Monday, May 25, 2009

Clint (Snuffy) Smith, hockey player (1913-2009)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 25, 2009


In a sport of brutes, Clint Smith skated with a gentlemanly deportment.

He used his hockey stick only to pass and shoot the puck, eschewing such illegal — but all too common — maneuvers as the hook, the slash, the high-stick, the butt-end, the crosscheck. Not for him was the elbow, or the slew foot. Forbidden tactics were the province of delinquents. Mr. Smith obeyed the hockey rule book, making him a rare law-abiding player in a game filled with scofflaws.

He was a Gandhi among Goliaths, a peacemaker surrounded by warmongers.

He spent just 26 minutes in the penalty box in 525 career games in the National Hockey League. He had teammates who earned greater punishment in a single shift.

Asked how he avoided punishment, he quipped: “I knew the referees.”

If so, he must have had to introduce himself.

At 5-foot-8, 165-pounds, the slight centreman perhaps had good reason to avoid spontaneous pugilistic showdowns on the ice. Still, he did not want any fan to think him faint of heart.

“I just minded my business. Never shied away from anything,” he once told me.

A pacific disposition did not prevent him from impressive scoring feats. He established an NHL record for assists in a season, which has since been surpassed, and once scored four goals in a period, a standard still to be found in the NHL record book.

The league presented the slick playmaker the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship in 1939 and 1944.

The highlight of his career came in 1940 when he won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers. He was the last living member of the team’s playoff roster.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.

Mr. Smith’s celebrated career also included one of hockey’s more memorable nicknames, as a teammate’s prank saddled him with the unwanted moniker Snuffy Smith.

He was born at Assiniboia, a new-found settlement along the Canadian Pacific Railway line in southern Saskatchewan. His birthdate of Dec. 12, 1913, came on the first anniversary of the community’s incorporation as a village. His birth preceded the formation of the NHL by four years.

Mr. Smith learned to skate before he could read. After an older brother left for the school each morning, the boy borrowed his skates to sprint across the frozen prairie.

At 17, he briefly played junior hockey with the Saskatoon Wesleys, impressing the hockey writer of the Winnipeg Free Press who pronounced the rookie “one of the smartest centre man to perform here in some time.” Mr. Smith joined the senior Saskatoon Crescents, for whom he scored 19 goals in just 18 games.

By 1933, he had turned professional and was skating for the Vancouver Lions of the North West Hockey League. He played for what is now a forgotten team in a forgotten league in a forgotten rink, the Denman Arena at Georgia Street, a magnificent edifice that was the second largest in the Dominion. He was the league’s top goal scorer in his debut campaign, with 25 markers in 34 games. He twice won the league points scoring title.

A successful campaign with the Philadelphia Ramblers led to a two-game callup by the parent Rangers in 1937, during which he scored his first NHL goal. He became a league regular for the following 10 seasons.

He got his nickname while centering a line with Lynn Patrick and Cecil Dillon. In a game against inter-city rivals, the New York Americans, Mr. Smith scored a game-winning goal that inspired a teammate to some mischief.

“Cecil Dillon never read the sports page,” Mr. Smith said in an interview four years ago. “Every time he picked up a newspaper all he read was the funny pages.” One of his favourite comic strips starred Barney Google and an ornery hillbilly named Snuffy Smith. “As soon as I scored, Dillon went over to ... the announcer, and said, ‘Tell ‘em Snuffy Smith scored that goal.’ Well, damn if he didn’t say it over the loudspeaker.”

Up in the rafters of old Madison Square Garden, the gallery gods and the sportswriters took up a nickname whose humour was based on irony.

Unlike his cartoon counterpart, the Associated Press once noted, the hockey player was “neither explosive, nor belligerent, nor verbose.”

In 1940, the Rangers faced the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup finals. After winning games on consecutive nights at the Garden in Manhattan, the series shifted to Toronto to make way for the circus.

He recalled Maple Leaf Gardens as a most inhospitable venue for visitors.

“In those days, any time you scored against them, you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “If they scored, it was like dynamite.”

In Game 6 of the finals, on April 13, 1940, Mr. Smith assisted on a third-period goal by Alf Pike that tied the score 2-2. In overtime, Mr. Smith won a faceoff that led to the cup-winning goal by Bryan Hextall. The Rangers did not linger long with the trophy.

“It came out on the ice,” he remembered, “but we didn’t skate around with it.”

The Rangers retired to the Royal York Hotel, where a champagne party lasted until they boarded a train at Union Station for a celebratory trek that lasted for hours.

The Broadway Blue Shirts, as they were known, seemed destined to build a dynasty. Instead, the club suffered during the war years as star players left to join the Canadian armed forces. The Rangers would not win the Stanley Cup again for another 54 years.

In 1943, he was signed by the Chicago Black Hawks, for whom he offered a pacific but prolific presence. He set a league mark for assists with 49, feeding sharp passes to linemates Doug Bentley and Bill Mosienko. Chicago made a run for the cup that year until being swept in the finals by Maurice (Rocket) Richard and the Montreal Canadiens.

On March 4, 1945, Mr. Smith put his name in the NHL record book by scoring four goals in the third period of a 6-4 victory at home against the Canadiens. Ten others share the mark for most goals in a period.

Mr. Smith was never punished for more than three minor fouls in an NHL season. In three full seasons, he managed to play without incurring a single infraction.

He joined the Tulsa Oilers for the 1947-48 season, again seeming to score at will and earning honours as the United States Hockey League’s most valuable player. He then became a playing coach with the St. Paul Saints, winning a league championship. He concluded his coaching career with the Cincinnati Mohawks.

After his playing days ended, Mr. Smith returned to the Vancouver area, where he operated an Esso service station like Murray Westgate, the actor who portrayed an Imperial Oil dealer during hockey telecasts. Mr. Smith spent 20 years ensuring happy motoring for his customers.

He continued to play old-timers’ hockey and was a founding member of the British Columbia Hockey Benevolent Association, a registered charity.

Mr. Smith faced a dilemma as a spectator in the 1994 season, which concluded with his hometown Vancouver Canucks facing the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals. He let his allegiance be known in quiet fashion when he presented to the Rangers general manager a heavy wool sweater. The blue cloth included moth holes and other wear from use while duck hunting and puck shooting. On its back was the No. 10. He figured the Rangers would like it as a good luck charm. It worked, as his old team ended a long jinx.

Mr. Smith was the last living member of the 1940 Cup-winning team following the death of Alf Pike in Calgary earlier this year. Mr. Smith was also regarded as the oldest living member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Clinton James Smith was born on Dec. 12, 1913, at Assiniboia, Sask. He died on May 19. He was 95. He leaves two daughters, Judi Smith, of Toronto, and Gini Thuemling, of Fernandina Beach, Fla. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Ella Keyes, who died in 1988. They married on April 18, 1940, just five days after the groom won the Stanley Cup. He was also predeceased by two brothers.