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20 years later, Cup winner Steve Smith enjoying reunion with Housley

They landed as teammates in Calgary in 1998. Phil Housley was 34 years old and on the back side of his Hall of Fame career. Steve Smith was 35 and his years as a physical defenseman had earned him three Stanley Cups — and one notable instance of ignominy — while a key member of the legendary Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.

For three years, they were together. Their sons played hockey together. Their wives became fast friends. Their careers both ended by 2003 and they went their separate ways. Smith spent several years as an NHL assistant coach, most recently in Carolina. Housley did likewise as a high school coach in Minnesota before joining the Nashville Predators in 2013.

Finally in July, Smith resigned from the Hurricanes' staff to reunite with his old teammate in Buffalo. With Rasmus Dahlin coming to town, a longtime NHL blueliner was a perfect addition to Housley's staff. An old friend made it even better.

"We were the elder statesmen on the team in Calgary and even then we were taking the opportunity to teach younger players," a smiling Smith recalled during a break in Sabres training camp. "And here we are 20 years later still doing the same thing."

"He's got a calm demeanor and doesn't get rattled," Housley said. "He's creating relationships with our players, trying to foster them, and those are going to take time. I just like his presence on the bench. He's very, very detailed in his game. … I really like what he's done with our defense to this point."

Smith is on the bench, running the Sabres' defense and penalty killing. Chris Hajt, son of Sabres Hall of Famer Bill Hajt, had that role last year in his first season as an NHL assistant and is now watching the game from the press box view with goaltending coach Andrew Allen.

"I'm a pretty calm guy for the most part," Smith said. "You're not going to see me get out of control very often. I truly will be in a support position for Phil. He has to be the one to set the tone on the bench."

Where Smith is not calm is when he's asked his early impressions of Dahlin. He's downright effusive in his praise.

"After day one, I said to myself, 'I better really watch this kid because I might learn something,' " Smith joked. "He's clearly very special but even more important than that, he's really a great young man. He's a student of the game. He wants to learn. He's not averse to constructive criticism. He works on his game before and after practice. He wants to see video and see his mistakes.

"I've found him in the video room on his own watching his shifts. That's a different way of going about it for a young player like that and a young star like that."

Interestingly, Smith said Dahlin is soft spoken but not always meek on the bench like many 18-year-olds tend to be.

"He wants to know if that was his guy, if he had another play, whether another option was available," Smith said. "He's quite conversant for a young guy. I find him quite engaged."

Dahlin finds Smith quite a resource in his first exposure to the NHL.

"He's already taught me a lot. He's a great coach," Dahlin said. "He really knows what hockey is about. We're talking a lot about the system and things going on right now. ... Of course, there are small things I need to improve on but we're working on it all the time. There's hundreds of things you can be better at."

Smith said he's working with Dahlin much the way longtime Edmonton coach Glen Sather handled legendary Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey. Highly skilled players need the freedom to learn, and not have their instincts toned down.

"Coffey was very young like we all were and one of the things 'Slats' did best was allow him to make mistakes, allow him to learn from them," Smith said. "He didn't overdo it with too much minutiae. He kept it simple and knew eventually enough self-induced pain would make 'Coff' a better player."

Smith knows all about self-induced pain. Probably no player in NHL history has endured a more public moment of disaster on the ice than he did.

In the third period of Game 7 of the 1986 Smythe Division final, with the Oilers and Calgary in a 2-2 tie, Smith was making a pass from near the Edmonton net. It ricocheted off goalie Grant Fuhr's leg into the net for a hideous own-goal that became the game-winning tally in a 3-2 Calgary victory.

The Oilers won Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988. This was the only series they lost in a five-year stretch and it came in a 119-point season that saw Wayne Gretzky establish his unreachable record of 215 points in a season.

The gaffe came on Smith's 23rd birthday but he met it head-on with reporters that night and quickly moved forward. When the Oilers won the Cup the next year, Smith was the first player Gretzky handed the trophy to during the on-ice celebration.

"That clearly teaches you about humility, about bounceback, about letting things go," Smith said. "Hey, in life that happens on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis. In this game, it happens shift to shift as well.

"There's no one incident that makes or breaks a team. You have to look at what put us in that position. I believe this always has been and always will be a team game."

Smith marveled at Housley's skill as a player, which helped forge the attacking defense philosophy the Sabres head coach built in Nashville and now can utilize more because of Dahlin's presence.

"I remember thinking that Phil was skating about a half-inch above the ice all the time," Smith said. "He had such an innate ability to create separation. He was such a wonderful passer and had a great understanding of the game. He was almost a ghost out there."

As for his playing days, Smith uses them as a baseline for coaching but doesn't try to regale players with old war stories.

"I try to put myself in the position of before I open my mouth, think about what I'd like to hear about as a player," he said. "I remember various coaches that I really liked and some I didn't like as much. Coaching has to be a selfless thing. You try to put yourself in position of what you're saying is for their sake and not for yours.

"The No. 1 goal in my mind is setting expectations and keeping them accountable for them. There's a lot of little things that go into I want you to play hard, get prepared for the game. How do I do that? There's a sleep component, a rest component, a travel component, an on-ice component, the interactional component during the game with the coaches.

"What does 'be prepared' mean to an 18-year-old or 25-year-old? It can be a lot different than what it would mean to you and me. That's what we have to get through to them on."

***

The Sabres were off Saturday. They stage their first practice Sunday at 11 a.m. in HarborCenter with an eye on Thursday's season opener against Boston. The roster must be at the NHL maximum of 23 players by 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

The team cut the roster to 28 players Saturday by placing forwards Justin Bailey and Nicholas Baptiste and defenseman Matt Tennyson on waivers, and sending defenseman Lawrence Pilut to Rochester. The Sabres would like to get all three of the waived players to Rochester but must get them to clear the waiver process before they can return to the AHL. Neither Bailey nor Baptiste scored a goal in preseason.

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