When you think of the Winnipeg Jets, Doug Smail likely isn't the first player that comes to your mind.
This is the first instalment in a periodic series from Taylor Allen called Catching Up.
Taylor will retell the stories of former Manitoba sports icons while also providing an update on what they're up to today. Have a certain sports figure in mind? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestion.
That's not a knock on him. After all, there have been some pretty good ones over the years. There were the legends in the 1970s who brought the Avco Cup to Portage and Main not once, but three times. There was The Finnish Flash in the '90s, and today, there's another guy from Finland on the team who happens to be pretty good at putting the puck in the net.
But perhaps no player is a better representation of this city and the history of the franchise than Smail. He was a small guy, from a small town who wasn't even drafted. Nothing about Smail's hockey journey was easy and, perhaps, that's what made fans admire the five-foot-nine winger from Moose Jaw, Sask., during his 11-year playing career in Winnipeg from 1980 to 1991.
Smail played Tier 2 junior hockey for his hometown Moose Jaw Canucks and averaged nearly two points a game, but it didn't garner the attention of pro scouts and his name wasn't called during his draft-eligible years. But Smail wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel. From there, he'd go play three seasons at the University of North Dakota.
"I was there to play hockey and my goal was to play pro hockey after," Smail told the Free Press in a phone interview from his home in Denver.
"I went there for that purpose and I knew I had a little longer route. I was able to get into a real strong training methodology with the coaches there and how they encouraged me to get on a weight gain, muscle-building program that really helped me. Between my freshman and sophomore year, I put 27 pounds of muscle on my body and that basically made me an NHL-calibre player."
Smail's physical transformation, in addition to scoring 43 goals and adding 44 helpers in 40 games as a junior in the 1979-80 campaign at UND, had NHL teams knocking on his door. But what arguably helped Smail's cause the most was the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a bunch of American college kids did the unthinkable and won gold in men's hockey.
"I think it raised the eyebrows of the competitiveness of college hockey to another level," Smail said. "I was a free agent after that year. We won nationals (at UND), we'd been there two years in a row, so we had a very good hockey club. We had eight or nine guys off our team play NHL games. It was a good group of guys. I was scouted, as the depth of scouting in college hockey became a lot heavier. So, I actually had 14 offers. I left after my junior year and I had 14 teams offer me a contract to play in the NHL."
Smail narrowed his options down to three teams: the Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg wasn't the best offer on the table, but Smail chose the Jets, feeling it was the best club for him to get a chance to establish himself at the NHL level.
The Jets were dreadful in the 1980-81 season, finishing with a league-worst record of 9-57-14. But one of the very few bright spots that year was the undrafted rookie, who scored 10 times and added eight assists in 30 games.
Over the next couple of years, he would become one of the key cogs for the Jets, helping them transform from a laughingstock, to a legit Stanley Cup contender. Now, nobody around these parts needs to be reminded which team owned the '80s. The Oilers, who'd win five Stanley Cups, took the Jets down in the playoffs an astounding six times. The closest call came in the 1989-90 season, when the Jets had a 3-1 series lead, but Mark Messier and the boys rallied to win three straight to advance.
"It was difficult to accept that we never made that next step. A lot of us have talked over the years, a lot of us have seen things. You watch what certain teams are willing to do and what some teams aren't willing to do," said Smail, who had 11 points in 41 playoff games with the Jets.
"The economics come into play on what a team can and can't afford and all the guys understand what's affordable and what's not. All the guys understood back then that Winnipeg was one of the lowest-budget teams in the NHL, so you might not get that extra player or two to put you over that hump. So, it was frustrating at times but, gosh, I call Winnipeg the best team in the NHL that nobody ever heard of because we were on the edge three times of maybe winning a Cup in that decade, but we were just a little short."
While Smail never got a Stanley Cup ring, he does own two records that perfectly exemplify the type of hard-working player he was throughout his career. In a game against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 20, 1981, Smail scored five seconds into the contest — setting a new NHL record. He now shares the record with Bryan Trottier and Alexander Mogilny. After 11 seasons with the Jets, Smail is also the franchise leader in short-handed goals, with 25.
Today, Smail is helping the next generation of players who have an uphill battle to get to the pros. He's the head coach of the under-18 Rocky Mountain RoughRiders triple-A hockey team, based out of Superior, Colo. He said the scenic route he took to the NHL has helped make him the coach he is today.
"It helps give some determination to them about what the road has to be, especially today. You have to be on top of it so much more than you were in my day," Smail said.
"From off ice, to nutritionally, to your emotional, social, intellectual, psychological places where your mind is at. Your sport psychology areas, your nutrition, health, your off-ice training, everything we try to commit to our boys down here is just pushing them to understand how important it is. Not just for the sport of hockey and to further their careers but for life, in general."
When Smail isn't at the rink, he's likely spending time with his wife of 14 years, Wanda, and chasing his four, soon to be five, grandkids. Towards the end of his playing career, Smail wasn't so sure if he'd get into coaching once he retired. He did, however, have a hunch that his life after hockey would involve living in Denver.
"The bottom line for me was I was in college and we were playing Denver in my very first year at North Dakota. I think when we left Grand Forks, N.D., it was 30-below. We landed in Denver and when we got off the plane it was (+17 C). I remember turning to one of my teammates and saying 'Oh my gosh, look at this place. This is where I've got to live one day.'
"So, I always kept it in my mind that it's a place I wanted to be. The weather is great, there's still a change in seasons. You still get a bit of a cold snap here and there, but it's a very great climate, you get 300 days of sun a year and there's no mosquitos. It's good stuff down here."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.