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How Floyd Smith became Sabres' first captain, coached team to Stanley Cup Final

Floyd Smith was in the office at Memorial Auditorium when the man who talked him out of retirement had a heart attack.

“I was right there with him,” Smith said. “It all happened so fast.”

It was Jan. 7, 1972, and Smith, the Buffalo Sabres’ first captain, knew his coach needed help. He knew to call for team doctors. He always had a knack for keeping cool under pressure.

Smith first played for George “Punch” Imlach with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1960s, earning his trust after joining the team in a trade toward the tail end of Imlach’s tenure. The irascible coach and general manager had won four Stanley Cup championships during the Original Six era, but the Leafs’ domination dissipated after the NHL’s expansion, and Imlach was fired after the 1968-69 season.

A year later, Smith was ready to call it quits. He was 35 and his production had plunged, the right wing’s four goals and 14 assists by far the fewest in a full season in his long career.

“I hadn’t officially retired, but my game was finished, as far as being productive in the NHL,” Smith said. “It just came to a point where I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I was getting older, my skating wasn’t improving any; it was getting worse. So it came time. My wife and I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ And then the Sabres called and I talked to Punch about this role he wanted me to do.”

Smith’s most iconic moments were yet to come.

Fifty years ago, Imlach, who’d been hired as the Sabres’ first coach and GM, convinced Smith to continue his career in Buffalo.

He promised Smith he’d play on a line with rookie center Gilbert Perreault, the French Canadian phenom and future Hall of Famer drafted by the expansion franchise with the No. 1 overall pick.

Imlach said he’d name Smith team captain, and Smith was immortalized in the black and white photo of the first ceremonial puck drop at the Aud.

And, most important, he said he’d let him run some practices, launching the career of the most successful coach by winning percentage in franchise history.

Five years later, 45 years ago in May, Smith led the Sabres to the 1974-75 Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers in his first season as head coach. The team featured The French Connection, the star-studded top line of Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert, and a young core of players who, in 1972-73, Smith had guided to the AHL Calder Cup championship as coach of the Cincinnati Swords, illustrating the importance of a strong farm system.

“I was going to kind of help him with coaching,” Smith, 84, said last week from his home in Orchard Park, recalling that life-changing conversation with Imlach. “When he was busy, I would take the practices and all that. So that’s basically why I came. I knew that down the road I’d get into coaching somewhere, if I came and did this for a couple of years.”

That timetable accelerated in a heartbeat.

Former Sabres captain Floyd Smith talks with fans as they arrive on the Blue and Gold carpet for the season opener at KeyBank Center on Oct. 5, 2019. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

'Invaluable'

It had been a hectic couple of days at the Aud.

“Everybody was running around,” Smith said. “Everybody was worried, ‘Just how healthy is Punch? What is his status,’ and everything? And the Knoxes were very concerned about their franchise and everything. There was just a lot of things happening.”

Once Imlach was stable, he and team co-owner Seymour Knox III spoke and decided to promote Joe Crozier, the head coach of the Swords, to Sabres' interim head coach and send Smith to Cincinnati to oversee the minor league affiliate.

But two days after Imlach’s heart attack, Smith stood behind the bench for the first time in the Sabres’ 2-1 home loss to Toronto.

“I was no head coach,” Smith said. “I just filled in when they didn’t have anybody else for one game. I knew that I wasn’t going to coach the team the rest of the year. I didn’t have the experience. So I went down to Cincinnati with a bunch of young kids.”

Smith knew the players – they were part of the organization – and he got to work.

“I just remembered what all the coaches I’d played for, what Sid Abel did in Detroit or what Imlach did,” Smith said.

Smith knew how to read a locker room and quickly ingratiated himself with his knowledge of the game, a genuine belief in his players and a little bag of motivational tricks. He knew something as simple as swapping a puck for a tennis ball could liven a practice and make the daily grind less of a chore.

“He was kind of a fun-loving guy, so he brought that attitude that he had playing at the highest level in the NHL into his coaching," former Swords and Sabres defenseman Bill Hajt said. "For the situation he was in early on there in Cincy and with us in Buffalo, it was perfect.”

The Swords excelled under Smith’s guidance, reaching the playoffs in his first partial season.

“You could tell he had a really good feel for the chemistry,” said former Swords and Sabres defenseman Larry Carriere, now the assistant general manager for the Montreal Canadiens.

A year later, the Swords set AHL records for wins and points and won the Calder Cup, an experience that laid the groundwork for the most iconic team in Sabres history.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was invaluable, both to Floyd and us,” former Swords and Sabres forward Rick Dudley said. “There were a lot of players who went from that Swords team to Buffalo. We understood what a long playoff run was. We understood it very well.”

Recreating the original puck drop, Seymour H. Knox IV (for his father) drops the ceremonial puck between Sabres' Floyd Smith and Canadiens' Henri Richard during the Sabres' 40th anniversary season at HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Friday, Oct. 15, 2010. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News file photo)

'He believed I could'

Dudley, now senior vice president of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes, began that 1972-73 season as little more than an enforcer.

“I was a minor league guy who fought a lot and that was about the extent of it,” Dudley said. “All of a sudden, I got a call into the coach’s office, and when you’re a player that doesn’t know exactly where he fits in in the scheme of things, you’re not sure what being called into the coach’s office means.”

Dudley had just six goals and 29 points the previous season, compared to 272 penalty minutes, but Smith had seen something and wanted to play him on a line with Billy Inglis, the Swords’ captain and one of the best players in the AHL.

This was a tremendous compliment and responsibility.

“That alone was a validation of how I played,” Dudley said. “But I can remember the words almost exactly. He said, ‘I know you’re tough, but don’t think you have to fight every shift you go out there. If Billy gets in trouble, you might have to step in, for sure. But don’t think you have to fight every time. I want you to play. I think you can play.’

“He made me feel like he believed I could do it,” Dudley said. “And I did not want to let him down.”

Dudley responded with 40 goals and 84 points in 64 games, while nearly halving his time in the penalty box. He added seven goals and a team-leading 22 points in the playoffs.

The Swords went 54-17-5 and defeated the reigning champion Nova Scotia Voyageurs, the Canadiens’ affiliate, in five games for the title. Inglis was named league MVP.

Dudley was promoted to the Sabres, along with several teammates the next year, then racked up 31 goals and 70 points during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1974-75.

He’d go on to coach the Sabres from 1989 to 1992.

“I wanted to be more than a pugilist,” Dudley said. “I didn’t mind that part of the game, but I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are singularly fighters who didn’t want to be more than that. It’s the reason why when I coached the Sabres, every so often I’d put Rob Ray for a game or two on a line with top players like Dave Andreychuk, and it was kind of a validation that he’s more than just a thug.

“I learned that part of it from Floyd. I realized that you could actually have a major impact on somebody’s career and you can help people believe in themselves a little bit.”

'A comfort level'

A year after the Swords lifted the Calder Cup, the Sabres were in disarray, coming off a losing record and shaken by the death of defenseman Tim Horton in a car crash.

Imlach, acting as general manager, fired Crozier and promoted Smith to head coach, putting him in charge of several former teammates and reuniting him with many of his best players from Cincinnati.

“We had a comfort level with Smitty because we’d already gone through war with him for a couple of years, won a championship together,” Hajt said. “So because of that, the transition was easier. And even the guys that were there that weren’t as familiar with Floyd, certainly had to have respect for him because he had played at the highest level for a long time in the NHL himself.”

The transition, however, wasn’t so simple for the coach.

“One of the biggest things I cautioned myself against was not to play favorites, but take the best players, you know?" Smith said. "When we’re putting the team together, to make sure that when we left training camp we had the best players in the organization there.”

The Sabres lurched to a 3-3-1 record over the first two weeks of the season, a stretch capped by a 7-2 loss at Los Angeles despite vastly outshooting the Kings, a team that lost just twice in its first 26 games. But in that drubbing, something clicked.

“We looked at ourselves and said, ‘Holy cow, we dominated LA in LA,' ” Hajt said. “We said, 'We have a good team here.' The light went on for the whole team.”

The Sabres lost just once in the next 22 games, improving their record to 21-4-4, the best mark in the NHL, and added a 12-game unbeaten streak in February.

Buffalo finished the season with a 49-16-15 record and 113 points, in a three-way tie for first place with Montreal and defending champion Philadelphia.

The Sabres defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in the first round, then took a 2-0 series lead over Montreal in the conference finals. When the Canadiens knotted the series with consecutive home victories, Smith kept the team from panicking.

“We got beat bad in Montreal and he came back and he just took a very positive approach,” said former Sabres forward Danny Gare, then in his rookie season. “He said, ‘Boys, look, we’re at home. We’re in control of this series.’ And we ended up winning the next two to go to the finals. He was a positive influence in that regard. He knew what type of team we had.”

The Sabres defeated the Canadiens, 4-3, in Game 6 in Montreal, and played for the Stanley Cup in just its fifth year of existence.

“That was really neat. That was big,” Smith said. “That turned the franchise into a real, first-rate franchise, that win.”

'Goosebumps'

Buffalo erupted in pandemonium.

Thousands of Sabres fans swarmed the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, jamming the surrounding highways and causing the team to redirect its charter flight to Niagara Falls. But word got out and the horde spread north, where it overwhelmed the triumphant players as they stepped off the plane.

“That was a funny thing,” Smith said. “But it was scary. They didn’t leave much room for you to maneuver. They were all around.”

Smith said he heard the crowd was estimated at 15,000 fans.

They were shaking hands with the players, hugging them and getting autographs as the Sabres made their way to buses waiting to transport them to their cars.

“You talk about passion, and as you’re getting off the plane and everyone is high-fiving you and hugging you,” Carriere said. “I have goosebumps now talking about it. So we finally get on the bus at the Niagara Falls airport, and we’re going down the highway and it’s lined with people honking their horns and waving and signs and all of that and you just go, ‘Wow. What a town this is.’ ”

The Sabres lost to the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final, stymied by two-time Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Bernie Parent. The series lasted six games, including the Sabres’ famed “Fog Game” victory in Game 3 in Buffalo.

Smith led the Sabres to the second round of the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, losing each time to the New York Islanders, before coming to a “mutual agreement” with Imlach, he said, to step down.

“Punch was a great guy, a great hockey man. But he also was a coach,” Smith said, laughing. “And once you coach once, you never forget, they say. So dealing with him wasn’t the easiest thing in the world at the end.”

The following season, Smith coached the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, reuniting with executives who had been involved with the Swords. The 1978-79 Stingers roster included Robbie Ftorek, Mike Liut, Barry Melrose and an 18-year-old named Mark Messier.

Dudley also played for Smith on that team, thrilled to again skate for the man who offered his big break, who led him to the Calder Cup and Stanley Cup Final, the most genuine coach he’d ever had.

“People figure it out if you’re not genuine, eventually,” Dudley said. “They might be fooled for a while, but they’re going to figure it out. With Floyd, there was no figuring it out. He was who he was.

“He was just a good person who happened to be able to take a group of people and make them believe in themselves.”

Smith went on to work as a coach, scout and general manager for Toronto, then served as a consultant for Anaheim. He dropped the puck on opening night at KeyBank Center in October, when the Sabres honored former team captains to begin their 50th anniversary season.

Smith said he and his wife, Audrey, still attend a few Sabres games each year. They sit in the stands.

“We do the same thing as everybody else – have a beer and have a hot dog,” Smith said. “I go and try to blend in with everybody and just watch the game. And listen to the crowd.”

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