Players who dared to enter the crease minded by Billy Smith, did so at their own risk. They were often slashed with his stick or punched with his blocker, causing fans across the league to cringe at the sight of him. Protecting his net with fierce intensity, Islanders legendary goaltender Billy Smith handed out punishment left and right, earning him the nickname “Battlin’ Billy.”
“He liked to fight his own battles because a lot of the time he started them. He always believed that the crease was his territory,” said Islanders legend and Smith’s former teammate Bryan Trottier. “I like the fact that he didn’t like any of us in his crease either, battling with guys. He always said ‘if they go in the crease, they’re mine. I’ll take care of them. I don’t need two guys in the crease. I can get him out of there no problem. I don’t need you batting in there too.’ ”
Smith was also a bit of a comedian inside the Islanders locker room. He knew very well that he was a tough guy out on the ice and enjoyed protecting his territory, but Trottier remembered, “Billy always used to say that guys would accidentally run in to the end of his hockey stick. That would always get a pretty good laugh out of the locker room.”
While his sense of humor may have permeated the locker room, Smith took his goaltending responsibilities seriously. The Hockey Hall of Famer was devoted to his role on the team.
“When he got the call in the ‘80s to be the starting goaltender, I think he just focused in and got real quiet. That’s when we knew, don’t even touch him. Don’t talk to him. Just let him be. He’s getting in the zone,” Trottier said about his friend. “But when big games were on the line he played his best hockey.”
He may have been playing his best hockey, but Smith had some extremely talented players on the ice in front of him to generate the points on the offensive side. Trottier, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin had chemistry unmatched by any other team. Still, they looked to Smith for guidance on the ice.
“We really knew what he wanted, like when to force the puck, when not to force the puck. He was very vocal in the net,” Trottier said.
Earning the title of starting goaltender in 1980, Smith helped the Islanders franchise become the fastest franchise to win a Cup after their inception by winning four straight Stanley Cups – one of the main reasons his sweater number has been retired by the Islanders Organization and hangs among the rafters alongside his fellow teammates.
I think there’s such a recognition factor for fans and Long Island that his number is hanging there in the rafters. He was just a giant part of the puzzle that helped us be successful. - Bryan Trottier
“Without him being the type of goalie that he was and playing the style that he did at such a high level, we may not have won all of those Cups,” Trottier said. “I think there’s such a recognition factor for fans and Long Island that his number is hanging there in the rafters. He was just a giant part of the puzzle that helped us be successful.”
While Smith said “It was great to have my number retired,” he said there really wasn’t a story behind the number 31 because it was assigned to him by Jim Pickard, who was the Islanders equipment manager in the early years.
Although Smith didn’t have a story behind wearing sweater number 31, his number will hold a special place in the hearts of all Islanders fans who have memories of the Islanders Dynasty for years to come.
Smith was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the fifth round, 59th overall, of the 1970 NHL Amateur Draft, where he completed two seasons with Los Angeles’ AHL affiliate. In his second season with the Kings Organization, Smith saw ice time in five NHL games. He was then selected by the Islanders in the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft.
In Islanders team history, Smith was the only player to wear sweater number 31, and it was retired in his honor on February 21, 1993. Later that year, he became the only goaltender to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the ‘90s.