The first time Billy Smith came to Nassau Coliseum, he missed his exit. It was 1972 and he had been summoned from the minor-league team in New Haven. "I had no idea about Long Island," he said. "I ended up driving all the way to the end of the Island, turned around and drove all the way back to the rink, but I still made practice on time."
By the time he made his final exit as a goalie, in 1989, he had made a name for himself from one end of the Island to the other, and well beyond. Smith is etched in hockey history and enshrined in the Hall of Fame as the backbone of the Islanders teams that won four consecutive Stanley Cups.
He had no trouble finding his way back Saturday night, becoming the first in a series of Islanders legends to formally say goodbye to the Coliseum, a place he helped make so special. One last time, the old walls reverberated with the chant "Bil-lee!"
"It's still a great rink. Unfortunately we need new rinks now with more plush boxes, you know what I mean? Unfortunately, this old building doesn't have the technology it needs to keep running the way it should," he said Saturday, when he proved that at 63, he still is as lively and bluntly honest as ever.
For instance, he believes forwards take too many liberties with goalies -- a pet peeve that used to result in Smith whacking guys with his stick. "When you see a guy hit a goalie . . . he did it on purpose," said the man dubbed "Public Enemy No. 1" by the Edmonton Journal during the 1983 Stanley Cup Final. "Then if goalies started doing what I did, they'd be suspended."
And he admitted that when he was an active player, he would have detested a pregame tribute like the one the Islanders gave him Saturday night. "I hated the game to be distracted," he said. "But I'm honored to be doing this."
It was a stirring honor for the fans, too. They roared at the sight of him, wearing his white No. 31 jersey, leading the current Islanders through the runway onto the ice for their game against the Penguins.
The crowd cheered and cheered the video of Smith accepting the 1983 Conn Smythe Trophy and admitting that he had embellished an injury, as he felt Wayne Gretzky had done earlier in the series. "I want the people in Canada to know two can play at that game," the then-32-year-old "Battling Billy" said on the big screen.
Saturday was awash in great memories of a team, a time and a site. "Long Island is a great place. You can't ask for a better place," he said. "I came here at 21 years old and stayed until after 40."
Smith praised Al Arbour for steadfastness in applying his famous system and his flexibility in dealing with quirky personalities. "Al was great to me in the playoffs because he wouldn't talk to me,'' he said. "But then in training camp he'd beat the crap out of me."
The former goalie's day began with a spirited talk to the current Islanders at their morning skate. "If you know Billy, three or four minutes of conversation from him really enlightens the team," coach Jack Capuano said.
Forward Ryan Strome added, "He made guys laugh a little bit. He's definitely a great role model, a great character, and he seems like a really classy guy."
These days Smith is more of a golfer than a hockey-watcher ("I'm a good 8-handicap; you don't want to play me," he said). But he follows the Islanders on TV and through emails with Butch Goring, a close friend since they won the 1971 Calder Cup together with the Springfield Kings.
He loves what he sees. "They've got a young team, an exciting team," said the man who made a grand exit. "It's just a shame they're leaving, that's all."