"I can't explain the feeling of winning the Stanley Cup. It's the ultimate. It's something you always strive for—just to get into the Stanley Cup Final. And then when you win — it's something you always remember." -- Clint Smith
Had he been playing today, Smith would have been a high draft pick, perhaps No. 1 overall. But in the early 1930s, he had to settle for being one of the youngest players ever to turn pro.
"I think I brought myself to New York," Smith remembered in a 2006 interview. "I think I was the third-youngest player to ever turn pro in those days."
The 1991 inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame came to the Rangers in 1936 and stayed through 1942-43, then moved to the Chicago Blackhawks for four more seasons before retiring. He was the last surviving member of the Rangers' Stanley Cup-winning team in 1940; teammate Alf Pike died in March.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound center won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1938-39 and 1943-44 and finished his career with only 24 penalty minutes in 483 regular-season games. Smith had a four-season stretch in which he wasn't called for a penalty. When asked once how he managed to stay out of the box for so long, he replied with a wink: "Ah, it was nuthin. I knew the referees."
Smith was a key member of the 1940 Rangers, who won the franchise's third Stanley Cup in its first 14 seasons in the NHL -- but the last one until 1994 -- by beating the Maple Leafs in six games. But as Smith remembered, the Rangers not only had to beat the Leafs -- they had to overcome the elephants and clowns, too. In those days, when the circus came to Madison Square Garden, the Rangers hit the road, regardless of whether they were playing for the Cup.
"We got locked out of the Garden because of the circus coming in," he remembered. "The circus came into the Garden every spring. So we only got to play two games (in the finals) at home. Then we had to play the rest of the series in Toronto. That was a pretty tough job, even then. There weren't many Ranger fans in that rink.
"We won the first two games in New York, but we lost the next two in Toronto. We won the fifth game in Toronto in overtime. In the sixth game, we were down 2-0 in the third period, but we rallied to force overtime."
In fact, Smith's pass set up Pike's game-tying goal, sending the game into overtime. The extra period didn't last long -- Bryan Hextall scored on a backhander 2:07 into overtime to give the Rangers the Cup.
"I don't remember the winning goal," he said, "but I remember that you could have heard a pin drop (when we scored). It got awfully quiet. It really didn't matter who scored it. All I know is that we won. That was the big thing.
"I can't explain the feeling of winning the Stanley Cup. It's the ultimate. It's something you always strive for—just to get into the Stanley Cup Final. And then when you win — it's something you always remember."
Smith and the Rangers had two more fine seasons, including 1941-42, when the team finished first overall but was upset in the first round of the playoffs. However, by then, World War II was in full swing. No team was hit harder than the Rangers, who saw many of their top stars enter the military. Smith wound up being sold to the Blackhawks after the 1942-43 season.
"(GM) Lester (Patrick) and I, we were never the best of friends," Smith recalled. "We always had a problem with contracts. Lester and I had a pretty good argument, and he ended up selling me to Chicago."
The move turned out to be a good one for Smith's stats, though he didn't come close to winning another Cup.
Smith set the NHL record for assists in 1943-44 with 49 and finished with 72 points. He wrapped up his NHL career with the Blackhawks in 1946-47, finishing with 185 goals and 397 points. He also shares the NHL record for most goals in a period with four, set on March 4, 1945, against Montreal.
After his 11 seasons in the NHL, Smith went to the USHL's Tulsa Oilers in 1947 and was named the league's MVP in 1947-48. He stayed active in hockey as a player-coach for the St. Paul Saints of the USHL until he hung up the blades to coach full-time with the AHL's Cincinnati Mohawks in 1952.
"I coached for several years," he said. "I started with the Rangers' farm club in St. Paul. Then they went into Cincinnati; they went into that team with Montreal, and coached for a year (while also playing two games). I enjoyed coaching. We won a cup with the St. Paul club. But you have to quit sometime, I guess."
He returned to Vancouver in 1953 and stayed there for the rest of his life -- though he retained ties with the Rangers and was part of the team's 75th anniversary celebration in 2001.
"After I coached, I went into the service station business with Imperial Oil near Vancouver," Smith said. "I was in the service-station business for 20 years. I had always worked around service stations during the summer. I liked the service station, so it was natural that I'd go into that business. It treated me well."
But he didn't put his skates away. Smith played old-timers' hockey for a number of years. He also was a founding member of the British Columbia Hockey Benevolent Association, serving as president and holding several other offices in the organization.
Smith's loyalties were divided in 1994 when the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup Final -- against the Vancouver Canucks.
"I saw the games out here," he remembered. "It was a good series. It was hard to pick one team, because I had played for the old Vancouver Lions -- that was my stepping stone to the (NHL). I was torn between the two. I've lived in Vancouver for a long time.
Smith enjoyed a special treat in the summer of 2005 when he got something that players didn't get to do in his era: spend a day with the Stanley Cup. With the 2004-05 season canceled due to the work stoppage, there was no Stanley Cup champion -- so the practice of giving players from the championship team a day with the Cup was extended to a number of players from the past.
"Howie Meeker brought the Cup out to Vancouver Island, and while it was out here, they phoned and asked me if I would like it for a day -- and of course, I said I'd be glad to take it for a day," he said. "We enjoyed it. I went to the Winter Club in West Vancouver, and of course, they just jumped at (the chance to get the Cup for a day). We had a pretty good display. It was nice. But I had to laugh -- the Cup was so small, you could carry it around. You couldn't carry the Cup that we won around. I think we had 13 rings on that Cup -- I think they have five now."