Twenty years ago this month Bruce Smith made his professional hockey debut.
Very few can say they signed on the dotted line of a professional contract.
Smith got to live out his hockey dream in the city he still calls home.
You could say the hockey lifer was at the right place at the right time, but that’s life as an EBUG.
Two decades ago the term EBUG wasn’t in many hockey fan’s vernacular. Nevertheless, that’s certainly changed in the past few years with Scott Foster and David Ayres outstanding performances at the NHL level.
Smith’s pro debut wasn’t under the bright lights of the NHL, but it was in the next best thing and league for that matter.
“It would have been a thrill,” Smith said if he would have the chance to go between the pipes.
Unfortunately that never happened.
You see Smith was on the game sheet and on the bench on that cold night in February at Harbour Station with the Hartford Wolfpack
“The Wolfpack were up a few goals on the Flames and some of the guys were saying they couldn’t believe John (Paddock) didn’t put me in.”
“The guys said it would have been great to get you in and give you some action,” Smith recalled laughing.
Smith believed the final score was 6-2 that night.
“I told them right away, look guys John is trying to make it to the NHL just like you guys and if word gets out that he’s playing a forty year goalie from the stands, that’s not going to look good on his resume.”
“I just told them it’s ok, I’ll just sit here and watch the game,” Smith said.
Smith had a front row seat to live out his hockey dream.
“For me to be even that close, it’s a crazy story.”
“In light of what happened on Saturday night, it’s quite an event and a big thrill for me, as I say the broken down never was goalie having an opportunity to suit up in a pro hockey game and get a taste or a glimpse of what life is like in the pros as a goaltender was definitely special.”
Smith’s journey to that moment in time is the truly the most intriguing aspect of the story.
Smith was born and raised in Newfoundland where he dreamed of playing in the NHL.
The right catching backstop played all the way up through the minor hockey ranks and played Midget AAA.
For all those youngsters growing up on the Rock, senior hockey was just like the NHL.
“Growing up in Gander my dad would always take me to senior games.”
“You have to appreciate how good the hockey was at that time in the 60’s,” Smith said.
“There were guys that jumped from the NFLD Senior league to the NHL during expansion.”
“I grew up watching that hockey so for me it was a great thrill to end up playing for the Cornerbrook Royals.”
Smith played on three different teams during those days.
“I never stopped, I was at the rink every day.”
Smith would practice with one team and play for the other on the same night.
“I didn’t have to worry about warm-up on those occasions I was ready to go.”
The game of hockey and the goaltending position was in Bruce Smith’s blood.
“It was wall to wall hockey and I loved it,” said a reflective Smith.
“It felt so great to play and have the opportunity to play that much.”
“I was in tremendous shape, but to this day I don’t know how they ever had it structured with regards to approvals to play in three separated leagues.”
The next eight to ten years Smith’s life could have been written like a country song or for that matter like Hank Snow’s famous song ‘I’ve been everywhere.’
Senior hockey and work transfers were part of his life on the Rock.
Sadly Smith realized his playing days were drawing to a close during a grueling roadie to St. John’s.
“I’m working in the bank in Port a Basque and our daughter had just been born and there I am going out on a weekend road trip.”
The team left on a Friday night, bussed all night to St John’s, got in early Saturday morning played Saturday night and Sunday afternoon and bussed back.”
“I crawled off the bus Monday morning at 7 am and went straight into the office for 8:30.”
“I remember thinking this is crazy.”
“I wasn’t going anywhere in the game, you have a young daughter at home and that I was a backup in the Senior league in Newfoundland.”
“I just thought, let’s call it a day, and that’s what I did.”
Smith thought his journey in the game had finally ended.
Boy was he wrong.
Smith was transferred to Cole Harbour and then on to Liverpool.
It became clear that the veteran netminder couldn’t stay away from the game he loved.
Bruce and Vicki welcomed their son to the world while living in Nova Scotia, but Smith made the mistake of mentioning his playing career on the Rock to some colleagues and the next thing you know an entourage of people appear in his office.
“They were from the local senior hockey team and they were looking for a goaltender.”
Smith hadn’t played for two years and decided he would don the pads once again.
“You know how it goes, it’s in your blood.”
“They described the travel and teams in the league. I just thought we aren’t doing ten hour bus rides to St.John’s, it was all out and back, play the game and home before midnight.”
Smith agreed, but he now had to live up to expectations.
“They were all waiting to see me step on the ice, this Senior A goaltender from Newfoundland, I hadn’t played in two years, I’m thinking holy smokes, they are going to be saying this is the Senior A goalie.”
“It was a great group and we won the league both years down,” Smith proudly.
Smith played two years in Liverpool, before making the decision to pursue his calling and join Hockey Ministries International in Montreal.
“I played pick up in Montreal, but the pick up hockey was so good up there.”
“They were all former NHL, AHL US College, or European players.”
“Everyone of those guys had played somewhere.”
“Here I am thirty years old and these guys are in the forties and well past their prime, but they were really good hockey players.”
“I played for seven years with that group, before getting transferred to Saint John with Hockey Ministries.”
You could say the rest is history.
Smith began playing in a local church league once he arrived in the Port City, while doing work with Hockey Ministries in the American Hockey League.
“I was connecting with teams and of course with people that I knew in the game and this particular weekend the Hartford Wolfpack came to town.”
“John Paddock was their Head Coach and I had met John at our Hockey Ministries Camp’s out west and had some dealings with him so John and I had breakfast Friday morning before an AHL weekend of games.”
“John looked at me and said we only have one goalie for the morning skate today.”
JF Labbe was coming back from New York City with the Rangers and he wasn’t in town yet.
“I told him I’d throw the gear on if you want a second goalie for practice.”
“John said, ‘that would be great, go get your gear.’”
“I had a blast,” Smith said of participating in the morning skate.
“The guys were really good and good natured.”
“They weren’t used to a goalie paying them compliments when they would score on them.”
“I remember one player coming in on me and firing a shot over my shoulder and it hitting the bar and going in.”
“He skated around the net and I would be telling him how great a shot it was.”
“I appreciated their skills so much, I had to give them compliments.”
“I remember thinking, I’m not going to take one of the between the eyes with this group.”
“I practiced with them and said my good bye’s and off I went.”
Smith’s phone rang at 3pm that afternoon.
It was John Paddock.
“We can’t Labbe back for the game tonight we need you to suit up for us tonight as the back up,” Paddock said.
“John told me to come down early to sign the contract and get the paper work in place.”
As Smith was driving down to Harbour Station, he remembered thanking God for giving him the opportunity to live out his dream.
“I went in the dressing room and start getting ready for the game, and Jason Dawe is sitting across from me and he’s looking at my gear.”
“Dawe looks at me and says your pads kind of match our sweaters.”
The next thing out of Smith’s mouth shocked Dawe.
You could call shock and Dawe.
“They are my daughter’s pads.”
Dawe confused asked how old Smith’s daughter was.
“She’s sixteen,” Smith replied.
“How old are you,” Dawe said in shock!
“I could see the look on his face, he was like holy smoke, we are dressing a forty year old goalie tonight.”
“I still remember him asking me if I was nervous,” Smith said.
“I told him that I wasn’t nervous, that I was just going to sit on the end of the bench and watch you guys play.”
“If Milan goes down and I have to go in, that’s when I’ll be nervous, but you would be nervous as well,” confessed Smith.
Smith suited up for the Wolfpack the next day for the morning skate yet again.
JF Labbe, landed in the Port City during the Friday night game, but his gear hadn’t arrived in time for the morning skate.
Smith’s professional career had come to an end.
How much was the contract worth?
“Two hundred and fifty dollars,” Smith said without hesitation.
“I remember when I got the cheque from Madison Square Gardens, I thought it was going to be in US funds, but it was Canadian.”
“It was a special experience,” Smith said.
“Word got that I worked Hockey Ministries and the Wolfpack had taken up a collection in support of Hockey Ministries.”
“They passed around a Coca-Cola cup and the guys made a donation of a hundred dollars in support of the Ministries.”
“That was really cool.”
“I said my good byes to the team and told them I would see them next month when I travelled down to Hartford for Hockey Ministries.”
“Bring your gear,” Paddock said.
“The guys would love to see you again,” the long time coach added.
Smith’s pro debut may have been over the Flames organization took note.
The following year the Saint John Flames would invite Smith out for several practices.
By that time Smith, still with Hockey Ministries was also working in radio and was the play-by-play man for the Flames in what turned out to be their final year in the Port City.
Smith never suited up for the Baby Flames, but there was one close encounter or shall we say scary encounter.
What happens in Wilkes-Barre stays in Wilkes-Barre!
Kay Whitmore had the call from Calgary so he was on his way up to the big club, when Smith got the call from the Flames coaching staff that he was going to suit up as the back up if Dany Sabourin wasn’t able to make the game.
That’s when things got bizarre.
“It was looking iffy that Sabourin was going to make it.”
“I looked at them and said, guy’s I don’t have any of my gear here.”
In that moment, the Flames didn’t realize Smith caught with his right hand.
“No worries we will get you some gear, which they didn’t,” Smith said.
“They gave me wrong handed gloves.”
Smith’s nerves and anxiety climbed.
The what if scenarios were too cumbersome to even imagine.
“With the Hartford experience, I was prepared to go in, if I had to go in.”
“I would have been nervous if Milan went down to go in, but I felt confident enough in my abilities.”
“I’m relatively still a young man at age forty, I was in decent shape and was still playing some hockey and had faced some good caliber shots before.”
“With this situation, with borrowed skates and wrong handed gloves, I’m thinking, boy am I ever in trouble.”
“The deck is stacked against me.”
“If I have to go in, it’s going to be ugly.”
“I didn’t want it, in that situation and was just hoping Danny would make it back.”
“When Danny came through the door minutes before the start of the game I was so relived.”
“Danny was in and I was out and boy was I so glad to be out.”
Smith and his wife Vicki were on the edge of their seats like the rest of the hockey world on Saturday night watching David Ayres’ inspirational performance on Hockey Night In Canada.
“I was thinking now what,” Smith said when Mrazek went down.
“As soon as the announcer said forty-two years old, I’m thinking oh man I know that feeling.”
“This is the National Hockey League, not the American Hockey League and this is Toronto, this is the Maple Leafs and can you imagine.”
“Vicki asked me why is he spraying water on himself like that, I said because he’s terrified.”
When the Leafs pumped the first two shots past Ayres, Smith couldn’t hold back his emotions.
“I was thinking this is going to be ugly.”
“Ayres settled in and full marks to the Canes because they protected him like fine china.”
Bruce Smith’s journey and love affair with the game of hockey lives on. Smith’s work with Hockey Ministries across the country in the CHL really speaks for it’s self.
The broken down, never was goalie, continues to give back to the game in ways that very few can ever imagine.
Bruce Smith, the Chaplin, the broadcaster, the counsellor, the EBUG, but more importantly amazing hockey ambassador. Smith continues to do his work behind the scenes, where very few can ever appreciate his impact.
For more on EBUG’s Check Out Frederic Foulem’s journey