An NHL Goalie Who Quit His Team Just Before The Whistle

There’s been some news around an NFL player who quit midgame by removing his jersey and throwing it into stand before leaving the field. The game was still going on but post game the coach said that the player was no long part of the organization. Now, I don’t care about American football so I looked around and found an NHL player who did something similar and saw a video and article about it.

The setting was Buffalo’s since-departed Memorial Auditorium, home of the NHL’s Sabres circa 1977. The anti-hero of the moment was Al Smith, the Mimico-raised goaltender, who had just finished warming up for a game he’d been told he would start. It was supposed to have been a rare opportunity for Smith, who’d come up in the Toronto pipeline and played a handful of games for the Maple Leafs at the tail end of their Original Six heyday. Smith, at the time, was 32. And though he’d established himself as a reliable pro in previous stops in Pittsburgh, Detroit and New England of the World Hockey Association, he’d hit a roadblock in Buffalo. More than 50 games into his second season, he’d been granted two starts. But with Sabres No. 1 Gerry Desjardins out with an eye injury, Smith had been told by coach Floyd Smith (no relation) that he’d be the guy.

Alas, the team’s plans changed. Just before the game Al Smith was informed that general manager Punch Imlach was insisting the Sabres cede the net to rookie Don Edwards, who’d been brought up from the Sabres’ farm team. His chance suddenly vanished, Smith soon did likewise. After the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Smith instructed Buffalo trainer Frank Christie to open the gate to the players’ bench. Skating onto the ice as the opening faceoff loomed, Smith partook in a farewell twirl, waving theatrically toward Sabres owner Seymour Knox, who was sitting behind the bench. And with that, the goalie headed to the dressing room, removed his gear and announced his retirement. Frank Orr, the Star hockey writer, called it an “exit with flair.”

Even his wife was surprised but Smith didn’t stay retired for long. In the rival-league era, goaltenders were in demand. And Smith, it ought to be noted, was no slouch. The following season, after he landed back in New England with the Whalers, he was named the WHA’s top goaltender. Before his career was over, he would play in both the NHL and WHA all-star games. In 1981, Smith played 37 games for the Colorado Rockies and retired. He became a car salesman in Vancouver, and later headed to the British Columbia interior to pick fruit. Before returning to Toronto, Smith also was a salesman for Reuters. Once he returned to Toronto, Smith engaged in his love of writing. Subjects would include sports, such as in his 1997 novel The Parade has Passed, featuring a WHA forward who hitchhikes to the funeral of his former coach, who had died in a brawl.

Smith later wrote the play Confessions to Anne Sexton and the beginnings of a novel entitled, The Tragedy of Lake Tuscarora. To make ends meet, Smith became a taxi driver for Beck Taxi. It was not uncommon for Smith to pick up old friends and former teammates. In 1998, Smith used the $34,000 of pension benefits he’d received as part of the NHL’s settlement with former players to produce Confessions to Anne Sexton at the Alumnae Theatre on Berkeley Street in downtown Toronto. The play was about a former goalie who goes to New York City to attend an Impressionist art exhibit. He died in 2002 as a result of pancreatic cancer.

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