On a rainy morning in early March, the Carolina Hurricanes, in town to play the Boston Bruins, are prepping for their morning skate at TD Garden. Although the Hurricanes have been in rebuilding mode, an influx of young talent has brought hope for the future -- especially on defense, in the form of 19-year-old Noah Hanifin, 21-year-old Brett Pesce and 21-year-old Jaccob Slavin.
The man tasked with getting those young defensemen acclimated to the NHL game is Carolina assistant coach Steve Smith. While Smith, 53, has focused on readying his charges for the league's higher levels of speed and physicality, he also seems ideally suited to help prepare them for the psychological toll that the league can take on a player. After all, Smith suffered perhaps the most devastating embarrassment the NHL has ever seen -- and has looked at the game of hockey in a different way ever since.
Thirty years ago, on April 30, 1986, Smith dressed as a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, filling in for an injured Lee Fogolin. It was Smith's 23rd birthday and just his 63rd game in the NHL. The Oilers were attempting to win their third consecutive Stanley Cup and entered the division finals as favorites, but the Calgary Flames had drawn them out to a seventh and deciding game. With just under 15 minutes remaining and the score tied, Smith retreated into his own zone to fetch a dump-in from Flames forward Perry Berezan.
What happened next would become known as hockey's Bill Buckner moment -- in reference to the infamous baseball gaffe that would, incidentally, unfold just six months later. As Smith circled behind his own net to retrieve the puck that Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr had just stopped, he looked up ice. The Oilers consistently played a fast-paced style in the '80s, trying to put opponents on their heels with quick breakouts. Calgary's Lanny McDonald was swinging in from the opposite side on the forecheck, and Smith saw two Oilers curling at the blue line. Smith attempted to make a crisp pass to one of them, but the puck never got there. Fuhr was slow returning to his net and high in his crease -- that's where the puck banked off Fuhr's left skate and into the net, putting the Oilers down 3-2.
Smith immediately collapsed to the ice near the left faceoff circle, before rising to his knees in the now iconic image. This was before instant replay, so many in the crowd still had no idea what had even happened. "I was in the bench looking for a place to sit and had my back to the play," remembers Berezan, who had skated off after the dump. "All of a sudden, there was a complete hush in the building. It was kind of a groan, but really, really quiet. I don't even know if there was a cheer in our bench because nobody knew what happened."
The goal was credited to McDonald at first, before being correctly awarded to Berezan about 10 minutes later. The Oilers poured it on for the remainder of the third period, but Flames goalie Mike Vernon stood tall, holding onto the one-goal lead and ending Edmonton's season.
In the locker room, a teary-eyed Smith answered questions from the Edmonton press. "It was human error and I guess I'll have to live with it," he said after the game. "I don't know if I'll ever live this down, but I have to keep on living. The sun will come up tomorrow." Oilers star Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the team backed Smith in their postgame remarks -- Gretzky went so far as to say anyone pointing the finger at Smith "should be looking in the mirror."
Even the guy credited with the goal felt Smith's agony. Berezan remembers feeling mixed emotions in the dressing room after the final buzzer. "I was sitting there feeling bad for them and I started to say something about it," he says. "A couple of the older guys looked at me and said, 'Don't you ever feel bad for an opponent after you beat them.' And I'm 21 at the time, so I'm just like, 'OK, I guess I won't.' Reporters started asking questions, and I did not come out and say that I felt bad for Steve. But I felt terrible for the guy."
It was easy for Oilers fans to throw Smith, a sixth-round pick in the 1981 draft from the OHL's London Knights, under the bus. The local media tore him apart. "My dad was bitter about the way the press handled it in Edmonton," says Smith. "It took him some time. More time than me, probably."
Smith returned the following season refocused, ready to move on. In late May of 1987, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years. Gretzky handed the Cup to Smith immediately after getting it from the commissioner and told him to take it and go. Pumping the 35-pound trophy up and down as he circled Northlands Arena, Smith looked for his parents in the stands. He calls it a "redemption moment."
After the game, Smith shared a beer with his father, Rae, in the whirlpool room, free from the media and the giant weight that had remained on his shoulders. He would go on to win two more Stanley Cups during his 16-year career, while playing in 804 regular-season games and tallying 375 points with the Oilers, the Chicago Blackhawks and, it turned out, his old nemesis, the Flames. In all, Smith recorded three 50-point seasons and finished in the top 10 in defensive point shares (a Hockey-Reference stat that shows estimated points contributed from defensive play) three times. In 1991, he was selected to the All-Star Game and played for Canada that year in the Canada Cup.
"You have to live with it," says Glen Sather, who coached Smith in Edmonton. "You can't worry about what's happened in the past. You have to focus on going forward, and really, that's what he's done. That's what he did the next year. That's hockey. Part of learning how to win is being able to lose and accept it and move on."
When he retired in 1998, Smith joined the Flames as an assistant coach before coming out of retirement one year later to play three more seasons with Calgary. Smith officially retired in 2001, leaving pro hockey for a few years to go home to coach his five kids. His son, Barron, would end up playing hockey at the University of Alberta.
"I teach my kids on a daily basis about humility," says Smith. "I really believe that incident had a lot to do with making me a much humbler person. It probably taught me more about humility than a person could ever learn. From that day forward, I sincerely cheered for people. I didn't want to see people fail. I didn't want to ever see people have that type of day."
The fluke clearing attempt never altered the way Smith played the game. He actually built a reputation as a strong two-way defender with a knack for outlet passing to spur rushes. Instead, it shaped the way he looked at the game.
"That moment taught me very quickly that you can be knocked off that pedestal really fast," says Smith. "I approach it now instead from a standpoint of how lucky we really are to be around this game and how quickly it can be taken away. I always think of it like the line from 'The Godfather': It was the business that we chose. If I didn't choose a business where I could possibly be exposed, then I would never have had the possibility of being exposed. It doesn't define you as a person. It doesn't define you as an athlete or competitor. You have to understand that there's a possibility that things could go wrong within a game, and they certainly did."
When Smith returned to the Oilers in 2010 as an assistant coach, he worked with a young Jeff Petry, a former second-round defenseman with a lot of potential. As the Oilers struggled over the next four years, Petry often shouldered the blame from local media and fans. Smith was once quoted arguing that Petry was doing everything asked of him while skating consistently against the other team's best players.
"He was a guy who never got visibly upset," recalls Petry, now a defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens. "He had a big impact on me when I got called up. He always told me to come to the rink and approach every day as a new day. You can't dwell on things in the past, and I think that helped me along the way. Obviously, you don't want the highs to get too high and lows get too low. He kind of told me, 'The game's over, the shift's over, you just have to refocus on the next one.'"
Smith focuses on individual sit-downs with his players, stressing the little things. Whether it was spending an extra five minutes with a player after practice or mandating a minimum of 30 minutes in the weight room every day, Smith puts emphasis on the small picture with the hope that it will impact the big picture.
"I think these are just players helping themselves," explains Smith. "We are just trying to maneuver them down the stream as coaches. I can certainly tell you, 'Hey, we want you to play harder,' but what it comes down to is the little things. Being part of the team, you are going to get 14 minutes of ice time. Now, how are you going to earn between 14 and 25?"
"I loved playing for him and having him behind the bench because he never would yell at you if you made a mistake," Schultz says. "If it was obvious, he wouldn't rub it in your face. He was really good working with young players."
Now an assistant with Carolina after Edmonton reshuffled its coaching duties during the 2014 offseason, Smith continues to take that approach with the youth on the Hurricanes. At 11:30, the Canes take the ice for the morning skate in Boston. As the team stretches out, he glides by Pesce in his black-and-red wind suit, poking him in the back and laughing.
"If there were no mistakes, it'd be 0-0 every night," Smith says. "On a shift-to-shift basis, there are mistakes, so it's a matter of collecting yourself quickly and moving on to the next play."
The Carolina defensemen gather with Smith at one end of the ice, and he runs them through a drill geared toward offensive-zone puck movement. One defenseman gathers the puck at the point and hits his partner with a pass, who in turn rifles a slapshot at goaltender Cam Ward. Despite playing on the sixth-youngest team in the league, the defensive crop has shown a strong adaption to the NHL. Hanifin ended up finishing his rookie campaign with 22 points, while Pesce was seeing almost 19 minutes of ice time a night this season and Slavin's 3.7 defensive point shares registered second on the team.
As for Smith, he is just happy to be where he is today. "I still look back to the very first day I played an NHL game, just getting a NHL jersey for the first time," he says. "I do this because I'm passionate about it, not because of any defining moment. I've been fortunate. A good friend of mine said to me once, 'Just always remember that you are the luckiest kid on your block.' And I still believe that."