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Fantasy hockey has roots with Neil Smith, MSG

by Tal Pinchevsky
There are only 30 people in the world who get to serve as NHL general managers at any given time. For the rest of us, there is fantasy hockey. Yahoo! Sports, which accounts for about 35 percent of fantasy hockey subscribers, boasts 550,000 players in hundreds of fantasy leagues each year. And it all may have started in the press room at Madison Square Garden roughly 30 years ago.

While no one has officially claimed the title of fantasy hockey founder, every indication is that it was the brainchild of a group headed by a hockey insider who knew his way around an NHL war room.

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"It started in 1981 when I worked for the Islanders as a scout. One of my friends, who ran the press room at Madison Square Garden, actually thought this thing up," said Neil Smith, who as general manager of the Rangers assembled the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1994. "We did it very basic. You drafted players based on goal scoring projections. Not anything other than goals."

With about 10 people participating, the group organized a draft and even bought a trophy for the eventual winner. Smith remained in the league, which ran out of the Madison Square Garden press room for more than a decade, but was forced to leave shortly after becoming general manager of the Rangers in 1989. He would win the league in one of its first seasons, but his greatest contribution may have been finding a name.

"It was called the OIHL, I made up that name," said Smith. "It was Office Hockey League to represent everyone in the office, but it was also Off-Ice Hockey League. It was fun."

Unlike the tens of thousands of fantasy hockey players who today participate online, Smith and his OIHL adversaries didn't have digital technology to help them track statistics. They did, however, get to use whatever technology was at their disposal. A ticker inside the MSG press room helped the league keep track of goals, and Smith even put together official OIHL letterhead. Within a few years, it was running like a well-oiled machine.

"We had great times. We had our draft set up and dinner was brought in at the press room at Madison Square Garden," said Sam Rosen, the Rangers' play-by-play announcer and another OIHL participant. "We had a night where WWF [World Wrestling Federation] had 20,000 people screaming in the building and we'd be in our press room conducting our OIHL draft."

With Smith as the league's lone NHL insider, the OIHL included a number of people working in hockey. Former Rangers administrative director John Gentile helped found the league, which included Jay Arbour, son of then-Islanders coach Al Arbour, as well as Rich Torrey, son of then-Islanders GM Bill Torrey, and current Islanders TV announcer Howie Rose. Other OIHL participants included the Islanders' head of public relations and even the person who operated Madison Square Garden's scoreboard.

"It was a diverse group of guys who saw each other before the hockey games, during the hockey games in the press box, and after the hockey game in the locker room," Rosen said. "We might be in the locker room and all of a sudden one guy would ask, 'Are you interested in trading so-and-so?'"

"We had great times. We had our draft set up and dinner was brought in at the press room at Madison Square Garden. We had a night where WWF had 20,000 people screaming in the building and we'd be in our press room conducting our OIHL draft."
" -- Sam Rosen
"The rules stipulated that you had to have at least one rookie and two defensemen in your roster," Smith said. "When I was travelling, going to games as a pro scout for the Islanders and Detroit, it was a really fun hobby to have and nobody else was doing it."

Smith's job as a scout served him well when he picked rookies like the Canucks' Tony Tanti, whose 45 goals in his first season helped Smith win the 1984 OIHL title. As a scout with the Red Wings, Smith also heard about Czechoslovakian winger Petr Klima potentially defecting to Detroit in 1985. With this information, Smith surprised his fantasy competitors by selecting Klima, who scored 32 goals in his rookie season.

Just another fun moment in what Smith believes may be history's first fantasy hockey league.

"If there is somebody who did it before 1981, which is when we started, I'd be happy to hand them the crown," he said.

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