There’s simply no other way to explain how a kid of his caliber, with his smarts and toughness and heart, despite his size, tumbled so far in the 1978 NHL Draft.
Coming off back-to-back Memorial Cup championships and four straight title game appearances as a member of the New Westminster Bruins, Smyl was riding high looking ahead to the big leagues.
He was captain of the best junior team in Canada fresh off a14-point playoff run that culminated in a Smythe Trophy as league MVP and the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs had taken notice; The Hockey News had the St. Paul, Alberta, forward 16th overall in pre-draft rankings.
Smyl, ignoring pleas from his agent to attend the draft in Montreal, stayed with his family and waited for the phone to ring. And waited. And waited. And waited. When it eventually did, Smyl was uneasy about what he heard from Vancouver manager Jake Milford: the Canucks had selected him in the third round, 40th overall.
“To be honest, there was a little disappointment going in the third round, but back then size was a key part of getting drafted and I did everything that I could do as a player, but I didn’t have any control over that,” Smyl, senior advisor to Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, told Canucks.com.
“On the other hand it was probably a positive because it made me even more determined to make it to the NHL, not that I wouldn’t have been, but I was definitely more motivated going into my first training camp.”
At 5-foot-8 and 200-pounds, Smyl lacked size, yet there’s a reason they teach you not to judge a book by its cover. The 20-year-old stormed into Vancouver on a mission to prove his critics wrong, armed with the element of familiarity.
Smyl, or Steamer as he is still known, knew Vancouver inside and out from playing in New Westminster under Ernie "Punch" McLean, who would get his players into the Pacific Coliseum to watch the Canucks whenever he could. Smyl became a Vancouver fan, but more importantly he learned what type of team it was and understood the hype and pressures players went through.
He was a rookie and the farthest thing from it all at once. Smyl wasn’t intimidated with his new NHL surroundings or circumstances and to ensure he was totally comfortable, he stayed with Henry and Jennie Bromley, his BCHL billets.
Smyl had it all figured out. All that was left was to play hockey and he proved early on he could do that, aided by the play of some spectacular linemates.
“I don’t remember when Harry Neale did it, but it was really early that he put Curt Fraser, Thomas Gradin and myself as a line, an all rookie line,” said Smyl.
“I was a straight up and down right winger, bang the bodies and get off type of thing. Playing with Thomas and Curt made me a better player at the same time, we were growing together and we played pretty well together, we weren’t one of the top lines then, but for a rookie line, we were right in there. You knew once you had those types of players to play with that you’d be able to put some numbers up.”
Smyl finished fourth in team scoring with 38 points his rookie season, 13 less than Gradin and three more than Fraser, but it wasn’t his ability to score that drew the most attention. Smyl was a natural born leader.
Throughout minor and junior hockey, Smyl was routinely an alternate or full-time captain, a responsibility that fit his game and eventually became very natural for him. Going into the NHL Smyl’s plan was not to change that, he wanted to learn from the success he’d had in the BCHL and bring that to the Canucks.
The leaders in Vancouver's locker room picked up on that immediately and gave the rookie an impactful boost in confidence.
“Jack McIlhargey and Harold Snepsts had a big influence on me because they said ‘don’t change your style of play coming in here. You respect who you’re playing with, respect who you’re playing against, but don’t change your style.’ That was really important for a player going into it.”
In just his fourth season with the Canucks, Smyl was named the sixth captain in franchise history.
“We were just starting to go into playoffs in ’82 and Kevin McCarthy broke his leg just before and Roger Neilson came up to me and asked me to wear the C at that time.”
Smyl could easily claim that his leadership was what led Vancouver to its run to the Stanley Cup Final that same season, but being as humble as he is, that would never happen. The Canucks truly came together as a team to steamroll the Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Black Hawks en route to a Finals matchup with the two-time defending champion New York Islanders.
The fairy tale run ended there for Vancouver and with those Canucks unable to repeat that success, the '82 playoffs are the unquestioned highlight of Smyl’s career.
“You play your first game, get your first goal, your first hit and you remember those sort of those things, but you always dream of getting some place and that’s getting to the Final for the Stanley Cup. It was amazing.
“The biggest thing for me with that team was how hard we work as a team to be successful. It wasn’t just Thomas Gradin going end-to-end or Richard Brodeur making a save, it was all 18 players that were on the ice and how hard we worked as a team and we knew we had to do that night after night to have any success.”
The Canucks were in fact a direct reflection of their new captain and they remained that way until Smyl retired and became an assistant coach in Vancouver in 1991.
Looking back on his legacy and what Smyl means to the Canucks franchise is difficult for the 52-year-old as he still gets uneasy about being the first player in team history to have his number retired. Smyl is extremely proud of what he accomplished in Vancouver and it all stems back to a conversation he had with his parents prior to leaving home at the age of 13 for the BCHL.
“I remember sitting down with them and both said that ‘you’re going to want a lot of things in life and no matter what, you’re always going to have to work for it. It may be every day work or going to play sports, you’re going to have to work for it.’
“The biggest thing for me overall is that I worked hard and I was consistent over those 13 years and I knew what I was going to be able to do every night as a player and I didn’t change that part of the game from minor hockey to junior hockey to the NHL. That’s why I had the success I did.”
That’s also why, to this day, Smyl remains a face of the franchise and a shining example of what can be accomplished in overcoming adversity through hard work and dedication.