I remember going to a Leaf-Red Wing game with my Dad at the old Detroit Olympia one Sunday night in the mid-1960s.
Both Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk, the aging Leaf goalies, were hurt that night, and Punch Imlach had brought up two young goalies- Gary Smith and Al Smith.
I was a very young Leaf fan at the time, maybe 12 years old. I knew precious little about the two young goalies. But my dad, who I’ve written about many times (he really, really didn’t like Gordie Howe) was none too happy that Gordie would be facing a rookie that Sunday night at the Olympia.
Gary Smith (no relation to Al, though I probably didn’t even know that at the time) played that night, giving up a bit of a weak goal to Gordie Howe early on (which displeased my Dad- he talked about it for days) and losing 4-0, I think it was. Gary went on to a pretty good career in the NHL, most notably as the colorful, wandering goalie with the expansion California Seals.
For his part, Al Smith didn’t play a lot during his years in the Maple Leaf system. (I’m thinking he maybe played half a dozen games with the Leafs, as they still had Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk, and later Bruce Gamble), but if I’m not mistaken, he was the “third” goalie the night the Leafs won their last Cup in 1967. Bower was dressed and on the bench, but he was injured and could not have played if Sawchuk had been hurt himself in Game 6. The Leafs evidently had Smith dressed and ready to go, in the dressing room, just in case.
Smith went on to play for a number of NHL teams and had a nice career.
All that said, what I wanted to raise today was a much later life memory.
Many years ago- probably 20 or so, so maybe 1988 or thereabouts, I was working for a company in Toronto. I was at the office pretty late one night and I ended up taking a cab home.
It was a long ride, a good 45 minutes or so from downtown Toronto, so there was plenty of time to chat.
Now, I’ve had many thought-provoking conversations with cab/limo drivers across Canada and the U.S. over the years. One chat I recall in particular with a gentleman from Lebanon -- a conversation that taught me more about that country and the Middle East than I ever learned in school. More recently, while in the United States, I had an engaging conversation with an individual from the Ivory Coast. We talked about different issues, including the then upcoming World Cup and the importance of that sport to his fellow countrymen.
There have been other memorable rides through the years, but on this particular evening that I have in mind, I chatted with the cab driver about hockey- and specifically the Maple Leafs of yesteryear.
This individual was well-spoken, interesting, and seemed to know more than the average guy about hockey, and the Leafs.
I remember talking about names like Dave Keon, and others, and thinking, this fellow sure knows his stuff. His recall was for certain players and situations seemed uncanny. He knew the game inside and out. This guy seemed to be more than “just” a fan. But I had no idea who he might be- other than a very interesting fellow.
At the end of the ride we shook hands and thanked each other for a great conversation about the good old days of hockey.
Many years later I was on the Internet, and started reading a bit about former Leaf goalie Al Smith. He died some years ago. I discovered through my reading that he was a deeply sensitive and artistic individual, who, before his death, had been a writer and playwright.
He had apparently tried different kinds of work after retiring from hockey in the early 80s, and for a time, I read, he was a cab driver in Toronto.
As I began to draw on my memories of seeing Al Smith when I was young, I began to connect the dots and became certain the thoughtful, articulate fellow I had the pleasure of talking with in the cab ride home that night, years ago, was former Maple Leaf Al Smith.
As a goalie, I recall that Smith played well for Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. (I believe that I also remember him as an excellent lacrosse player in the old Ontario Senior lacrosse league, when I used to watch the Windsor Warlocks play in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on sweltering summer nights inside the old Windsor Arena. Smith maybe played for Owen Sound, but I could be wrong.) He spent considerable time with Hartford in the WHA (no wonder he knew so much about and seemingly thought so highly of Keon- he played with Dave in both Toronto and Hartford), some time with the Sabres in the NHL and retired after part of a season with the Colorado Rockies in the early ‘80s. I remember him, as a player, as a very competitive, fiery guy.
But not once in our conversation did he talk about himself, or his own very successful hockey career. He didn’t even tell me who he was.
There was just something about the man- who turned out to be Al Smith, I’m sure- that touched me as we spoke that night.
It all made sense, years later, when I read about him. The article commented in particular on his relationship with one of his grown children (an adult son) before his death, and how Smith had been friends with Dave Keon’s brother, Jim.
There was simply a dignity about him- the man I am certain was Al Smith. It was a conversation I’ve always remembered. Others who really knew him have no doubt written much more eloquently about this thoughtful man than I possibly could. I am simply glad to have had that one conversation with him, many years ago.
Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Blog