Whether you were friend or foe, Battlin’ Billy came by his nickname honestly.
Billy Smith didn’t hesitate to swing his heavy stick at opposing forwards who crowded his crease – and he’d do the same to teammates if they obstructed his view in a game or shot high in practice. If it was game day and he was the starter, he wouldn’t talk to anyone other than the New York Islanders’ trainer. Not his teammates, not his backup goalie, not the coaches. Nobody. Instead, he’d sit in the dressing room, fully dressed hours before the game, staring straight ahead.
It was an extreme approach to one of the most pressure-filled jobs in pro sports, but it worked. “His focus was as defined as any player I ever played with,” said Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch, Smith’s crease partner for seven seasons from 1974 to 1981. “He was like Bobby Clarke. They had one goal, and if you got in the way of it, you could get trampled.”
Smith was the last line of defense for the Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty in the early 1980s – the NHL’s last four-peat – and he backstopped New York to 19 consecutive playoff series victories, still a league record and one that will stand for a long time. “It’s going to be tough for someone to win 19 playoff series in a row again,” said Isles icon Bryan Trottier. “It’s going to be tough for someone to even come close.”
After his five-game NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings at the end of 1971-72, the Islanders selected Smith in the 1972 expansion draft. He spent the remainder of his 18-year career on Long Island, establishing a Hall of Fame legacy as an all-time clutch goalie with a whatever-it-takes attitude.
Smith won the Vezina Trophy and a first-team all-star nod in 1981-82, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1983 when the Islanders swept the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers for a fourth straight title. “That’s the kind of goalie he was, he played his best in the big moments,” said Isles defenseman Ken Morrow. “There isn’t a goalie who has had a better run than Smith. Five straight finals. He won a Conn Smythe. I’ve never seen a goalie play as well as he did in that ’83 final. Especially the first game in Edmonton (a 2-0 win), how he managed to pull a shutout out of that game with all the scoring chances they had. That was one for the ages.”
Smith’s success, at least in part, was due to the method of his madness. He wasn’t whacking people just for the fun of it. He wasn’t doing the silent treatment to be sullen, even if it looked that way sometimes. “He would have a total shutdown of being conscious of anything around him,” Resch said. “He didn’t want to talk. He’d sit there during warmups looking off in the distance. I’d ask him, ‘Are you thinking about the game?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I hate thinking about the game.’
“He had boundaries for how he’d conduct his life, and he wasn’t going to deviate from it. He was self-focused...‘My life, my hockey, my game, my rules for myself, and you’re going to follow them.’ Sometimes in practice a teammate would break one of his rules, and he’d hit them over the head.”
Despite the occasional incident of Islander-on-Islander violence – Smith famously flung his stick at Mike Bossy and chased the Isles sniper around the ice after a head-high shot – it was all about the team and all about winning for the combative netminder. On-ice success, especially in the post-season, was the only thing that mattered. “He’s the very best of the best when it comes to money goaltenders,” Trottier said. “He said it publicly, he said it to us in the dressing room, ‘There’s money on the line, the team gets better.’ We loved that about him, because we knew that as each round went on, the bonus money went up a bit. Then he got tougher to beat, and he got meaner, and he got more intense.”
Of course, with all of that intensity, things sometimes boiled over. Like the night Smith cheap-shotted one of the NHL’s all-time toughest players. “We were playing Edmonton, and he accidentally-on-purpose went after Dave Semenko,” Resch recalled. “Semenko, man, he was tough, he was knocking people out in fights that year. Billy didn’t know who Semenko was at that point and he butt-ended him in the face. Semenko turns around and drops his gloves, I’m on the bench yelling, ‘Smitty, look out!’ Semenko grabbed Smitty, flipped his mask off and hit him between the eyes. Then Garry Howatt jumped in and saved Smitty’s life.
“The next day, Smitty comes in, and he had run into Semenko and Pat Price, who went out after the game. Smitty comes up to me and says, ‘Dave Semenko isn’t a nice guy.’ And I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ And he goes, ‘I went up to him after the game and tapped him on the back and said, ‘Hey Dave, no hard feelings, it was just part of the game.’ And Semenko just looked at him and goes, ‘Are you crazy? You butt-ended me in the face.’ Smitty didn’t understand why Semenko was so mad.”
Off the ice, Smith avoided the spotlight and – according to his teammates – showed a softer side. “He was an incredible father, an incredible husband and a terrific friend,” said Islanders captain Denis Potvin. “But the on-ice persona, like most athletes, you’ve got to change. You can’t be this nice guy and ‘Thank you very much’ and open the door for opposing players. You want to shut the door on the opposing player. Smith was perfect, and his preparation for games, his focus and his desire to win was amazing.”
Added Trottier: “I’ve known him since I was 19, and he’s the same guy, he’s the same friend. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, he just says it how it is with no apologies to anybody. He’s the way he is, and he likes himself, and we all love him. Those are special traits for any human being, let alone the greatest money goalie ever.”
Born: Dec. 12, 1950, Perth, Ont.
NHL Career: 1972-89
Teams: LA, NYI
Stats: 305-233-105, 3.18 GAA, .895 SP, 22 SO
All-Star: 1 (First-1)
Trophies: 2 (Vezina-1, Smythe-1)
Stanley Cups: 4
DID YOU KNOW?
When it came to pre-game preparation, Smith did it his way. He talked about his singular approach to The New York Times in 1981. “Nobody understands but another goalie,” Smith said. “On the day of a game, I don’t answer the phone. I sleep late, and then I go back and sleep in the afternoon. My wife goes out of her way to put the kids outside or take them to a show so I won’t be disturbed. I won’t give interviews on television on the day of a game. Reporters say, ‘What’s the matter with that SOB?’, but they don’t understand. I don’t want anything to do with people. I don’t even talk to the guys on my team. The guys on the team understand me – now. But a lot of them used to think I was crazy.”