Gary Smith was terribly exhausted. He had been in Vancouver for less than a year, but his feelings reflected the chaos occurring within his team’s front office.
In early 1974, the Vancouver Canucks were in a state of crisis. The team’s owner and president, Tom Scallen of Medical Investment Corporation. Ltd. (Medicor), had been charged with the theft of three-million dollars, alleged to have utilized the team’s finances to cover the debt of its parent company.
Poile had fallen ill in 1972 — officially diagnosed as “exhaustion” on November 21, 1972 —, but he returned the next season as the assistant manager (“Poile Leaves”). Upon his recovery, he refused to work with Laycoe and feuded with his former subordinate.
Another member of the board, assistant to the vice president Walter “Babe” Pratt, had once publicly criticized Laycoe as a coach in 1972 on a radio broadcast and was now expected to work alongside him (Beddoes). Both were Canucks employees at the time of the comments. This tense, uncomfortable dynamic infiltrated every corner of the Canucks’ front office.
Meanwhile, the newly-minted, on-ice product was a relative disaster. Wins were scant. The Canucks lacked goaltending depth, and following an injury to starting net-minder Dunc Wilson only a few months prior to Smith’s arrival, the team floundered without an adequate backup (Proudfoot, “No More”).
At one point during the 1972-73 season, the organization offered a tryout to Long John Henderson, a 40-year-old former goaltender who had last played in the NHL in 1956 (Proudfoot, “No More”).
The Canucks’ farm system was barren and the swift decay of the franchise only continued the following season. At the midpoint of the 1973-74 campaign, the Canucks fired Bill McCreary, the third coach in their four-year NHL existence.
Gary Smith arrived in a May 1973 trade between the Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks that sent Dale Tallon, the team’s two-time All-Star representative, the other way. The conduct of their superiors left the players feeling demoralized, and Smith was particularly distressed. His experience with this team had so far been miserable. He commented on the difficulty of working in “such an unbelievably screwed-up atmosphere” (“Canucks’ Hall”).
Interim president Coleman E. Hall, serving while Scallen appealed his sentence, contributed similar thoughts to the press, bluntly stating that “this club should be run as a business but it never has been” (“Canucks’ Hall”). Coach McCreary, following his dismissal and subsequent offering of a new role within the organization, corroborated these reports:
”There has been friction on this team right from the start at [the team’s 1973-74] training camp. The two factions on this team have made it difficult to coach, and staying with the organization may be the wrong thing for me.” - Recently-fired Canucks coach Bill McCreary, January 15, 1974 (“Canucks Fire McCreary”)
Furthermore, Coley Hall was under scrutiny for operating from his winter home in Hawaii rather than in-person. Such an arrangement led to the perception of an absentee ownership situation, which the team’s followers quickly cited as one of the contributing factors to the disarray of the four-year-old franchise (MacLeod).
According to the infamous Toronto-based lawyer and agent Alan Eagleson, upon speaking with Laycoe and Smith: “There’s a lot of problems in Vancouver because of the absentee ownership. Players like Don Lever, Don Tannahill and Andre Boudrias are wondering about their future” (Proudfoot, “Eagleson”).
Gary Smith wondered the same. Numerous roster members required new contracts. The threat of poaching by the World Hockey Association seemed particularly real for the meager Canucks.
Smith was nicknamed “Suitcase” due to his tendency to travel between leagues in the early days of his career, but it seemed now that several other Canucks would be packing their bags.
In Smith’s words, “We had 18 guys in the front office — millions of them, it seemed, and none of them had any power to do anything... nobody from the Canucks was even talking to [the players] about signing new contracts... When Pittsburgh put Bryan Hextall on waivers, we could have used him, but nobody was in a position to exercise our rights to take him” (Proudfoot, “Gary Smith”).
There were too many executives and none had enough authority to effectively accomplish any administrative operations.
The troubles of the team reached a boiling point when Smith chose not join the team on their trip to Chicago for a match against the Blackhawks. Up until that point in the 1973-74 season, the team’s new starter had played in 43 of the team’s 49 games. He felt responsible for the team’s substandard results.
Eagleson commented that Smith was “so depressed he doesn’t know what to do. He’s blaming himself for their losses” (Proudfoot, “Eagleson”).
Smith was devastated by the firing of Coach McCreary and mortified by the organization’s lack of priority. The Canucks had reached a new low point. They possessed a record of 9-25-7 at the time of McCreary’s firing on January 13, 1974. Smith finished the 1973-74 season with a record of 20-33-8.
”With nobody doing anything to improve the team, that hurt me.” - Canucks goaltender Gary Smith, February 25, 1974 (Proudfoot, “Gary Smith”)
General manager Laycoe empathized with his goaltender, acknowledging that he “has been under tremendous pressure... I’m hoping a few days away from it all will result in him having second thoughts” (“Canucks’ Goalie”).
In spite of his despair and personal feeling of futility, Gary Smith was named the team’s Most Valuable Player at the conclusion of the 1973-74 Vancouver Canucks season. The team’s failure was in spite of his efforts.
Soon after McCreary’s dismissal, Hall announced that he would confer with the team’s board of directors about a decision to fire both Laycoe and Poile (“Canucks’ Hall”). Bud Poile announced his resignation one day later, while Hal Laycoe was granted a leave of absence (“Canucks’ Maloney;” MacLeod).
Despite their important work for the franchise in its earliest years, the organization needed a new approach.
Interim president Coley Hall was a life-long Vancouverite whose accomplishments included the founding, naming, ownership and management of the original Vancouver Canucks of the Pacific Coast Hockey League and later Western Hockey League. He was, in a sense, the organization’s guardian.
In 1974, he orchestrated sweeping changes to the organization. All-time WHL Canucks leading scorer Phil Maloney, originally a scout for the NHL version and then an assistant coach, was not only promoted in McCreary’s stead in January 1974, but was also given full control as general manager, immediately replacing Hal Laycoe.
The team was then sold that summer to Western Broadcast Sales Co. Ltd, a local broadcasting company owned by Frank Griffiths, whose properties included CKNW and BCTV.
These changes ushered in a new era for the Vancouver Canucks. Such radical changes manifested themselves in the on-ice product. Gary Smith rose to become the team’s leader once more, contributing significantly to the team’s first-place finish in the Smythe Division. For a second consecutive year, he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, and now the rest of the team was following in his footsteps.
He was the Canucks’ representative at the 1975 NHL All-Star Game and crafted a personal record of 32-24-9 that season. His 32 wins in 72 games ranked third among all NHL goaltenders that season, behind only the 34 wins of Chicago’s Tony Esposito and the 44 wins of Philadelphia goaltender Bernie Parent — all three had played approximately 70 games each, the most in the NHL.
However, Smith was the league’s leader among goaltenders in terms of games played.
Among Canucks goaltenders, only Roberto Luongo has exceeded that number of games played in a season with 76 in 2006-07 and 73 in 2007-08.
Gary Smith’s astonishing feats as a goaltender had never before been seen in a Canucks uniform. He was a favorite among the team’s followers, his fearless style and high degree of skill as a puck handler providing the small-but-growing Canucks fan base with a new hero to identify with.
His regular displays of sensational, awe-inspiring goaltending became entrenched into the minds and memories of the Canucks’ first generation of supporters, and have not since been forgotten.
He also displayed an occasional penchant for fisticuffs — the official term in the NHL rulebook —, involving himself in a handful of fights as an NHL goaltender. On one such occasion as a Canuck against the Broad Street Bullies on December 20, 1973, he jumped off of the bench to join the brawl.
He was a maverick who encapsulated the spirit of the 1974-75 team.
In 1992, fellow Canucks icon, offensive leader, teammate and later captain Andre Boudrias commented on Smith’s presence and effect on the 1974-75 squad:
”I had [Don] Lever and [Dennis] Ververgaert on my line, but it was really Smitty that made us... I laugh when I think of that coat. It must have seen some strange places... Smitty was a leader... I haven’t seen another goaltending year like it.” - former Canucks forward Andre Boudrias, March 17, 1992 (Gallagher)
In 1975, the Vancouver Canucks qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in their history. The playoff system at the time granted each division champion a bye to the second round; having won the Smythe Division title, the Canucks automatically began their postseason campaign in an eight-team pool. They would not reach the second round again until 1982. This was by far their most successful year of the 1970s.
Their opponents also received a bye: the elite Montreal Canadiens, one year prior to their run of four straight Stanley Cup Championships.
This was a mismatch in every sense. One team was star-studded; the other, despite their work ethic and commitment to one another, did not possess nearly the talent to stop a team with ten future Hockey Hall of Fame members. Thus, when the Canadiens won the series opener 6-2, a swift defeat was the obvious and most rational prediction.
However, in an unexpected twist, the Canucks won Game 2 by a score of 2-1, a come-from-behind victory featuring goals from Gerry O’Flaherty and Garry Monahan, as well as another display of excellence from their masked warrior in net.
A late puck-handling mishap behind the goal line caused a moment of fright, but with a little bit of help from defenceman Dennis Kearns to block an empty net, the Canucks managed to achieve the improbable at the Montreal Forum in front of a crowd of 16,470 (“Vancouver’s First”). This proved only to be a slight irritant to the Canadiens, though, as the soon-to-be dynasty claimed two more victories at the Pacific Coliseum.
Thus, the Vancouver Canucks were forced into a desperate situation. Not only was Game 5 an elimination match, but home ice advantage belonged to their mighty foe. The only means by which they could survive another game against the fearsome Canadiens would be to exert themselves to the brink of their ability.
Most importantly, they stood no chance without their most valuable player: Gary Smith.
His audacity and heroics would be necessary to steal a victory from the impervious Ken Dryden, especially if the game ever reached overtime.
The game, naturally, required more than sixty minutes to resolve. The events that unfolded during that match are the basis of our video presentation today.
Former Canucks defenceman Bob Murray — not to be confused with the current Anaheim Ducks general manager — once stated that “with Gary Smith, we could be outshot 50-20 but win 3-2... He would come off the ice totally exhausted. It was quite something to watch Gary Smith play. He had the city on its ear. He could have run for mayor” (Banks).
His 42-save performance that night, punctuated by numerous highlight-worthy moments, offers a glimpse of the mesmerizing saves and high standards that generated such fervor in Vancouver. The 1974-75 season was a resounding success, due largely to the dependable goaltending of Gary Smith.
The 1975-76 season was another minor victory for the organization, as the Canucks qualified for a post-season bout against the New York Islanders. A drunken incident involving distasteful words addressed to Emily Griffiths — the owner’s wife — at the 1975 Christmas party prompted Mr. Griffiths’ request for Smith’s removal from the roster. Eight months later, he was traded to the Minnesota North Stars in exchange for fellow goaltender Cesare Maniago.
Nearly 44 years later, Gary Smith continues to express his dedication to his former team, avidly watching Canucks games on television from his home in San Diego. His race horses — he is a horse-racing enthusiast — are adorned with the team’s iconic green and blue whenever they compete.
Despite his tenure being as short as any of his other stops, the Vancouver Canucks and their supporters remain in his heart as much as he remains in theirs.
The Canucks forfeited an ideal situation with Smith. Alas, just as quickly as he ignited the Vancouver Canucks and its fandom, he was suddenly gone — a fitting end for the man named Suitcase.
Banks, David. “A Dynasty in Old Days, no Fooling: [1* Edition].” The Province, Mar 03, 1991, pp. 58.
Beddoes, Dick. “Vic Stasiuk Replaces Hal Laycoe as Vancouver Coach.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), May 03, 1972, pp. 32.
”Canucks’ Goalie Decides to Miss Chicago Game.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Jan 21, 1974, pp. 1.
”Canucks’ Hall Says He Will Recommend that both Laycoe and Poile be Fired.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Jan 22, 1974, pp. 32.
”Canucks Fire McCreary, Hire Maloney.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Jan 15, 1974, pp. 30.
”Canucks’ Maloney Takes on Two Jobs.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Feb 01, 1974, pp. 30.
Gallagher, Tony. “‘75 Canucks: Driven by Suitcase Smith, this Model was a Real Winner: [Final Edition].” Calgary Herald, Mar 17, 1992, pp. D2.
MacLeod, Rex. “Drops Hockey Rest of Season: Poile Heeds Eagleson’ s Advice, Cuffing Ties with Canucks Club.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Jan 24, 1974, pp. 44.
”Poile Leaves Hockey Post at Vancouver.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Mar 21, 1973, pp. 32.
Proudfoot, Dan. “Eagleson Explains Tilt Toward Toros: Henderson Wants Shield of Leaf no-Trade Pact.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Jan 22, 1974, pp. 33.
Proudfoot, Dan. “Gary Smith Key to Leafs’ 4-3 Defeat.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Feb 25, 1974, pp. 1.
Proudfoot, Dan. “No More Huffing and Puffing: Ailing Poile Still Follows Canucks from Home.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Dec 09, 1972, pp. 45.
”Vancouver’s First Victory Over Montreal: Odd Goal by Monahan Gives Canucks Win.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), Apr 16, 1975, pp. 32.