When the National Hockey League champion New York Islanders advanced to the semifinal round of the Stanley Cup play-offs last week, goalie Billy Smith paused to consider his reputation for savagery. “Sure,” he admitted, “I guess you could say I’ve used my stick viciously. Let’s face it, I like my image. I enjoy being hit. When somebody cracks me, I go right back and crack them. The more aggressive it gets, the better I play.”
Though Smith, 31, is recognized by his peers as the NHL’s best goaltender, he has never, in a decade in the league, been named to the All-Star team chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. The reason for the slight, he believes, is his notoriety as the meanest man in the nets. It is a reputation that was embellished earlier this season when he temporarily disabled Edmonton Oiler superstar Wayne Gretzky by belting him on the leg with his stick. Smith claimed he was just going for the puck, but Oiler coach Glen Sather was dubious. “He’s been doing that kind of thing for 10 years,” growled Sather. “One of these days things are gonna be evened up. He’ll get it.”
Skeptics like Sather to the contrary, Smith seems to have learned moderation. Back in 1973, when the Islanders were a woeful expansion team, he set a league record for most penalty minutes for a goalie. “I got my reputation then,” he says. “My style cost us hockey games, but it didn’t hurt anybody because we weren’t going anywhere anyway, and it added a little excitement for the home crowd.”
Now, however, Smith is deadly serious about winning and is careful not to take needless penalties. “A while back,” he says, “I’d let a lot of goals go in because I’d go out of my way to hit somebody. Now I never go out of my way. A man has to come to me to get hit. And that doesn’t happen much anymore because there’s not too many guys who want to cross me. I get into it a couple of times each year, so they know I can still handle myself.”
A native of Perth, Ontario, Smith is the son of a railroad maintenance worker who encouraged Billy and his two hockey-playing brothers by turning the family yard into a rink. Now Billy lives in Huntington Bay, Long Island with his wife, Debbie, and their sons, Chad, 7, and Corey, 5. A friendly, soft-spoken man off the ice, he values privacy with his family, their spacious new five-bedroom home, and his off-season golf, tennis and fishing. These quiet pleasures, ironically, spur him to competitive heights.
“Sometimes one of my boys will say to me, ‘Dad, this kid says you’re a dirty hockey player,’ ” he reports. “I tell him, ‘Yeah, some nights I have to play dirty—some nights it takes that to win.’ Hey, it’s not a sport to me, it’s my living. Look at all the things I’ve got. I own this house because I play hockey and make good money [about $250,000 a year]. I got pressures any businessman has. When I don’t do well, I don’t work anymore. So I’m in there for the money. I get an extra $24,000 if we win the Stanley Cup this year. Sure, it’s a sport to the fans, but I put too much feeling into it for that. There’s too much to lose.”
Recently, when the Islanders defeated their archrivals, the New York Rangers, in the second round of the playoffs, players from both teams followed tradition by lining up on the ice for a round of ceremonial handshakes. Smith, who shuns such politesse, skated abruptly away toward the dressing room. “I’m not going to be a hypocrite,” he says. “I’m a lot dirtier than a lot of the other players, and I probably do more stuff to the other team’s forwards than our other players do to them. I’m not just gonna line up and have somebody that hates my guts shake my hand because he feels he has to. And the guys I hate, I’m not gonna shake their hands either.”
Goaltenders, because of the solitary pressures they face as a hockey team’s last line of defense, are indulged in their idiosyncrasies. Smith’s pregame ritual would set him apart from his teammates even if his bulky goalie’s equipment did not. He arrives in the Islander locker room two hours before every game. He speaks to no one and is not spoken to. No one touches him, not even to give him an encouraging pat on the back. He strips to his underwear and sits facing his locker, forcing hockey out of his mind. “Goaltending is a head game,” he explains. “Unless my head’s on straight, I’m not even as good as a junior goal-tender. I just sit there by myself, maybe thinking about stuff I want to do around the house. It relaxes me.” Then, half an hour before game time, he pulls on his pads. Finally, still silent, still untouched, he leads the Islanders onto the ice.