When Gord Smith was a hip-checking defenseman for the Washington Capitals his young son, Christopher, was a frequent spectator at Capital Centre. It was a family embarrassment to take Chris when the New York Islanders came to town, however, because Chris' favorite hockey player was not dad, but "Uncle Billy."
That is somewhat significant, because Chris Smith may be the only person outside the confines of Long Island to consider Islander goalie Bill Smith his favorite player. In most cities, Smith is called "The Slasher" or "Sticksmith" and the only emotion felt toward him is pure hate.
Smith's most notorious act of recent weeks occurred Saturday at Nassau Coliseum, where he jabbed the butt end of his stick into the left eye of Buffalo's Lindy Ruff, Ruff's contact lens slipped off the eyeball and he charged Smith in the manner of a truly enraged buffalo.
"I told him I'll be in this game a long time and I'll get him sooner or later," Ruff said. "If you live by the stick, you die by the stick."
Smith, despite a career total of 224 penalty minutes and the evidence provided by television replays, professes to be the maligned innocent.
"The whole thing has been played right out of proportion," said the 29-year-old, 5-foot-10, 185-pounder. "Anybody who's seen me play lately knows I haven't been doing any of that stuff. But they keep spearing you and you have to retaliate. What are you going to do?
"I want the referees to watch the front of the net to see what they are doing to me. And the referees say, 'Don't do anythin, I'll call it.' Then they do it again, the puck is in the net and I ask, What happened? You said you'd call it.'"
Smith's stick betrays his innocence, however, because of the method of taping. Where most goalies wrap extra tape around the top of the shaft so they won't lost control of it, Smith wraps his tape well below the top, leaving several inches of naked, dangerous wood exposed for use in battle.
"It's there for an obvious reason," said Flyer Bobby Clarke, no angel himself. "There's really no way to retaliate. A player has no defense. The goalie's got a face mask and all that equipment on. And he can get you from behind. You just hope the refs call it. And if they don't, you hope your goalies do it to their team.
For his part, Smith has called Clarke "the dirtiest player in the league. I won't hesitate to get anybody that comes near my crease. If the ref doesn't do his job and blow his whistle to keep them off me. I'll kill any Flyer that comes near me. And that especially applies to Bobby Carke."
Tuesday night at the Spectrum they boed Smith lustily when he was the first Islander to be introduced and skate under the spotlight. Then they sat back and waited for his first slash at Clarke's ankles. They are still waiting.
In the second period, Bill Barber tripped Smith while the fans laughed. In the third period, Al Hill cross-checked Smith to the ice. In each case, Smith rose and looked toward referee Andy Van Hellemond, but made no attempt to retaliate.
Instead, he used his stick to ward off Flyer shots, stopping 30 before Denis Potvin's overtime goal gave the Islanders a 4-3 victory. With 6 1/2 minutes left in regulation time, Smith made a superb chest save on a Rick MacLeish breakaway that would have given the Flyers an insurmountable 4-2 lead. Earlier, he made a sliding pad stop on a Ken Linseman breakaway.
Smith explained his attention to duty, saying, "I can't afford to take a cheap penalty. It's playoff hockey now. I'm not going to be the cause for this team to lose. These guys are playing their hearts out for me. I'm not afraid of losing, but I'm afraid of causing the team to lose."
So far in the playoffs, Smith has been the cause of frequent opposition headaches, not only emanating from that funny stick but also from results like that of Tuesday.
In 15 appearances, Smith has posted a 12-2 record with a 2.38 goals-against mark. He has won five of six overtime contests and his road record is an incomprehensible 8-0, Smith, despite the hate waves flowing from the stands, has been a winner twice in Los Angeles, three times in Boston, twice in Buffalo and once in Philadelphia.
When the best-of-seven final resumes here Thursday, Smith will be trying to extend that reamarkable record. Whether he can do it is the subject of much conjecture.
There is also wonder whether Smith will continue to turn the other cheek when the Flyers invade his ice. Or whether anybody will show warlike tendencies.
Before game one, there was reason to expect all-out combat on ice in this series. But Tuesday, the only fight involved the most peaceable Flyer, Jim Watson, and Islander Duane Sutter. Philly's Paul Holmgren turned away despite a poke in the face from Gord Lane. Teammate Moose Dupont skated off after Bob Nystrom shoved his helmet down over his eyes.
For all their caution, the Flyers still yielded three power-play scores to the Islanders and research indicated that Potvin's winner was the first extra-man overtime goal in a Stanley Cup final since such records were first compiled in 1934.
Van Hellemond, who calls them by the book, has set the proper standard for officiating this matchup of physical giants. If colleagues Bob Myers and Wally Harris follow suit, perhaps this series will be remembered for exciting hockey, rather than butt ends and slashes. And maybe Chris Smith will acquire soem company in Uncle Billy's fan club.