The Hall of Fame goalie who backstopped the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83 often was a man of few public words.
Fortunately, his former teammates have plenty of “Battlin’ ” Billy Smith stories.
“It was comforting to know that you had Billy behind you,” Hall of Famer Mike Bossy told Newsday recently. “There were times it was scary because he’d start trouble and you’d have to end up paying for it. I hated practicing with Billy because he hated practice. There were times he’d stand on one side of the net and he’d want you to shoot it into his glove. I’d do just the opposite and rifle it over his shoulder and he’d get mad at me and we’d get into arguments.”
Bobby Nystrom remembers Smith going after teammate Ernie Hicke — who was with the Islanders from 1973-75 — for a similar offense during warmups before a road game against the Atlanta Flames.
“Ernie Hicke came in and took a couple of high slap shots on Smitty,” Nystrom told Newsday this month. “The third time he came in, Smitty met him at the blue line and it was an all-out brawl. And the Atlanta players were standing around watching it.”
Nystrom also recalled Smith’s apathetic attempts to stop pucks during morning skates. He said Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour eventually allowed Smith to skip the pregame practices.
Hall of Famer Clark Gillies has the same memories.
“I don’t know what the conversations were between Al and Smitty, but I’m sure they were pretty heated because they used to get after each other pretty good,” Gillies told Newsday this month. “That’s why you never saw Smitty at a morning skate. At the beginning, it used to bother guys: ‘Why do we have to come here and skate around and Smitty’s at home sleeping?’ It was kind of like, ‘Mind your own business. That’s how Smitty prepares.’
“I didn’t know anybody could sleep that much,” Gillies added. “We stayed over at the East Norwich Inn. Smitty’s preparation was he’d wake up about 11 o’clock, jump in the shower. We’d get back to the hotel for a 12 o’clock meal. Smitty would be sitting there eating his meal. He’d get back into bed and go to sleep. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ He’d get up at 4 o’clock and he would go down to the rink, and by the time I got there, he’d be sitting at his stall with everything on except his shoulder pads and his chest protector.”
Smith’s combative playing style mirrored the straight talk he sometimes gave his teammates. For instance, he refuted the one-big-family notion during a team meeting before the 1980 playoffs. The Pittsburgh Pirates had won the 1979 World Series, with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” as a theme song, but that wasn't Smith's style.
“We were all talking about how we need to be a family,” goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch told Newsday this month. “Smitty gets up and says, ‘That sounds OK, but there’s some B.S. in that.’ He said, ‘Listen, boys, we’re not each other’s family. I’ve got my family, you’ve got your family. . . Let’s forget all the glitz, all the flowery sayings. We just go out. You get hurt for me, I’ll get hurt for you, we’ll hurt the other team, we’ll win.’ And he sat down and that was the end. Nobody followed him because there was nothing else to say.”
“Some people talk a good game,” defenseman Ken Morrow told Newsday recently. “Billy took it on the ice and he backed it all up and more.”