Through 13 appearances and six top-of-the-podium finishes, no one represented Canada on the international stage quite like Ryan Smyth
Ryan Smyth calls his career ‘a journey.’
And while special pursuits never start out with extraordinary intent, his was one that evolved into an unprecedented adventure in Canadian hockey filled with friendships, memories and championships by its conclusion.
Over time, Canada has produced countless special and gifted hockey players, but Smyth is unique and truly synonymous with Canadian hockey and the embodiment of what a player from this nation represents.
“He’s a leader,” says former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson, now CEO and vice-chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group. “He was a greasy, gritty player. When you talk about Canadian hockey on the international realm, names like Henderson and Gretzky come to mind, but Ryan Smith is right there.
He played on the edge and didn’t take penalties and had the Canadian grit. He’s done more for Canada than any other player in Canada.”
Smyth spent 18 seasons in the National Hockey League, mostly with the Edmonton Oilers but also with Colorado, the New York Islanders and Los Angeles. In total he played 1,270 games, racking up 386 goals and 842 points.
And while he was denied a Stanley Cup during his career, his Oilers did advance to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals before dropping a heartbreaking 3-1 decision in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes.
But it was the international arena that was a special place for Smyth. He first represented Canada as an 18-year-old at the 1995 IIHF World Junior Championship in Red Deer, Alta.
It was a tournament where Canada captured its third straight gold medal (and became the first team to ever go a perfect 7-0), and a starting point that would eventual spawn an incredible run for Smyth in red and white.
“I remember that tournament very well,” he says. “It was very special with respect to putting on that Maple Leaf, being in Canada, representing our country and full well knowing the other countries would dig in really hard, especially against Canada. It was very intense and very life giving.”
During a stellar international career, Smyth would play a record 89 games for Team Canada over 15 years. He amassed 23 goals and 47 points while becoming the only player to win six gold medals in a combination of competitions that included the Olympic Winter Games, World Cup, IIHF World Championship (two times), World Juniors and Spengler Cup.
“When your first experience is a successful one, you gravitate to wanting to experience more,” he says. “It wasn’t the final piece though. I have a passion to play the game and love the game, but when you’re in the moments of being successful you want to get back to that again. It was tough to say no [to Hockey Canada] because I’ve had great experiences throughout my journey.”
In January, the 42-year-old was named to the Order of Hockey in Canada, an honour shared with a select group of 21 other individuals, including this year’s class which also features women’s pioneer Danielle Goyette and Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“It means a great deal to me,” says Smyth of the award. “I’m really humbled. To be recognized in the company of Mario [Lemieux], Wayne [Gretzky], Cassie [Campbell-Pascall] and Bob [Nicholson]; people that have paved the way for a lot of us coming through and being part of so many great teams is an honour.”
Smyth’s dedication to Canadian hockey and the passion and conviction he played with during all of those international events were evident early on but increasing so with his continued commitment to Canada’s annual participation at the world championship.
He played in the tournament seven straight years from 1999-2005 and captained the team in a record six of those entries, earning him the distinguished moniker “Captain Canada” – a nickname he recalls was respectfully bestowed on him in the early 2000s by Canadian hockey journalist Pierre Lebrun.
It is said, but unconfirmed, that Smyth’s devotion to Team Canada when his NHL season concluded even had him accepting the invitation to play for Canada while playing through injuries. Most players would decline the opportunity after their NHL season was done in that circumstance.
But not Smyth.
“Every time Hockey Canada called he was there,” says Nicholson. “He became the go-to guy. He really represented Canada.”
For Smyth, who retired from the NHL in 2014 and is now part owner and president of the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, playing for Canada seemingly on a yearly basis at the worlds was not only a duty to his country, but also a chance to continue play the game before the summer break.
It also allowed him to foster friendships and relationships not otherwise available through the environment of the NHL game.
“We should be playing at this time of year anyways,” he says. “And it was not only a way of representing your country but also a way of getting to know a lot of other great players around the league.”
One of those was Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, who played with Smyth on four Canadian teams at the IIHF World Championship. They fostered a strong relationship from those tournaments, and that has carried over to this day as close friends.
“No question,” says Smyth, a full-time resident of Edmonton. “We went to weddings together and you develop as teammates first, but also a friendship that you carry that forth afterward.”
With so many cherished experiences, countless highlights and a collection of gold medals to illustrate international success Smyth does admit a difficulty in isolating one over another.
However, when pressed he offers this observation through the many times he tugged on a Canadian jersey.
“The obvious one is the Olympics in 2002,” he says. “Beating the United States in the U.S (Salt Lake City) probably tops it.
“But I also gravitate to some of the world championships and the 2012 Spengler Cup, too. It’s the longest-serving tournament in the world. It’s a week long and the atmosphere in Davos was electric and my whole family was there to share the experience with me.”
For Smyth, hockey has indeed been an incredible journey. But it’s fittingly also been very rewarding for both himself and his country.
Story Courtesy of hockeycanada.ca