Gary “Smitty” Smith, the head athletic trainer for the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Men’s hockey team, stands as one of the few men who witnessed the ‘Miracle on Ice’ from behind the scenes. Smitty’s experience being entrenched for the entire 1980 season at the end of the bench and in the locker room was profiled last year on Wild.com in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the ‘Miracle’. In that story, we got to know the guy we had seen in the highlights, shouting on the bench and waving a towel in jubilation after Mike Eruzione scored the game-winner against the Soviet Union.
But how, in fact, did Smitty find himself in the center of the most amazing event in sports history? Todd Smith (Smitty’s son) gives us another profile of Smitty, who earned his way onto the Olympic Team by showing coach Herb Brooks the same intensity and will to win that the coach demanded of his players. It all happened during one of the most memorable college hockey brawls in history.
In the years that preceded the 1980 Winter Olympics, Gary “Smitty” Smith and Herb Brooks forged their relationship at the University of Minnesota where Smitty was the trainer for the men’s hockey team, and Brooks was the budding head coach.
It was during the Gophers WCHA battles in the late 70’s that Smitty and Brooks became comrades, a successful coach-and-trainer duo of unquestioned charisma and loyalty. A hockey trainer typically earns respect by taking on tasks without being asked, and generally keeping their mouths shut and staying out of the way. But that wasn’t Smitty’s style, and that’s why Brooks viewed him as more than a trainer, but one of the most important people in his very small inner circle.
Smitty’s devotion to his team, and Brooks’ loyalty to his trainer were never more on display than during the inspiring and raucous 1976 NCAA playoffs. It was then that Smitty and Brooks would be involved in one of the worst brawls in collegiate hockey history, which led to an investigation by the NCAA for their actions during the melee.
The ‘76 Gophers were an underdog bunch. They didn’t have a superstar goal scorer. Goaltending was a question mark. A rash of major injuries to key players meant the roster was loaded with youngsters (six freshman and seven sophomores).
Yet somehow, the Gophers persevered and arrived at the 76’ NCAA Frozen Four Tournament in Denver despite owning the worst record of all four semifinalists.
“We’ve been the underdog for a long time,” Brooks told the Minnesota Daily. “But we’ve got heart.”
They had heart, but they also had some short tempers, as did their semifinal opponent, the mighty Boston University Terriers. BU was considered one of best collegiate hockey teams of all time. The Terriers had steamrolled nearly all of their East Coast opponents, and were heavy favorites to win the national title.
Before the game against Boston, Brooks tried to take the shine off the Terriers much heralded talent and record with a curt speech that dug deep into his players’ psyche. He directed a verbal barrage at the Terriers in the Minnesota locker room that shaped the Boston team as “elitist” and “cheaters.”
“Brooks had a degree in psychology,” Smitty recalled many years later. “He knew exactly what buttons to push.”
Brooks referred to the Boston players either as “rich preppies” or “Canadians,” two derogatory terms that would surely rile up his entire roster of Minnesota kids mainly from blue-collar families on the Iron Range and scrappy industrial neighborhoods like South St. Paul.
In reminding his players that Boston University had players from the privileged ivy-walled prep schools of the East Coast and the elite minor leagues of Canada, Brooks painted an undeniably bare bones picture that united his Gopher players and told them that their game against Boston was an “us” versus “them” situation. There would be no backing down to those stuck up elitists.
The diatribe was meant to rile up the players, but Brooks was known for his motivational skills. Apparently he got Smitty’s adrenaline pumping as well. Of course, trainers don’t play, so it’s not like he could have much of an effect on the game…or could he?
Immediately following the drop of the puck at center ice, Boston forward Mike Eruzione tagged Minnesota defenseman Russ Anderson with a wicked high stick. No penalty was called and play resumed. Anderson was incensed and chased after Eruzione to retaliate. He caught the Boston forward on the sideboards, retaliated with a cross check and a penalty was called. Anderson headed off to the penalty box, a single small, unmanned box that was to be used simultaneously by both teams. The penalty box was wedged between the two player’s benches, which would become a major factor.
During a first period faceoff, Minnesota defenseman Joe Micheletti jostled with BU star Terry Meagher for position. Meagher lost his temper and whacked Micheletti in the skates and was called for an obvious slash.
As the Boston captain, a native of Belleville, Ontario, was being escorted to the penalty box, the Gopher players started leaning over the boards and lobbed insults at him.
“The boys on the bench were giving it to him pretty good as he went to the box,” Smitty recalled. Smitty got caught up in the moment, and so he started to chime in with some chirps of his own.
Meagher reluctantly made his way to the penalty box and was irate when he joined the Gophers Anderson in the cramped space. The Boston captain refused to sit down because he was still engaged in a volatile conversation with a few Gopher players and Smitty.
With the absence of glass separating the penalty box from the Minnesota bench, the Gopher bench continued to berate the Boston player. Three Gophers stood at Smitty’s back and taunted the Boston captain. Meagher turned and sprayed spit into the Gopher bench and Smitty took the direct hit. Then, Meagher jabbed Smitty with the butt end of his stick.
Reacting instinctively, Smith grabbed Meagher’s stick, yanked it away, threw a quick jab and a lit match was thrown into this bubbling bucket of gasoline.
All hell broke loose. Russ Anderson bolted across the penalty box and went after Meagher and the two players wrestled and fought right there on the floor. Both benches cleared, and players from both squads lined up and crashed into each other as if it was a demolition derby. All the players paired up and thrashed around the rink. Sticks and gloves and torn jerseys were scattered about the ice.
The brouhaha lasted five minutes, but it seemed like an hour before the ice was finally cleared and order was restored, although not for long.
Boston player Mike Fidler casually skated by Smitty on the Minnesota bench and said a few unflattering words to him. Gopher winger Tom Younghans heard Fidler’s comments and jumped to the trainer’s defense by cold cocking Fidler, who crumpled to the ice. A second brawl broke out, and this one had Minnesota and Boston players all tangled together, scratching and clawing at each other for another 10 minutes. Gopher Ken Yackel hurdled himself into a massive pile of players to prolong the donnybrook.
During the fracas, NCAA officials hastily gathered in the press box to sort out the infractions. Technically, every player who left the bench should have been thrown out. But the officials decided to just toss out the Minnesota’s Anderson and Boston’s Meagher.
Boston dominated the rest of the game, which went without incident, and they took a 2-1 lead into the third period. But in hockey, heart and guts often trump skill. The Gophers, once again, rallied and upset the Terriers, 4-2.
After the game, legendary Boston coach Jack Parker was infuriated with Brooks, Smitty and the Gophers. He told the press that the brawl was premeditated, and said the Gophers deliberately wanted to get the dynamic Meagher out of the game.
“They don’t call Brooks ‘Herb Bush’ in the WCHA for nothing,” Parker angrily said immediately following the game. “Wait till I see him tonight, if I do. There is no doubt in my mind it was the plan of the Minnesota team to go out and get one of our top players.”
“That is a stupid, immature, sour grapes statement,” Brooks countered, and added, “Running at them deliberately…hogwash. In a seven-game series you might try and intimidate them, but not in a single elimination like this tournament. What sense would it make to run a team bigger than you? And they’ve got that power play (which scored both BU goals). What sense would it make to intentionally take penalties and let that power play work you over all night?
The Gophers moved onto the championship game, but quickly fell behind 3-0 to Michigan Tech. Brooks gave Smitty the honors of telling starting goalie Jeff Techerne that he was being pulled from the game. Gopher Tom Mohr rallied the team, and they beat Michigan Tech, 6-4 to win their second title in three years.
The headline in the Minnesota Daily said it all: “Gophers Brawl, Win Hockey Title.”
Although the season was complete, BU’s Parker was still undeterred in his opinion that the brawl was premeditated, and he subsequently filed a grievance with the NCAA against Brooks, Smitty and the Gophers for their actions. An investigation ensued.
University of Minnesota Athletic Director Paul Giel, Brooks and Smitty all flew down to NCAA headquarters in Kansas. The NCAA Ice Hockey Committee reported, “Gary Smith was the prime perpetrator of the fight.” Smitty was suspended and Giel chastised him, saying his behavior was one of the main elements that contributed to the incident. He warned Smitty that similar actions in the future could force him to take more drastic steps in terms of his status as a member of the University of Minnesota’s Athletic Department.
During this tumultuous time in Smitty’s life - he was a graduate student at Minnesota with a wife and three young children that were living in faculty housing - his career was now on the hook.
Most coaches would have fired a trainer that was suspended by the NCAA for instigating a brawl. Most coaches would’ve washed their hands of the trainer straight away. But not Herb; his loyalty to his trainer never wavered. In fact, after the 1976 championship, the bond between Brooks and Smitty grew stronger. Smitty had proven to Brooks that he was a man of serious conviction and moxie. In 1977, Brook gave Smitty a gift and a personal letter to thank him for all his years of loyal service in the trenches of the hockey world.
“Enclosed is a little memento that I would like you to have,” Brooks wrote. “I guess, to a degree…a large degree at that…it expresses the feelings I have towards you, both as a friend and a comrade while working with you here at the university. There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of the success we had during your stay is attributed to your enthusiasm and very valuable rapport you had with our players. I always felt that a good trainer is worth an awful lot to a hockey team…more so than in other sports. In my estimation you fulfilled your function extremely well!! Sept. 12th 1977.”
A few years later, the USOC nominated Brooks to be the head coach from the 1980 U.S. hockey team and upon his hire, they let him know whom his team trainer would be going forward. The problem was, the name they gave him wasn’t Gary Smith.
“No, thanks,” Brooks told the USOC. “I already have a trainer and his name’s Gary Smith.”