Skip to main content

100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Billy Smith: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'Battlin'' goalie racked up Stanley Cup titles, penalty minutes during Islanders dynasty

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

No nickname in hockey has ever been more deserved than "Battlin'" Billy Smith.

He piled up penalty minutes, unusual for a goaltender, and was proud of it. He steadfastly refused to shake hands with opponents after playoff series. He'd leave the top few inches of his stick shaft untaped, weaponizing the butt end. When the Philadelphia Flyers trotted out Kate Smith, the grande dame of American song, to deliver "God Bless America" from center ice before a 1975 playoff Game 7 at the Spectrum, Smith groused, "I should have skated over her wires."

 

Video: Billy Smith was goalie on Islanders' 1980s dynasty

 

The New York Islanders star goalie during their Stanley Cup dynasty years in the early 1980s, and the final original Islander from the 1972 expansion draft that stocked the team, Smith was a battler who never gave up on a shot, and who would never permit an opponent -- or a teammate -- to take liberties with him.

His concept of self-defense included preemptive strikes and it didn't matter if the roughest player or the best player in the League ventured too close to his crease, or his team's top scorer shot too high during practice. They were all candidates to get whacked with Smith's big wooden Koho stick.

"Battlin' Billy" was not warm and fuzzy. He was fairly disliked throughout the NHL, but was a hero to Islanders fans. Smith battled for them, for his teammates - with whom he occasionally sparred, verbally and physically -- and for himself, and made no apologies. Rather, he reveled in it, convinced his belligerence helped him become a four-time Stanley Cup champion and the 1983 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

 

BILLY SMITH CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats 
Games: 680 | Wins: 305 | Losses: 233 | Ties: 105 | GAA: 3.17

 

"Sure," he told People magazine in 1982, "I guess you could say I've used my stick viciously. Let's face it, I like my image. I enjoy being hit. When somebody cracks me, I go right back and crack them. The more aggressive it gets, the better I play." Smith played well enough to be considered one of the greatest "money" goalies of all time.

He established his leadership by setting the record for career playoff wins (85) in 1984 and retired in 1989 with 88, which remained the most until 1997. He won more than playoff games -- Smith won playoff series, helping to lead the Islanders throughout their remarkable run of 19 consecutive series triumphs, a record that may never be broken. It made him a cornerstone for one of hockey's great modern dynasties, the Islanders team that won the Stanley Cup four straight times between 1980 and '83 and then went to the Final in '84 before losing to the Edmonton Oilers.

"When I want to win a hockey game or walk down a dark alley, I know where Smitty will be," Islanders general manager Bill Torrey told Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift. "He'll be there."

He didn't get there by playing nice. "A goalie really had to protect himself in my day," Smith said in Chris McDonell's 1997 book, "For the Love of Hockey." "Opposing players would come into the crease, bump me and try to take my feet out, and they rarely drew a penalty for it. No amount of yelling and screaming at the referee would cause him to take his eyes off the puck."

"Billy Smith sees himself as an honest workman, protecting the place where he does business," George Vecsey wrote in 1981 for The New York Times.

Scotty Bowman, the NHL's winningest coach, took a different view, telling Swift: "The most important thing about a goalie is how the team plays in front of him. If the Islanders are battling, they're so much harder to beat, and a lot of times Smith will start something in the third or fourth minute of a game just to get them going. He definitely arouses his team. If he were more placid, the Islanders wouldn't be as effective."

Not surprisingly, Smith left the game as the all-time NHL penalty minutes leader for goaltenders in both the regular season (489) and playoffs (89). He was the most penalized goalie in five seasons and among the five most penalized seven additional times.

Smith surely would have added to those notorious totals had he played more often instead of splitting the job with Glenn "Chico" Resch, Roland Melanson and Kelly Hrudey. Only once in his NHL career (1974-75) did he play more than 50 regular-season games. "I didn't mind that at all," he told McDonell. He acknowledged developing strong friendships with his fellow Islanders goalies, especially the friendly, quotable Resch, who was something of a polar opposite to Smith.

"Smitty comes across as rough around the edges -- until you get to know him,'' Resch told Vecsey. "Smitty prides himself in having people think he's, well, a little off-center."

Regardless of his quirks, once the playoffs arrived, so did Smith. During the Islanders' four straight Stanley Cup championship years, their postseason record was 60-18 and Smith was an exceptional 57-13 in the playoffs. "I always seemed to get on a roll," he told McDonell. "There was more pressure, which helped my concentration and the game seemed a little easier."

It started out innocently enough on the backyard rink built by his father, Joe, a railway maintenance worker from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Billy was born Dec. 12, 1950, in Perth, Ontario, about 60 miles southwest of Ottawa, the youngest of Joe's three sons. When Billy was 7, his brothers made him a backyard goalie. He liked it and soon excelled in Perth's minor hockey program, where Joe was also a coach.

In 1969, after playing sporadically in three seasons with the nearby Smith Falls junior A team, Billy hooked up with major junior Cornwall Royals, where older brothers Jack and Gord had previously skated. He played well enough to be selected in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1970 NHL Draft and assigned to Springfield of the American Hockey League. As a first-year pro, Smith helped lead Springfield to the Calder Cup championship in 1971.

Smith's five-game NHL debut, substituting for injured Rogie Vachon, came the following year with the Kings. He collected his first NHL victory, and his first fighting major, but Los Angeles exposed him in the 1972 expansion draft. Torrey liked Smith's competitive spirit and snapped him up for the Islanders.

New York went 12-60-6 in its inaugural season, yet Smith's scrappy nature provided hope and entertainment. He got the franchise's first victory, against the Kings, and its first fighting major, tussling with Rod Gilbert of the New York Rangers. Though the Islanders were frequently overmatched, Smith stood out, playing especially well in back-to-back February outings against the Buffalo Sabres, stopping 36 shots in a 1-1 tie and 44 one night later in a 5-1 loss. He also broke three of his sticks on the ankles of Sabres attackers in the same period of a game that season.

"When I was younger, I was feistier and tried to do too much," he'd say years later. "A lot of times when I was poking guys or trying to push them out of my crease, I'd be scored on. I couldn't take control of my opponent and stop the puck at the same time."

In 1974-75, coach Al Arbour made him the Islanders' No. 1 goalie and he'd play a career-high 58 games, going 21-18-17 in the first of his 12 consecutive winning seasons. The Islanders captured their first playoff berth, beginning a run of 14 straight. After a stunning first-round victory against the Rangers, Smith got little help from his teammates as the Islanders fell behind 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Arbour turned to the rookie Resch, who helped the Islanders come back for a remarkable seven-game victory. Then, after the Islanders fell behind 3-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers, Resch helped bring them to within one game of the Cup Final before the Kate Smith-inspired Flyers dispatched them. But the Islanders had arrived.

They'd grow into a regular-season powerhouse, with Smith becoming a formidable goaltender. Over an eight-season span starting in 1975-76, he finished among the top five in goals-against average five times. He even got credit for the first goal by an NHL goalie, on Nov. 28, 1979, being the last Islander to touch the puck during a delayed penalty before an errant Colorado Rockies pass ended up in their own empty net.

Smith grabbed the reins early in the 1980 playoffs and Arbour stuck with him. He won all 15 games the Islanders needed to claim the Cup, cementing his reputation as a clutch goalie by going 6-1 in overtime games, the sixth ending on Bob Nystrom's Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 against Philadelphia. The Islanders had risen from the League's basement to its pinnacle in eight seasons, and Smith had taken each step of the journey. He got 14 of the Islanders' 15 playoff wins in '81, culminating with the five-game defeat of the Minnesota North Stars for the second Cup victory.

In 1981-82, Smith led the NHL with 32 wins, losing nine games in a season when he won the Vezina Trophy and made the NHL First All-Star Team. After getting past Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs with an overtime victory in Game 5, the Islanders cruised to their third Cup victory, sweeping the Vancouver Canucks in the Final. Smith went 15-3 in the postseason, 4-1 in overtime games.

In 1983's classic Cup Final matchup between the gritty Islanders and the high-scoring Oilers, Smith was at his battling best. He shut out Edmonton 2-0 in Game 1 -- "probably the finest game I ever played," he said -- and slashed first Glenn Anderson and then Wayne Gretzky when they circled his cage in the first two games. Edmonton papers declared him "Public Enemy No. 1," but he silenced his critics and the Oilers' big guns by allowing six goals -- none by Gretzky -- in the four-game sweep.

He won 13 postseason games that spring, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and won the Conn Smythe Trophy. The snarly Smith called the '83 Cup championship his "most satisfying," alongside his first. "The fourth was great," he told McDonell, "because of all the aggravation that came with the hype over the Edmonton Oilers."

Aging and injured, the Islanders nevertheless advanced to the Final in '84, starting in the first round with an excellent performance by Smith in the deciding Game 5 overtime win against the rival Rangers -- after which he broke his personal rule to shake the hand of Rangers goalie Glen Hanlon at series' end. Then, after eliminating the Washington Capitals, they slid past the Montreal Canadiens for their 19th consecutive series win. This time, however, they could not hold back the powerful young Oilers, who ended the Islanders' reign in five games. Still, Smith led all goalies with 12 playoff wins.

He had played in 93 of the Islanders' 99 postseason games over five years, going 69-21, leading goaltenders in victories each spring.

Smith, a 1993 Hall of Fame inductee, battled through the Islanders' decline in his final five NHL seasons, never quite able to lift them back to greatness. There would be some down times ahead for this proud franchise but, Smith had helped create a legendary team whose legacy has remained powerful, sustaining loyal fans with hopes of brighter times to come. That's a very difficult accomplishment. 

As difficult as Billy Smith.

 

For more, see all 100 Greatest Players

View More