True Grit

A mistake cost the Oilers the Stanley Cup, but it did not destroy the man who made it.

Written by Dave Komosky

January 1, 2017

Colour photograph
There have been few NHL dynasties more feared and admired than the star-studded Edmonton Oilers of the mid-1980s. They had everything: superstar talent led by the incomparable Wayne Gretzky (statistically the greatest forward in the game’s history), superb role players, and a brilliant motivator, Glen (Slats) Sather, behind the bench. As a group, they produced four Stanley Cup titles in five sensational NHL seasons.

Surely, then, the most exciting and memorable game the Oilers would play would have to be one of their glorious cup-clinching victories, or include one of Gretzky’s record-setting performances, of which there were many.

Well, maybe for others, but not for me, even though I had witnessed some of the greatest moments in Oilers history. For me, the most memorable Oilers game had nothing to do with cup wins, records, or brilliant performances. Quite the opposite. It had to do with one of the biggest flubs in sports history, the mark it left on the man who made it, and his rise above it.

There have been countless blunders, gaffes, and plain old boneheaded plays in sports over the years. The darker side of sports is the fact that, despite the enormous talent professional athletes possess, eventually someone is going to screw up, big-time — often on the biggest stage. And that is exactly what Oilers rookie defenceman Steve Smith did on the night of April 30, 1986, when he — gasp! — scored into his own net. On his birthday!

Smith’s booboo was magnified because it came against the Oilers’ archrivals, the Calgary Flames. It came in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Smythe Division playoffs, in Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum, and in front of a raucous crowd cheering on the Oil. What a time and place to mess up!

The video of that colossal error is still evergreen in the mind. I was sitting directly above the Oilers’ net, high above the ice surface at Northlands. Here’s Smith stopping with the puck behind his own net. Here he is looking up the ice to head-man the puck. Here he is firing the puck ... yikes! ... off the back of goalie Grant Fuhr’s left leg and trickling back into the net.

It was a momentary loss of concentration, and it cost the Oilers big-time. The goal came early in the third period of a tied and gutwrenching game, and it proved to be the game — and series — winner. Despite the Oilers’ blitzkrieg-style offence, they could not come back. The loss would end the Oilers’ cup run at two, although they would bounce back to win the next two.

After realizing the enormity of what he had done, Smith fell to the ice as if shot. He buried his face in his gloves in a fit of agony, and the crowd, falling into a quiet murmur, felt the pain and humiliation with him. After the game, Smith’s face was a swamp of sadness as he shook his opponents’ hands. He skated quickly to the dressing room, where, as the media hounds expected, he would hide from the pens and microphones.

But what followed was stunning. While many of his Edmonton teammates retreated to the showers or private quarters of the dressing room, Smith sat in front of his stall and faced the music. Tears welled up in his eyes as he answered every one of our questions.

That took courage. He shouldered the loss, even though Fuhr, the goalie, was partly to blame. Many of these types of mistakes can ruin an athlete. Smith’s error was so egregious that it stuck to him like a barnacle for the rest of his career. A video of that goal is still available, after all these years, on YouTube.

That it didn’t completely destroy his career is a testament to Smith’s strength of character. He went on to have a stellar career in the NHL. Smith still lives with that gaffe today. “If I think for one second people are not going to remember,” he told the Edmonton Sun a few years ago, “I’m a fool to think that.”

It was an outstanding game, with a once-in-a-lifetime mistake, made by a man who would own up to it but refused to let it destroy him.

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Dave Komosky covered the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s as a columnist for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Canada’s History.

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