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Smith stands tall on Oilers' blue line

by Staff Writer / Edmonton Oilers
Jason Smith
by Larry Wigge columnist

Just when you wondered if the last shot might win in a game in which eight of the nine goals were scored in the third period, Jason Smith stepped in front of a potentially lethal backhanded drive by Mighty Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer from the high slot to block it. Seconds later, he threw his body between Dustin Penner and the net to thwart another would-be scoring opportunity.

The last shots never got to Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson ... or the Edmonton net.

Smith finished the game as a minus-1 as the Oilers' previously stifling defense blew 4-0 and 5-3 leads in a frenetic third period. But the Edmonton captain, who had to be taken in an ambulance to the hospital after Game 1 because he was so dehydrated from a devastating flu, finished with four hits and four of the Oilers' 23 blocked shots. And with every nail-biting tick of the clock, he seemed to make another big play to help the Oilers to a shaky 5-4 victory over Anaheim to give Edmonton a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals.

The warrior in 32-year-old Jason Smith turned into the kind of presence. He was Brooks Robinson turning potential hits into outs. He was Ray Lewis stopping offensive threats with each big hit, each block and tackle.

"Jason was still feeling the effects of the flu and yet he wasn't going to let anyone take his place at such a crucial point of the game," said Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger, Smith's defense partner. "No matter how sick he is or how hurt he is, Gator never takes a night off."

His nickname, "Gator", is an affectionate way of saying he's strong and quick and once he sinks his teeth into an assignment ... an offensive threat ... there is almost no chance that the opponent will get away from him.

Oilers coach Craig MacTavish remembers walking into the Oilers' locker room when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and Grant Fuhr represented a cacophony of leadership that totaled five Stanley Cups in seven years from 1984 through 1990.

"Have you ever walked into a room or office and sensed that one guy just had that presence to lead?" MacTavish asked. "It's hard to explain. But you just know that this guy has it. Well, that's kind of how I felt shortly after Jason joined us in 1999.

"Gator has always been our top plus-minus guy, always been our best defenseman," MacTavish continued, no disrespect to Pronger. "No one else plays with a real physical, take-no-prisoners, punishing style. ... When he does something on the ice, says something on the bench or in the locker room, you can see it pick up everyone else on the team."

Smith says he learned some of that poise and warrior mentality in New Jersey as a first-round prospect from the 1992 Entry Draft by watching attentively as Scott Stevens led the Devils with brains and brawn and became one of the best captains in league history.

"How could you not help but try to emulate the fact that Scott Stevens never left anything out the on the ice?" Smith said. "You've got 20 other guys in this locker room expecting you to give everything you've got every night."

The 32-year-old Calgary native has sort of taken the baton from Stevens and become the same kind of captain for the Oilers.

"You can tell he's clearly the leader of that team," San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton said after Smith and Pronger limited his scoring chances to almost none in the second round of the playoffs. "The way he throws his body around in the corners, the way he uses his strength in front of the net and blocks shots makes him a real presence out there."

Edmonton's Shawn Horcoff comments on teammate
Jason Smith:
"Jason's a winner, and he's a leader who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Back in March, he missed only four games despite having a broken toe. What a warrior."

To some, Jason Smith may seem to be just a defensive defenseman, but that kind of simplification is dead wrong. Smith's combination of size, strength, skill and surliness are just the outward signs of what he brings to the Oilers. What's more, he battles and competes at the highest degree, and that example doesn't go without notice in the Edmonton locker room.

Jason is tough as nails and mean as hell. He will battle you every step. He never cheats. He's old-time hockey.

"Bottom line," said Oilers center Shawn Horcoff, "Jason's a winner, and he's a leader who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Back in March, he missed only four games despite having a broken toe. What a warrior."

A nod as the Western Hockey League's outstanding defenseman in 1992-93 when he played for the junior Regina Pats, a gold medal for Canada at the '93 world junior championship and a 1994-95 Calder Cup championship with the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate, the Albany River Rats, set the stage for Smith's NHL career.

But the Devils were in the business of trying to win a second Stanley Cup, when they traded youngsters Smith, Steve Sullivan and Alyn McCauley to Toronto for veterans Doug Gilmour and Dave Ellett in February of 1997. All New Jersey succeeded in doing was gambling away three players who are still pretty important NHL players.

While in Toronto, Smith struggled to find ice time. Which was strange. Stranger yet is that the Maple Leafs gave Smith away to Edmonton in a March 1999 deal for a fourth-round draft choice in 1999 and a second-round pick in 2000 -- you win a prize if you've heard of draft picks Jonathan Zion and Kris Vernarsky.

The fact of the matter is that Smith traveled from Toronto to Edmonton under the radar, when you consider that defensemen like Chris Chelios went from Chicago to Detroit, Steve Duchesne went from Los Angeles to Philadelphia for fellow veteran defenseman David Babych, plus Rhett Warrener from Buffalo to Florida (in a deal in which the Sabres chose goaltending prospect Ryan Miller with the fifth-round draft choice in that deal.

Actually, the deal didn't even win any headlines in Edmonton media outlets, because the Oilers obtained goalie Tommy Salo from the New York Islanders for Mats Lindgren and an eighth-round draft choice and acquired forwards Dan Cleary, Chad Kilger, Ethan Moreau and defenseman Christian Laflamme from the Blackhawks for forward Dean McAmmond, defenseman Boris Mironov and prospect Jonas Elofsson.

"Any time any player moves it's sort of like a new life and a new opportunity," Smith said. "I knew all about Edmonton and the championship tradition, being from Calgary. I knew I was going into a good situation. I looked at this move as a chance to prove myself -- and I was going to do everything humanly possible to make sure it was going to be better than the Toronto move was. If you take that kind of opportunity and run with it, you never know how far you can go."

There are more and more people who are watching the Edmonton Oilers' playoff run beginning to believe that the 'C' on Jason Smith's chest stands for more than just courage.

It might also mean champion ... if the Oilers continue their winning ways
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