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Avalanche adds a true warrior in Ryan Smyth

by Larry Wigge

At times a telephone can be your best friend. Other times it can make life a little too complicated.

On the first day of free agency back on July 1, NHL players had the opportunity to hand-pick a new team, a new city, a new life. Ryan Smyth was one of those players.

Smyth, his wife Stacey, and daughters Isabella and Elizabeth had become pretty comfortable in Edmonton for 11-1/2 years before he was traded to the New York Islanders at the trading deadline last February. Now, he was a free agent, weighing all the options. After all, life in three cities in five months isn’t what Smyth had in mind for his family.

”I don’t like change,” Smyth said. “I like doing the same things, playing the same way, seeing the same sites that make me and my family comfortable."

So moving from Edmonton to Long Island and now somewhere else was so strange to Smyth.

"It’s just not natural for a meat-and-potatoes guy like me," he laughed. "I had been fortunate to play for one team for so long. I don’t want to sound like a stick in the mud; but you go to the rink the same way all the time, the same route, see the same scenery, some of the same people.”

On this initially quiet Sunday morning on July 1, Smyth and his family were in British Columbia on vacation. But there was no hiding from the interested NHL teams..

The phone began ringing off the hook with teams interested in making their sales pitch to one of the grittiest competitors and heart-and-soul players in the game, not to mention the best player in hockey at causing havoc in front of the opposition’s goaltender, tipping shots and screening goalies.

What most of the hockey world didn’t know at the time is former San Jose Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan, another gritty competitor who also happened to be represented by agent Don Meehan, had been talking for a couple of weeks about what free agency might bring to him.

One city kept coming up in those conversations.

"We had both played in the Western Conference for years and that’s where we felt comfortable," Hannan remembered. "We were both looking for a good city to live and an organization that had won a Stanley Cup and had a tradition of putting together contending teams."

That’s about the time that future Hall of Fame center Joe Sakic, captain of the Colorado Avalanche, stepped in and became a member of the Denver Chamber of Commerce.

"Joe was a busy guy,” Smyth said. “He called me twice early that morning, telling me how much we’d love Denver, the commitment the team had to putting a winning team together. Stacey laughed and said Joe was beginning to sound like a used-car salesman."

After a few hours of talking to Meehan and other teams, Smyth saw the message light on his phone go off. It was Sakic for a third time.

He said; "This is Joe. We’ve got Hannan. Now we’ve got to get you."

Some could look at that message as a challenge. But Ryan and Stacey Smyth didn’t when they began seriously discussing their options.

"Stacey played the message for me three times," Ryan laughed. "I think she was beginning to like Joe’s persistence."

A few hours later, it was Smyth doing the calling and Sakic was the first to know for certain that the swashbuckling power forward had decided to sign a five-year, $31.25 million contract with the Avalanche.

"It's not too hard to recruit when you're coming to Colorado," said Sakic. "I told Ryan and Scott about the city and the organization: nothing but first-class. When you look at our lineup and see how good our lineup is, it's an easy sell."

What does Smyth bring to the Avalanche? That's easy, Sakic said.

"Grit. Something that we needed. He's a presence. A guy teams are going to pay attention to."

And now, several months later, the Avalanche -- who finished 15-2-2 down the stretch, but still fell short of the playoffs --look pretty darn good with Smyth and Hannan in that lineup that showed so much promise down the stretch. And Sakic and Smyth, who had previously been teammates on the 2002 gold medal-winning Canadian Olympic Team and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey championship team and the 2006 Olympic Team, are trying to win another sort of championship.

Smyth and Sakic didn’t click together (at least not the first time they played on the same line), but the bond the two families formed on and around July 1 has the Smyths living just down the street from Joe, his wife Debbie, and their children Mitchell, Chase and Kamryn.

So far, Smyth and Sakic are carpooling, with Sakic doing the driving.

"Sometimes I’m not sure about Joe’s driving," Smyth laughed. "He’s been living in Denver how long and I don’t think he knows that the mountains are West. He's had a few lapses. Took a few different routes. Got caught in traffic. I think I know the way to the rink now."

Sakic said he wanted Ryan to see some of the beautiful Colorado scenery and then cracked: "I'm still waiting for him to offer to help pay for the gas."

Gas? Ryan said he’s wondering when Joe is going to volunteer to come over to his house to baby sit.

On the ice, said Smyth, "I just want to make sure I don’t mess up the chemistry they developed down the stretch when they went 15-2-2."

Fat chance.

"We were energized by the way the team had just two regulation losses in the last 19 games," Avs General Manager Francois Giguere said. "We worked long and hard to identify what we needed to make the next step. Everyone agreed we needed more grit and leadership and character.

"How can you not talk about all three of those intangibles without talking about Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan? These two players make us feel like we’re a team that’s going to compete for the Stanley Cup."

The foundation, if you will, still starts and ends with Sakic and now, you could say “Super Joe” is complemented nicely by veterans Smyth, Hannan, Milan Hejduk, along with youngsters like goalie Peter Budaj, defenseman John-Michael Liles, center Paul Stastny and winger Wojtek Wolski.

Sakic and Stastny as Nos. 1-2 centers may not strike fear into the hearts of other teams around the NHL the way Sakic and Peter Forsberg once did, but it’s not a bad combo by stretch. Sakic is still one of the premier centers in the League and one of the great leaders in the game.

"When Joe called me, I began to remember some of those great battles we had with the Avs when I was in Edmonton," Smyth recalled. "They beat us in the playoffs in 1997 and we won a seven-game series from them the next year. But every time we played them it was a battle.

"I wouldn’t say Joe recruited me to Denver, but when a player like that picks up the phone and calls you to say, ‘We’d love to have you and we think we are close to having something special here.’ Well, you start to weigh the possibilities. That’s when the Avs began to look too good to pass up to me."

When you start to weigh what price to put on what Smyth does for a team, you have to forget that he scored 36 goals each of the last two seasons. Those totals are like the impact that a 50-60 goal-scorer might give a team because Smyth brings the heart, soul, character, passion for the game and all the intangibles you can possibly imagine.

"He's old-school," Detroit Red Wings checker supreme Kirk Maltby said. "He's got the hockey hair, wild and out of control. Straight stick, when everyone else tests the limits with the curve on their blade. He just plays hard, tough. Loves to bump with you. It's like someone wound him up with titanium batteries or something strong like that ... and he never stops working."

Skill, determination, passion, grit and playing on the edge. Some players are just born with the mindset to play on the edge, to do whatever it takes to win.

"He's a throwback to the old Oilers, when a Glenn Anderson or Mark Messier or Esa Tikkanen would drive hard to the net with speed every time they were on the ice," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said a couple years ago when Smyth was helping to lead a young Edmonton team to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final before losing to Carolina. "With Smytty, you know you're going to get a competitive shift ... every time. In a tight, competitive game I could give him up to 25 minutes of ice time and he'd come to me and say; 'Give me 30.'

"Ryan is at a point in his career where he no longer has to get a goal or a point to help his team win. Just being on the ice, he can be a leader, a presence."

Wild hair, wet from the hard work he put in. is usually complemented by raw, red badges of courage -- a cut above his lip and an ice pack on a rather nasty looking welt.

"When I look into a mirror," he laughed, "I see a guy who just loves to pay the price it takes to win. I'm not out to win a modeling job."

Smyth is the kind of player every team wants -- a warrior, who plays to win no matter who he is playing against or whether it is the first week of the season, or the last.

Coach Joel Quenneville is currently playing Smyth on a line with Stastny and Hejduk. But players like Smyth learn to adapt to whatever linemates are assigned. That’s a given.

As we finished our interview during the morning skate before a game in St. Louis last week, Smyth said one word with a smile on his face and that trademark fire in his eyes, "Denver."

A second later, he added, "They’ve got great tradition ... two Stanley Cups. I wanted to be a part of their next one."

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