No Western New York native can match Stanley Cup trophy stories with Barry Smith.
The 68-year-old Kenmore West High School product has won seven Stanley Cup rings. He has two as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, three as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings and two more as an executive with the Chicago Blackhawks.
That means he’s one of the lucky champions who has gotten to take possession of the cup for 24 hours in those title-winning offseasons.
Smith has kept a house in Angola, where he spends part of the summer, and the Cup has seen its share of the sand on the shore of Lake Erie.
“I’ve had the Cup on the beach in Angola,” Smith said. “One night in one of the years we won in Detroit, the gentleman in charge of the cup, who follows it around, fell asleep. So I put the Cup in the boat, drive it over to Mickey Rats and Captain Kidd’s. Up the beach we go. We go inside, and the place was going nuts. Everybody was taking photos. We put it back in the boat, drove it back and the guy had just woken up as we got back.”
Smith’s amazing career in hockey was recognized Tuesday when he joined the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame with 14 other members of the Class of 2018. A dinner honoring the inductees was held in the Buffalo Convention Center.
Smith’s coaching career didn’t get off to an auspicious start. After starring as a three-sport athlete at Ithaca College (in football, hockey and lacrosse), he took over the Elmira College hockey team in 1975. The Soaring Eagles went 10-20-1.
“My first year of college coaching was dismal,” Smith said. “I thought I knew everything as a young coach. I think I won one game, maybe two. I knew I had to go back to a whole new level of preparation. I went over to Russia, this is way back in the mid-70s. I learned about all the off-ice conditioning and all the on-ice drills they did from Anatoly Tarasov.”
Tarasov is known as the father of Russian hockey.
“I put that package together in Elmira, the guys loved it and it took off from there,” Smith said. “The preparation to me is everything.”
Smith took the Elmira team to the NCAA Division II title game four years later. He was coaching in Sweden in the early 1980s when he got to know Scotty Bowman, who was scouting players in Scandinavia. In 1986, Bowman brought Smith to Buffalo as an assistant coach.
Smith moved to Pittsburgh as an aide in 1990, and he won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Penguins teams led by Mario Lemieux.
“That first Pittsburgh team just barely made the playoffs, so nobody expected us to win the Cup,” Smith said. “The party was at Lemieux’s house. Somebody dove with the Cup off the board or off something high, and the Cup went down to the bottom. The intake valve at the bottom of the pool had suction, and the cup got stuck at the bottom of the pool. We had to dive down and sort of pull it off. It cracked the side on the bottom of the Cup, so we had to get a goldsmith to come at 1 o’clock in the morning and repair it.”
Smith joined Bowman in Detroit in 1993 and helped the Red Wings win Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002. The 2002 team included nine Hall of Famers: Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek.
“They’re Hall of Famers not just because they’re good hockey players,” Smith said. “They bring a lot more than just stepping on the ice. The maturity level, the ability to handle any adversity, the calmness in a storm, that’s also what makes them special. It’s the mental makeup, not just the physical side.”
Bowman and Smith were on the leading edge in the NHL in taking advantage of the impact Europeans could have on the game. Smith has been known throughout his career as a great communicator, and his superb people skills helped integrate players with different cultures and styles.
“At a time when there was an influx of international players, they really needed someone who could relate to them on a coaching staff level to get them assimilated into the North American hockey culture,” said Brian Cavanaugh, long-time former Canisius College coach and friend of Smith. “He’s a great communicator. When he was at Detroit, he was the one who convinced Scotty to play the five Russians together. That was unheard of back then.”
“One thing about Scotty that was amazing is it never mattered where a hockey player came from,” Smith said. “He played him. A player is a player is a player. He loved skill. He loved smart players. He knew how to utilize the players’ best assets.”
Smith is in his ninth year in the Blackhawks’ front office. He serves as director of player development.
From the Buffalo Hall of Fame perspective, Smith’s coaching record may never be broken. His name is on the Cup seven times. It’s believed no other Western New York-born coach has his name on the Cup.
Boxing great Joe Mesi, who had 22 tables of followers at the dinner, arguably was the headliner of the class. Mesi went 36-0 in his professional career.
The other inductees included college administrator Bill Bradshaw, Canisius College basketball player and college coach Gina Castelli, Sweet Home football and lacrosse coach John Faller, PGA Tour golfer and former Crag Burn Club pro Lonnie Nielsen, basketball greats Jimmy and Rickey Williams and former NFL player Jeff Yeates. Six members of the 2018 class are deceased. They are baseball pitcher Werner “Babe” Birrer, track and field Olympian James Hewson, former Oakland Raider fullback Marv Hubbard and figure skating champions Louise, Estelle and Mary Weigel.