Smyth hopes national success spills over to Oilers
More so than Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Jarome Iginla and Mario Lemieux, Ryan Smyth has become the face of Canadian hockey. Indeed, the gritty winger from Jasper, Alberta, has become the heart, soul and the very mullet of Canadian hockey on the international stage.
Which is a good thing for Hockey Canada and its fans, but it's might not be such a good thing if you're Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe. And if truth be told, it's probably not such a good thing for Smyth, either.
In the Canadian dressing room at hockey festivals like the World Championships, World Cup of Hockey or the recently completed Olympic orientation camp, other players refer to Smyth as Captain Canada. It's a nickname given to Smyth by media covering the World Championships a few years ago. The moniker has stuck even though Smyth is understandably reticent to discuss it, especially with Gretzky standing a few feet away and guys like Steve Yzerman and other Canadian heroes down the hall.
"It's an honor to be recognized as that. There are so many great players that have worn the 'C,'" said Smyth, who has played in seven straight World Championships, the last five as team captain. "It's maybe helped the respect I've gained maybe over the years but I'm very honored."
However, Smyth happily discusses his passion for pulling on the red and white jersey that marks Canadian teams at international events, no matter the situation.
"It still brings a chill to my spine. I love being in the atmosphere of players that really like to represent their country," said Smyth, who has played in more World Championship games, 51, than any other Canadian player. "To take that opportunity to say 'yes' and to be a part of things you'll never forget. Seeing different things overseas, traveling, being with different players around the league."
Sometimes he's been so banged up he wondered if anyone would bother to call. But they always do.
"I'd be talking with my wife about it, thinking maybe I'd get a call and we discussed it and all of a sudden as soon as they called it would be 'yes.' There wasn't any hesitation on that part. It's hard to say no," Smyth said.
He's played with a bad shoulder and a host of other ailments. In 2003, his ankle was so banged up, it required surgery following the tournament. He arrived at last year's World Championships days after the birth of his second daughter, Elizabeth. In fact, Smyth arranged for the baby to have a passport so the entire family could be in Austria for the Canadian team's run for a third straight gold medal. Canada was denied, taking home silver, but Smyth was once again in the middle of the fray.
"I've never really hesitated once they called," he said.
The problem for Lowe and frankly for Smyth, is that his persona, his profile as the prototypical Canadian player, has been forged in part because of the Oilers' failures.
As much as he is a dyed in the wool Canadian, Smyth's attachment to the Oilers is equally strong, given that he's played every game of his 642-game career with Edmonton. Lowe says Smyth embodies Oiler hockey -- rugged, skilled and relentless. As such, Lowe is only half-joking when he says of Smyth's international exploits, "This has got to be it. Now we've got to do some of our own stuff."
That means not just making the playoffs but making a run, or at the very least, winning a playoff round, something the Oilers have not accomplished since 1998.
But the Oilers finally have legitimate hopes of a long playoff run after acquiring elite players like Chris Pronger and Michael Peca. And Smyth's future with the team, which was in question a few weeks ago, was solidified for at least the next two years.
Smyth was a restricted free agent who had been tendered a $2.7-million qualifying offer. Last week, Smyth and the Oilers finally agreed on a two-year, $7 million deal. If Smyth hadn't reached a new deal, he would have become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
From both perspectives, that of Lowe the boss and Smyth the player, the situation was complex and emotional.
Lowe is entrenched in the hierarchy of Canada's national program, along with old teammate and close friend Wayne Gretzky. And Smyth's dedication to answering the national call is the kind of loyalty Gretzky, Lowe and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson have tried to foster when putting together world championship teams in recent years, as a way of developing continuity for Olympics and other top tournaments.
There was a point in the not too recent past "that guys reacting to the call, it wasn't what we see today," Lowe acknowledged. "One of the reasons we now have quick responses and support for Hockey Canada is because of guys like Ryan."
In the past, players would often beg off playing in the World Championships, citing injury, fatigue and contract status. That mind-set has changed dramatically. There is now an unspoken but undeniably strong understanding that when Hockey Canada calls, you answer -- and to ignore that call is to jeopardize your place in the national pecking order. Similarly, those who are loyal to the cause can expect certain rewards down the line.
Smyth is symbolic of that. His place in the lineup with the gold-medal team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics was paid for with his appearances at previous World Championships. Smyth was also a member of the Canadian team that went undefeated at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and it will be a major surprise if he is not part of the 2006 Olympic team in Turin.
Smyth has averaged a respectable if unremarkable 60 points a year in the last five seasons, and one might quibble with his selection over other higher-profile players, but his intangibles include his unwavering loyalty to the cause.
"Ryan plays extremely hard. He plays extremely hard every night," said Steve Tambellini, assistant GM in Vancouver and another mainstay on the management side of Canadian national efforts. "Smyth's commitment to playing for Canada is something you hope every other Canadian sees and takes to heart."
Now the question is whether Smyth can turn that dedication into a much-anticipated Oilers playoff run.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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