and we went to the Stanley Cup finals the first year there and the semis the next couple years. Moving to Chicago as my kids were starting to grow up, they were starting to understand and enjoy not only the Blackhawks experience, but the Bulls were winning at that point in time, getting to know Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, all these guys were around all the time so it was a great family experience. It was an opportunity to be in a big city in a great place for hockey and from there it just continued to grow. We went on to Calgary, I coached for a year and then played for three more after that. So the game’s been really good to me. There’s been a lot of great experiences, a lot of great opportunities to see some great places in both Canada and the U.S. and I was very fortunate to be part of all that.
JG: You moved into coaching. When did you know that was something you wanted to do?
Smith: Quite frankly, I really didn’t know. When I first retired I didn’t want to be part of hockey, I didn’t want to hang around, I just wanted to move on and have kids and have a life of my own. I got called from Brian Sutter in Calgary and he convinced me to come and coach. It wasn’t something that I thought about, it was something I reacted to and I quite frankly really and truly enjoyed it so I did it for a year, came out of retirement, played three seasons in Calgary and decided I wanted to stay home with my kids. We have five children and I wanted to coach them all, I wanted to be part of their lives. I still remember back to my father running into the rink and maybe seeing the third period or catching one of the boys’ games and not seeing the other two. I always thought, you know what, that’s the one thing that I do want to do is see everything I can during those precious times with my kids. So I got away from hockey for about eight or nine years and then got back into it again when I started coaching in Edmonton in around the 2010 year.”
JG: You even coached another Cobourg native, Justin Williams, in Carolina. What are the odds of having two, three-time Stanley Cup champions from Cobourg?
Smith: It’s pretty incredible and I didn’t know Justin, I didn’t know his family. I can tell you the odd part of that is that my mother and his mother actually worked in the same factory in town at the old GE plant. Getting to know them a little bit, very little with his parents, but certainly coaching Justin, what a wonderful person he is and what a treat it was to work with him. Having that special bond in Cobourg certainly helped our relationship, but he’s just a first-class act, he’s a really character hockey player, he’s a winner through and through and he did everything right on a daily basis. It showed true on probably what will eventually be a hall of fame career.”
JG: You’re with Buffalo now. What’s it like to coach the game today? There’s so many skilled young players, including Jack Eichel with the Sabres, so what’s the game like today to coach?
Smith: It’s way more communication now than ever. I still remember back to the days that it was a lot of mind games in the early days…nowadays it’s all about communication, it’s all about relationships, it’s all about having an opportunity to spread positive thoughts with these players. I try to treat them like I treat my kids, you try to give them life lessons, you’re talking to them about their daily activities and you’re trying to get them to entrust in what you’re saying. It’s a fun journey. If you can’t play, the second-best thing is to coach and being part of that camaraderie and that team chemistry, just getting your blood boiling on a daily basis, it’s been a lot of fun and I truly enjoy it. I look back and say I probably wouldn’t change a thing.