Sunday, March 23, 2008

Al Smith

Nicknamed "The Bear" because of his large size, Al Smith was a solid big league netminder throughout the 1970s. He played with some bad teams in the National Hockey League, but was a top goalie in the World Hockey Association. In fact in 1978 he was so honored as the best of the WHA's puck stoppers.

Al played his junior career in Toronto with the Marlboros of the OHA, thus making him a prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Toronto native would turn professional in 1966, but would play almost exclusively in the minor leagues. He was called up to the Leafs to participate in just 9 games through the 1969-70 season..

Al's big break came in the summer of 1969 as the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired the goalie in the Intra-League Draft. Smith became a fan favourite in Pittsburgh as he would often involve himself in after-the-whistle melees. He also battled admirably while the play was on, but ultimately wasn't good enough for the weak Penguins team. In two seasons with the Pens, Al posted a total of 24 wins in 92 games played.

In 1971-72 Al found himself packing his bags to Detroit, again thanks to the Intra-League draft. He would play just one season in Detroit, posting a respectable record of 18 wins, 20 losses and 4 ties with 4 shutouts.

Al made the jump to the World Hockey Association in 1972. For the next three seasons he became the workhorse goalie for the New England Whalers. He posted 3 consecutive 30+ win seasons, and led the Whalers to the Avco championship in 1973.

After three seasons in the WHA, Smith made his return to the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres, where he played from 1975 to 1977. However he is more famous for his departure than any other point during his stay in Buffalo. He had played sparingly in his two seasons in Buffalo as he was relegated to the backup role behind Gerry Desjardins. Regardless, he continued to work hard in practice and he earned the respect of his teammates for his work ethic and upbeat attitude. But when Desjardins was felled with a lengthy injury during the 1976-77 season Al was upset when Punch Imlach vetoed coach Floyd Smith's decision to play him, and instead start the previously untested rookie Don Edwards. Smith, with the support of his teammates, had had enough and walked out on the team, forcing the Sabres to go with two rookie goalies in Edwards and Bob Sauve.

Smith resurfaced in a familiar place in 1977-78. He returned to the Whalers of the WHA and led the league in wins and goals against for the 1977-78 season, winning the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the league's top goaltender. He was also named to the first all-star team. He remained with the Whalers through their merger with the NHL in 1979-80. He would spend one final season in the NHL in 1980-81 with the Colorado Rockies.

The popular Smith retired with 74 wins, 99 losses and 38 ties in 233 NHL contests. He added 10 shutouts and a career goals against average of 3.46. In the WHA he found more success - 141 wins, 98 losses and 15 ties in 260 games. He posted another 10 shutouts and a career GAA of 3.25.

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