There’s roughly 3,400 miles separating Kamloops, British Columbia from South Florida, but Geoff Smith has never felt that far removed from his playing days as a member of the 1996 Panthers.
“The town, the city, the people…it was incredible,” said Smith, a defenseman on the ’96 team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals and will reunite the weekend of July 27-28 for the ‘Weekend of the Rat.’
Smith, who played 134 games during his three years with the Panthers, has been busy since leaving hockey after playing his final season with the Rangers in 1998-99.
Smith, who remembers attending the thoroughbred races while with the Panthers at Gulfstream Park, breeds and races horses in British Columbia and also owns The Thirsty Dog, a restaurant, pub and nightclub with 36 televisions that Smith says is tuned in most nights to the NHL.
“When I left hockey I bought a small pizza place in town,” Smith said. “Then my friend Murray Baron, who played in Philly and Montreal and a couple other places, asked me to buy into a country bar up here called Calico Jacks. I ran that for seven years before going on my own with the Thirsty Dog about a year and a half ago.”
Smith, married with two children, also owns a 20-acre farm outside Kamloops where he breeds and sells thoroughbreds. He’s currently high on a 2-year-old horse he bred in Kentucky to the stakes-winning sire Richter Scale.
While Smith loves to talk horses, he’s excited about returning to South Florida for the first time since leaving the NHL and playing in a reunion game July 28 at BankAtlantic Center.
“You know, people up here follow hockey and they still remember that team and the story of Mell (Scott Mellanby) smacking the rat and the good luck it brought,” said Smith, a smooth skater who was acquired from Edmonton in 1993 for draft picks.
“I think the thing I remember about that team, though, was how close the team was,” he added. “With the exception of (goalie) John Vanbiesbrouck, there really wasn’t any superstars on the team. But we worked hard every night. The games we lost were usually by a goal. We had great coaches and the fans seemed to respond.
“The people were tremendous. The game was kind of new to the area and the fans were so behind us. I mean, our practices were packed with people, and they always seemed to be talking hockey.”
Smith says he occasionally makes contact with some of his former teammates, including Brian Skrudland and Ed Jovanovski
. “But, you know, whenever you bump into somebody from that team it’s like seeing a long, lost brother,” Smith said. “I called Mellanby when he was out here for a game a few years back and he called me from the dressing room that day to say hello. That’s how guys are.”
Smith said he’ll tear himself away from the Thirsty Dog and the ponies to come to South Florida for a week with his family for the ‘Year of the Rat’ reunion.
“I can’t wait,” he said.