It’s the reason why our favourite players aren’t always the most talented or well-known on the roster.
We are drawn to players who are like us; players that share our excitement for the sport.
And for 13 seasons, Stan Smyl laid his heart and soul out on the ice every shift he played, etching his name into the fabric of Vancouver hockey.
In 1973, Smyl’s love for the game found him leaving his Albertan hometown to join the Bellingham Blazers of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League (BCJHL). Nicknamed the “Steamer” for his hard-nosed style of play, the sixteen-year-old led Bellingham to a Fred Page Cup title, scoring 33 points in 25 playoff games.
His success earned him a spot on the New Westminster Bruins of the Western Canada Hockey League the following year. There, Smyl captained the team to two straight Memorial Cup wins as champions of Canadian major junior hockey.
Finally, after being named the MVP of the 1978 Memorial Cup tournament, the Vancouver Canucks took notice and selected him 40th overall in the NHL Entry Draft.
Smyl made a name for himself right away with his new team. Although a small player at only 5’8″, he had a reputation for physicality and hustle. Steamer confirmed this impression when, at his first training camp, he ran the 6’3″ Harold Snepsts through the glass – a crushing hit that purportedly cemented his place on the team.
So, asides from three games with the CHL’s Dallas Black Hawks, Stan Smyl was in the NHL for good.
But he never forgot what got him there in the first place. Never taking a shift off, Smyl became a formidable force on the ice, relentlessly retrieving pucks from corners and standing up for his teammates no matter the opponent.
Steamer wasn’t satisfied with merely being a grinding, physical player, however; he wanted to make a difference on the scoreboard as well.
By his second season with the Canucks, Smyl’s goal-scoring prowess was evident, even in the world’s top hockey league. He became a point-per-game player, leading the team with 31 goals, 47 assists, 78 points, and (of course) 204 penalty minutes. He would go on to reach the 20-goal milestone six more times over his career.
But what set Stan Smyl apart was his uncanny ability to elevate his play when it mattered most. Whether it be a big goal, massive hit, or momentum-changing fight, he always brought what was needed.
And his heart showed, with Smyl’s remarkable work-ethic quickly making him a leader in the locker room. So much so that, when the team captain at the time, Kevin McCarthy, was injured during practice late in the season, Smyl was tapped to wear the C.
He wore it well, leading the team to its first-ever Stanley Cup Finals despite a sub-par regular season. Game after game, Stan Smyl wore his heart on his mustard-yellow sleeve, scoring 18 points and racking up 25 penalty minutes.
The following season, Smyl was named permanent captain of the team and made his mark alongside Darcy Rota and Thomas Gradin, achieving career-highs in goals, assists, and points.
As the years went on, however, his physical style caught up with him and his production began to decline. His hard work and determination never wavered, however, as he continued to provide a leadership presence for the young Canucks team.
In 1991, Stan Smyl finally hung up his skates, retiring as the Vancouver Canucks’ goals, assists, and points leader.
The Canucks retired his iconic number 12 the following season.
And for the following 15 years, it was the only number to hang from the rafters in Vancouver – a testament to his passion for the city, the Canucks franchise, and the greatest game on earth. ∎