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Ex-Oiler star Smyth, back in Edmonton with Colorado, gets standing ovation

NHL.com @NHL

EDMONTON - Ryan Smyth, the former Edmonton Oiler, made good on his prediction Tuesday just before he faced off for the first time against his old team since his shocking trade eight months ago.

The mullet-haired left winger, now with the Colorado Avalanche, became teary-eyed as he lined up in pre-game ceremonies, watched a one-minute video tribute of his 11 seasons with the copper and blue, and received a 30-second standing ovation from the 16,839 fans at Rexall Place.

It wasn't a weeper to rival the saddest of sports sob stories, "Brian's Song," but it had its moments.

Smyth kept his head down through most of the video tribute but skated out to the middle of the rink twice to lift his stick and acknowledge the thunderous cheers.

Beside him, players on both benches banged their sticks against the boards in appreciation.

At a news conference Monday, Smyth was asked about the trade to the Islanders last February, his tearful goodbye to fans at the Edmonton International Airport and how he might react Tuesday.

"I'm sure I'll break down," said Smyth, struggling even then to keep his emotions in check.

The 31-year-old native of Banff, Alta., has three goals and three assists with the Avalanche so far this season after leaving the New York Islanders in the off-season and signing with Colorado as a free agent.

He collected 549 points over 770 regular season games with the Oilers, many of them by standing in front of the net, screening the goalie, absorbing heavy lumber from a defenceman, and tipping in point shots or snagging rebounds.

He is seventh on the Oilers' list of all-time scorers.

His grit was perhaps best epitomized when he took a clearing shot off the face during a playoff game against the San Jose Sharks in the Oilers' Stanley Cup final run of 2006.

Smyth trailed blood and broken teeth back to the trainer's room only to emerge and assist on the game-winning goal.

He left over a contract dispute with Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. Lowe reportedly offered a five-year US$27-million deal with a no-trade clause, but Smyth, who felt like he had signed for less than value to stay in his favourite city in the past, balked at anything less than $27.5 million.

With an impasse looming and the potential to lose Smyth as free agent, Lowe dealt him to the Islanders for youngsters Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra along with the Islanders' 2007 first-round draft pick (which turned out to be Alex Plante).

The trade hit Edmonton fans hard. They had grown to admire Smyth, nicknamed Captain Canada for his yeoman service in international play. Many had hoped he would finally be the Oiler star to play out his entire career in an oil-drop jersey.

Yet the trade divided fans - some saying Lowe should have come up in price to keep a loyal star, others saying if Smyth really wanted to stay in Edmonton, he could have given up the relative pittance in salary ($100,000 a year) that separated the two sides.

That division was still evident Tuesday as, among the wave of cheers, was unmistakable undercurrent of boos. He was booed soundly whenever he touched the puck.

Smyth said Monday there are no hard feelings and that both sides did what they felt was in their best interests at the time. His five-year deal in Denver pays him $6.25 million a year.

His return was far more muted than his departure. Hours after he was traded in February, fans chanted his name in absentia and booed the Oilers as they fell listlessly to the Phoenix Coyotes on the night Oiler great Mark Messier's jersey was retired.

On Tuesday, there was only one sign in evidence in pre-game warmup ("Smyth Country", it read) and the tribute was a short 90 seconds.

When it was over, Smyth skated to the blue-line and looked up at the vertically draped U.S. flag, hanging limply beside the six orange and blue banners, bearing the names of retired Oiler greats.

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