Monday, April 9, 2012

Tips from Sid Smith

Throughout the history of hockey, certain players have carved out a distinctive style or technique that is all their own. In the case of Max Bentley, it was his stick handling skills which baffled opponents and thrilled fans. Rocket Richard's competitive spirit often resulted in his carrying the Canadiens, not to mention opposing players, on his back.

Entering his third full-season with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1951-52), Sid Smith earned the reputation for mastering the fine art of tipping the puck past goalies. Positioning himself in front of the net enabled him to cash in on scoring opportunities. As Leaf coach Joe Primeau put it at the time, Smith is "an exceptional opportunist."

The job didn't come without a certain degree of hardship. By securing his location in front of the net, Smith would often become the focus of physical retaliation by burly defenceman wanting to clear him away. And how did Smith respond to the rough stuff and the importance of maintaining a territorial edge? "You just have to keep moving around," noted the left winger.

The ultimate result for Smith was tipping a shot into the net, but there were additional benefits.

"Even if you never get a piece of it, there's always a good chance that you will screen a shot coming in. Some players seem to think that standing at the side of the net gives them a chance to pop a goal in. I can't see that. When you're in front though, anything is liable to happen," observed Smith.

Born and raised in Toronto, Smith worked on his offensive skills while playing for Don Willson, who coached the Toronto Staffords (OHA-Sr.). In 13 regular season contests, Smith blossomed offensively, netting 9 goals and contributing 12 assists for 21 points.

The following season, 1946-47, Sid Smith continued to apply the lessons taught by his former coach. "Don used to work with me after practices, and when I moved to the Quebec Aces the following year ('46-47) I started to connect a bit," recalled Smith in a 1953 interview. In Quebec, he notched 12 goals in 15 encounters.

Pittsburgh Hornets
While suiting-up for the Aces, the Maple Leafs, who owned his rights, took note of Smith's progress on offence. After brief stints with the big club in 1946-47 (14 games) and 1947-48 (31 games), Smith spent the bulk of the 1948-49 season with Pittsburgh in the AHL.

If there were any doubts relating to Smith's ability to light-up the goal lamp, they were put to rest in 1948-49. Skating in 68 games with the Hornets, Smith lead the American Hockey League in goals (55) and points (112).

Over the next six seasons (1949-50 to 1954-55) with the Maple Leafs, Smith recorded twenty or more goals in each campaign. Hap Day, who  was Smith's first coach in Toronto, noticed his improved play. "He use to roam all over the ice and now he's sticking with that wing. And he's learned how to carry the puck in and get around defencemen," commented Day, who became general manager of the Leafs after giving up his coaching duties.

Sid Smith's final year in pro hockey came in 1957-58 with Toronto. In 601 NHL games, all played in the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he scored 186 goals and his point total reached 369.

At the beginning of this piece, reference was made to Rocket Richard and his burning desire to win no matter the cost. It is said Richard's dark eyes could burn holes in the opposition. He hated to lose and the other guys wearing different colours were the enemy trying to stop him.  Of course, Sid Smith was one of those players and he quickly became aware of how Richard's fire extended beyond the ice.

On one trip, the Leafs and Habs were riding on the same train. As Smith was munching on his breakfast, a reporter noticed the Rocket passing by Smith's table. This individual observed that Richard and Smith exchanged glances, but there was no verbal communication.

The writer approached Smith and commented on how civil the moment was between the two rivals. Without missing a beat Smith replied, "fine nothing, did you see him put his thumb in my corn flakes?"

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