How much does a jersey number mean to a franchise?
It’s something that every sports franchise takes into consideration. The process of retiring a number so that it will forever be associated with one iconic player is complicated and hotly debated. Many NHL organizations have set parameters for this honour.
The Detroit Red Wings, for example, only retire a player’s number if they have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF). This includes some of hockey’s most memorable numbers like Gordie Howe’s #9 or Ted Lindsay’s #7. Yet, the Red Wings seem hesitant to bestow this honour on Sergei Fedorov’s #91 despite that he was inducted into HHOF in 2015. Some believe this is because of a contract dispute that led to his departure from the team in the early 2000s. They have a rule, but that rule has exceptions. Tricky.
The Edmonton Oilers have followed the Hall of Fame rule as well. The organization has seven numbers hanging from the rafters at Rogers Place, six belonging to Hall of Famers. The one exception is Al Hamilton’s #3 which was retired on Oct. 10, 1980 in honour of Hamilton’s tenure with the team during the WHA years.
I believe the team should make one other exception; for a player who represented both the Oilers and the City of Edmonton better than any other player has done. He captured the hearts of hockey fans everywhere, who shed a tear at the thought of him leaving the sport, twice. That player is Ryan Smyth.
Will He Make the Hall?
First, let’s consider Smyth’s chance of being inducted into the HHOF. He was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in February and received the Order of Hockey from Hockey Canada in 2018, so he is no stranger to being honoured.
His career totals are fairly good, but not quite as strong as typically seen in a Hall of Famer. He totalled 842 points (386 goals) over a long 1270-game career. A fantastic career, but maybe not enough to warrant a HHOF induction. Combine that with the fact that he never won a major individual award or a Stanley Cup, and it’s unlikely that he will get the call anytime soon.
If Smyth has any chance of being in the HHOF it will come down to his reputation on a national level. Despite only captaining the Oilers for one game (his final one), Smyth is known as one of Hockey Canada’s greatest leaders.
He captained Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships a record six times and holds the Canadian record for most games played in the tournament, which helped him earn the nickname “Captain Canada”. Smyth also won gold at the 1995 World Junior Championships, 2002 Winter Olympics, 2004 World Cup and the 2012 Spengler Cup.
Is this enough to push him into the Hall of Fame? I’m skeptical. His international achievements have already been acknowledged by the IIHF and Hockey Canada. I am not too sure how closely the HHOF selection committee will weigh those achievements against his NHL resume. I don’t believe Smyth will be in the HHOF anytime soon.
The Case For Smyth‘s Number Retirement
However, I think he does deserve to have his jersey retired by the Oilers. He was, and still is, the franchise’s most cherished player who wasn’t part of the 1980s dynasty. I would argue that he represented the Oilers better than Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. A bold statement, but one I stand by.
Born in the mountain town of Banff, Alberta in 1976, Smyth was never far from Edmonton. He watched the Oilers steamroll the league in the 1980s and, in a story that has a cathartic twist, Glenn Anderson ran over his foot in the parking lot of a Team Canada camp in 1987; Smyth tied Anderson’s power-play goal record for the Oilers (126) in 2014.
He was drafted sixth overall by his hometown team in the 1994 NHL Draft and spent 15 seasons with the Oilers, playing in 971 games and totalling 631 points.
He brought with him a new style of play. Gone were the high-flying days of the 1980s, as Smyth led a motley crew who had to fight and scrap for every bit of success. Like Edmonton’s oil workers, Smyth made a living grinding along the boards and taking crosschecks in front of the net. It was a thankless job but one that he did proudly.
Throughout his time spent in Edmonton he became one of the most popular Oilers of all-time. His jersey could be seen everywhere in Edmonton when the team made the postseason. Perhaps his greatest moment with the team came during the magical 2006 playoff run.
It was the Game Three of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals and the Oilers trailed the San Jose Sharks in the series by a 2-0 margin. It was a must-win situation for the Oilers. Pronger, on a clearing attempt, inadvertently sent the puck flying at Smyth’s face which caused three teeth to fall out and Smyth to miss a bit of time during the game. He would eventually return and was able to give the Oilers life in the series after setting up Shawn Horcoff for the triple-overtime winning goal.
This was one of the last great moments during his time with the Oilers. The fanbase would be shocked a few years later when a deadline deal sent Smyth to the New York Islanders. Shortly after the deal was made, a press conference would take place with at Edmonton’s airport. It is here that you can see a clearly dejected Smyth proclaim his love for the city. It was clear he never wanted to leave.
Luckily, this wasn’t the end of the story. In a move that literally no player at the time would have done, Smyth demanded a trade back to Edmonton in 2011. He left a Kings team on the rise to come back home. The fanbase celebrated his return.
Age would get in the way of Smyth putting up good numbers during his last few years in Edmonton. He was relegated to a bottom-six role and when he retired in 2014 it was an event that pulled on the heartstrings of every Oiler fan. Simply watch the following video and tell me that Smyth doesn’t mean anything to Edmonton.
There is not a single player in the history of the Edmonton Oilers, outside of the usual 80s suspects, that would warrant this type of tribute from the fanbase. It was a clear and impactful moment that cemented Smyth’s legacy in Edmonton. He represented everything that you could possibly want from an Oiler. He was loyal, hardworking, and passionate. It’s cliché but he quite literally played for the crest on the front rather than the name on the back.
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For the franchise, I’d argue that Smyth had the best career of any player who didn’t play for the team during the dynasty years. In terms of games played, only Kevin Lowe sits ahead of Smyth’s 971. He ranks fifth in goals behind Gretzky, Kurri, Anderson and Messier and is sixth in points behind those names and Paul Coffey.
Ryan Smyth is the quintessential Oiler. He connected with the city on such a deep and emotional level that it would truly be a disservice to see another player don an Oilers jersey with his iconic #94.