Tributes pour in for Greg (Bird Dog) Smyth after Baby Leafs legend loses fight with cancer
Smyth found a home in St. John's, remembered for dedication to hockey and friends
In a revolving door of minor leaguers that came through St. John's, none made a larger impact on hockey in the province than Greg (Bird Dog) Smyth.
When the clock ran out on his pro career with the St. John's Maple Leafs in 1999, Smyth remained in his adopted home right up until his death on Friday.
At 51 years of age, Smyth lost a battle with cancer — one of the few fights he lost in his lifetime.
"He'd do some lunatic things on the ice and in the penalty box," laughed Brian Rogers, longtime play-by-play announcer for the Maple Leafs.
"But you could see beyond the exterior in the big bad Bird Dog, that there was a guy there with the heart of a lion and like a teddy bear who would do anything for anybody."
Smyth was born in Oakville, Ont., and had a successful junior career with the London Knights. He broke into the National Hockey League with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987, putting up a whopping 192 penalty minutes in just 48 games.
He made a name for himself by taking on the toughest players in the league right off the bat — his second career tilt came against heavyweight fighter Marty McSorley.
Ron Hextall, the Flyers goalie at the time, remembers a scrappy kid who came to prove he belonged in the NHL.
"He was a prototypical Flyer, with the physical play, with the stick work, with the dropping the gloves whenever it needed to be done," Hextall said. "He was the first guy there when another guy was in trouble, and that kind of embodies a Flyer as well."
Smyth bounced between five more NHL teams before landing with the St. John's Maple Leafs in 1996-1997. There, he met the love of his life and made a home.
Loyal above all else
Todd Gillingham was a 19-year-old kid from Labrador City when he first met Smyth at a Quebec Nordiques training camp in 1991. The next season, they ended up together again in Calgary Flames camp.
Smyth saw the way he played — a talented playmaker who was also good with his fists — and took him under his wing early, Gillingham said.
"He stood by my side and walked me through the whole process and let me be a friend of his."
So sad to hear about the passing of Greg Smyth...<br>Thoughts and prayers to his family friends & teammates.<br>• Great teammate<br>• Old school<br>• One of a kind <br>• Legend <br><br>RIP “ Bird Dog” 🙏💙<a href="https://twitter.com/NHLAlumni?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NHLAlumni</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/NHL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NHL</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/TheAHL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheAHL</a> <a href="https://t.co/DbzxyXHAjD">https://t.co/DbzxyXHAjD</a>—@thereal_tiedomi
Halfway through the 1995-1996 season, Smyth joined Gillingham on the Los Angeles Ice Dogs in the International Hockey League. The two became roommates in the midst of the best season of Gillingham's career.
When asked how much he demanded of his teammates, Gillingham sniffled and laughed.
"He would more often than not sleep on the floor in front of the door so I couldn't leave and go out at nighttime after curfew," he said.
"He demanded a lot. He was brought up during a time when you had to be accountable. That's one of the things I learned from him."
Hard to play against
Terry Ryan was a prospect in the Montreal Canadiens system when he had a memorable encounter with Smyth, one he shared on social media on Saturday.
The Fredericton Canadiens were hosting the Maple Leafs in the American Hockey League playoffs, when Ryan and his teammates were on the ice for a pre-game skate.
My pal Greg "Bird Dog" Smyth passed away last night. He was a fierce competitor on the ice - to put it mildly - & loyal buddy off of it. 1 of a kind. He impacted everyone he ever played with or against <a href="https://twitter.com/kimby2929?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@kimby2929</a><a href="https://twitter.com/JamieRivers08?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JamieRivers08</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/ndempsey21?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ndempsey21</a><br><br>You'll be missed Bird. Luv ya 💚 <a href="https://t.co/K5eoFi117t">pic.twitter.com/K5eoFi117t</a>—@terryryan20
Smyth thought the Canadiens players were on the ice too long, so he skated out on the rink and interrupted their practice by firing slapshots down the ice.
One of the pucks even struck their goalie coach, Rollie Melanson, in the leg.
"No joke," Ryan said. "This couldn't happen now. Even then, it seemed warped."
He was equally intense during the game, slashing Ryan on the leg in what other players deemed a show of affection for the young agitator.
Dedicated to Newfoundland
After their days in Los Angeles came to an end, Smyth called Gillingham and said he wanted to finish his career in St. John's.
He'd played parts of four seasons with the Halifax Citadels early in his career and wanted to return to the east coast.
The duo called the team's front office and worked out a deal. Once he signed with the Leafs, Gillingham remembers Smyth going home to Ontario to sell his house and his boat. He was going to stay in Newfoundland.
After retiring from pro hockey, Smyth began playing senior hockey for the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts, and eventually played and coached with the Mount Pearl Blades, Bell Island Blues and Southern Shore Breakers, winning a Herder Memorial Trophy with the latter in 2004.
Former <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/xhockeystaff?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#xhockeystaff</a> Greg ‘Bird Dog’ Smyth passes away at age 51 - a sad, sad day for all of us at Xtreme. Greg was a great coach and was one tough fella in his playing days; he will be missed <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RIP?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RIP</a> <a href="https://t.co/XmQUzSX8F9">pic.twitter.com/XmQUzSX8F9</a>—@Xhockey
Gillingham remembers suiting up against Smyth when he came to play for the Cataracts.
"We fought," he said. "He had something to do and I had to do it. After the game we we hugged and kissed and laughed and talked about it. That's just the way that we were."
By this time, Ryan was also playing on the senior circuit and came to know Smyth well.
"He was more of a Newfoundlander than many of my buddies," he said. "We were all getting money [for playing], cash in an envelope kind of thing, and Bird played for moose meat and wood."
Those who spoke about him say he will be remembered for his grit, passion and loyalty to his friends — and for being one of the few Baby Leafs to embrace Newfoundland and Labrador as his home.
"I think he was the only one who stayed," Gillingham said. "Lots of players came and went, and lots passed on."
But none quite like Bird Dog.