On game days, Billy Smith will not answer the telephone, out of fear of having to say hello. The days he goes into the nets for the New York Islanders, Billy Smith tells the world to go away and don't come back.
At the arena, he sits at his locker in his armor, silent. He yawns a lot, and he says everyone knows what that means: Billy Smith's game face is falling into place. If God called five minutes before faceoff, Smith would have someone take a message.
"I don't sign autographs, I don't look at anybody, I don't go around the locker room telling everybody 'This is it,' said Smith, who is wide-eyed, red-bearded and so pugnacious he has used the untaped knob end of his stick to rearrange the spinal columns of unwary opponents near his crease.
"When I leave the locker room, I hate for people to touch me. Coming out of the dressing room tonight, I ran into a newspaperman who was lost. I cracked him in the glasses with my stick."
Didn't hurt much, Billy.
"If you had fallen down, I would have walked right over you," he said with a smile.
Normal people move out of the way of missiles flying 100 miles per hour. Goalies fling their bodies in front of such missiles. Lately, the aggressively mute Billy Smith has been the best of these abnormal people. In the Islander's easy 6-3 victory over Minnesota in Tuesday night's first game of the Stanley Cup finals, Smith made some sensational early saves in the decisive first period. He also set a goalie-minutes record for successive Cup finals.
Smith has been in the nets 1,952 hours of the most intense competition in hockey. To win last year's Stanley Cup, the Islanders needed six overtime playoff games, including sudden-death in the seventh game of the finals against the Flyers. Smith was a frayed-at-the-edges basket case then.
But everything is lovelier the second time around.
The Islanders are a cinch now. That 6-3 victory might have been 9-1. Not only did they score two short-handed goals in 47 seconds of the first period, the Islanders barely let the North Stars out of their own end.The Stars were gun-shy on their own, power play, worried that the mighty Islanders would add another notch to their playoff record of nine shorthanded goals in 14 games so far.
Two of Minnesota's goals were flukes, one on a 360-degree spinning move that will never be repeated by Dino Ciccarelli, and another slipping in when defenseman Gord Lane, an old Capital, fell in Smith's way.
The Stars made it to the finals on skating and magical puck-handling; but the Islanders came off as the finesse team in the first game. These are the Islanders who could send Clark Gillies to bail out the Afghanistan rebels. These Islanders carry a big stick in a velvet glove.
Best of all, Billy Smith is feeling wonderful.
"Last year I never had a break for rest," he said. "The minute one game ended, we had another. There was never any time off. But this year, we've had three days here, four there -- a whole week before these finals.
"I got so much rest I didn't want any more rest because I was scared I might get too rested," Smith said. "So I'd go out and jog with my boys because I was scared I would get out of condition."
Goalies worry about too little rest, too much rest and people ringing them up on game day.
Goalies even worry about the North Stars.
"This was a big game," Smith said afterwards. "I was scared about us not being ready. This was a gigantic game."
Lane, the defenseman, came by Smith to say he was sorry for the pileup that helped the North Stars score. In Smith's 11-2 playoff record this year, he has given up 2.23 goals a game.
"Don't worry, Gord," Smith said. "Just keep working."
Lane's story is nice, too. Early last season, he left the Capitals, intending to retire. Traded to the Islanders, Lane returned.
He doesn't miss the Caps.
"When the Caps brought in Gary Green, my future wasn't in Washington," Lane said. "He brought in his friends from his coaching time in Hershey. They said I couldn't skate with the faster players in the league."
With the Islanders, Lane is a journeyman defender who serves as occasional muscle but more often a solid reserve who doesn't hurt the team anywhere.
"The Caps only wanted me to run around and fight, but now I am playing an important role with a Stanley Cup finalist," Lane said. "Our coach, Al Arbour, has taught me poise and patience. I am a much better hockey player now than I was with the Caps."
Created in 1970, the Islanders are two years older than the Capitals. The Islanders have won one Stanley Cup, likely will win this one and have played in 92 playoff games. The Caps have played in zero-zilch-blanko playoff games. Why, why, why?
"The Caps have had the top picks out of the juniors every year," Lane said (Yes, the Caps had first shot at drafting nearly every Islander, including Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith.) "And I thought last year they had the best young talent in the league. The difference between the Islanders and the Caps stems from the management side.The difference is the guy behind the bench. I was surprised late this year at how out of shape the Caps were. And I think the Caps are playing the wrong people on their specialty teams."
Did the Caps make a mistake letting Lane go?
"How many playoffs," he said, turning the knife, "have the Caps been in?"