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It was St. Patrick's Day in Denver. Lot of Irishmen in that town, lot of red faces, but none redder than that of the man standing at the London House bar drinking his beer on the rocks. Billy Smith had played goal that night for the New York Islanders in a 5-2 win over the Colorado Rockies, and while that portion of Smith's face not covered by his full, brown beard is always a glowing pink, after a hockey game and some libation it blooms like a rose. He was talking with Glenn (Chico) Resch about the old days. Smith and Resch shared the Islander goaltending duties for nearly eight seasons as New York grew from a struggling expansion club to Stanley Cup champion. Then on March 10, 1981 Resch was traded to the Rockies, now the worst team in hockey, to make room for Rollie Melanson, a hot young prospect.
"There are no surprises in hockey," says Smith. "We knew it was coming, just like I know that in three or four years, I'll be gone. I'll be great trade bait just like Chico was." The Islanders dealt Resch instead of Smith because they had determined that Smith was the best playoff goalie in the NHL. A money goalie. The record proves it: 52 wins and 21 losses in postseason play, a 2.77 playoff goals-against average, two Stanley Cups. This year he has been outstanding again. On Friday night Smith was the difference as the Islanders rolled into the semifinals by eliminating the New York Rangers in six games. While Smith played every game for the Islanders, the Rangers tried three different goalies. Says Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, "When I want to win a hockey game or walk down a dark alley, I know where Smitty will be. He'll be there."
Unfortunately, hockey and dark alleys have gone together since the legendary Conn Smythe, the man who built Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931, declared, "If you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice." Smith is a throwback to that era. "I'm a dying breed," he says. "Not too many guys play like I do anymore. My motto is: 'You live by the sword and you die by it.' And I'm willing to die by it. I've already told my wife that my career is going to end when, sooner or later, somebody gets through to me. But before then a lot of guys are going to fall."
The list of those who have fallen at the hands—or, more accurately, at the stick—of Smith is already substantial. And he's only 31. He has four or five years of his goaltending prime still ahead of him. When Plutarch wrote, "When men are arrived at the goal, they should not turn back," he obviously hadn't foreseen the emergence of Smith. Listen for starters to a 168-pound forward for the Montreal Canadiens named Rejean Houle, who had a run-in with Smith two years ago. "The puck was shot from one point and went straight out to the other point," recalls Houle. "I went behind the net, and when I came out the other side, his [Smith's] stick was ready for me. It was intentional. He had three or four inches of it not taped. In fact, they changed the rule because or him. He took my skin away from my face. I had about 30 stitches, most of them in my chin."
Houle is describing a "butt-end," the tactic of hitting someone with the top end of a hockey stick. Except for the "spear," which is stabbing a player with the blade of a stick, the butt-end is probably the most vicious act in the game. Most netminders have always covered the butt-end of their sticks with multiple wrappings of tape. The tape makes it easier to grip the stick and, in effect, puts a cushion on the butt-end. But, as Houle points out, Smith used to start his tape several inches down the handle to leave the top exposed. Smith claims beginning the tape low helped him handle the puck, though he wasn't unaware of the other benefits. "This is a game of intimidation," says Smith, who's 5'10", 195 pounds. "So I said to myself, 'Why play it down?' Guys were skating around going, 'Look at that butt-end of his.' Everyone was scared of it. When you're intimidating—and I'm an intimidating person—why change? It got lots of reactions, and when you hit somebody with an untaped butt-end, it hurt a lot more." (Because of Smith, all NHL goalies now must tape the butt-end of their sticks.)
Such candor is vintage Smith. "They ask me about my violence, and I tell them," he says. "I see guys who spear people—Bobby Clarke, for instance—and then they'll turn around and say, 'I didn't do it.' That's a joke. It's so obvious on television. I'm the type of person who says, 'Yeah, I did it,' when I do something, and I get static because of it. But I don't lie."
"His honesty makes him so vulnerable," said Resch on St. Patrick's Day. Smith listened. The two share a genuine affection for each other, but except for the position they play, they're opposites. Resch is a college graduate, loquacious, friendly and about as violent as a spaniel. Smith never went to college, is abrupt, and for good reason is nicknamed Battlin' Billy. "The only way Smitty can survive is by being honest," Resch said. "Otherwise too much would fester underneath the surface. My only fear is that if he really hurts someone, he'll be crucified. All that stick stuff tends to take away from his real talent. He's one of the best angles goalies in the league. Smitty's play in goal is going to be overshadowed by all this."
"Chico will talk to a wall if it lets him," said Smith.
"He's not as tough as he thinks he is," said Resch. He looked at Smith. "Like, you cry at some movies."
"Only when the bad guy gets shot," said Smith, smiling.