Oilers’ Ryan Smyth’s Injury Comeback For 2002 Olympics Revisited

Anticipation was already building on this Friday night in mid-November at Skyreach Centre, where the red-hot Edmonton Oilers were hosting the Chicago Blackhawks. The 2002 Winter Games were less than three months away, and fans could hardly wait for the Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Salt Lake City, where they hoped to see Oilers star Ryan Smyth join Team Canada in its quest for gold.

Moments after puck drop between the Oilers and Blackhawks, Smyth was taken into the boards by Chicago defenceman Jon Klemm. Smyth got up, favouring his right leg and headed to the bench for repairs. When he returned a few shifts later, the Oilers left-winger couldn’t put any weight on his ankle. He left the ice again and didn’t come back.

Ryan Smyth
Ryan Smyth, Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Smyth’s diagnosis confirmed the worst fears: broken right ankle, out 10 to 12 weeks. The date was Nov. 16, 2001, exactly 12 weeks until the opening ceremonies. Fans had been counting down the days to the Winter Games. Now there might not be enough time for their hero to make it to Salt Lake City.

It was a devasting blow. The Oilers had throttled the Blackhawks 7-1 to improve to 13-5-2-1 and overtake the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific Division, but there was no celebrating. All anyone could think about was what the injury meant for Smyth’s Olympic aspirations, never mind his team that was off to their best start since the 1980s. They knew how much the Winter Games mattered to Smyth, whose unwavering commitment to his country would eventually earn the Banff, Alberta, native the moniker “Captain Canada.”

The Genesis of Team Canada 2002

At the dawn of the new millennium, Canada experienced an existential crisis. The 2002 Winter Games marked 50 years since a Canadian team had won Olympic hockey gold, and recent setbacks in best-on-best international competition were impossible for Canadians to reconcile with their identity as the hockey nation.

In 1996, Canada was shocked by the United States in the World Cup of Hockey, losing the deciding game of the best-of-three final on home ice to their upstart North American rivals.

Related: Revisiting the 1996 World Cup of Hockey

Redemption was supposed to come at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, where the NHL made its Olympic debut, but Canada failed to medal after being defeated by the Czech Republic in the semifinal when Wayne Gretzky was infamously left out of the shootout. The National Post called the loss “soul-destroying.” That might not have been a strong enough descriptor.

In the fallout, a humbled Hockey Canada did some serious soul-searching and admitted a new approach was needed. Preparation for Team Canada 2002 started well over a year in advance, in November 2000, when management and the coaching staff were named, including Gretzky as executive director, Kevin Lowe (then Oilers general manager) as assistant director, with Pat Quinn as head coach.

Canada’s Olympic brain trust embarked on an exhaustive and intensive process assembling the team’s lineup. The first eight players were announced in March 2001, including Mario Lemieux, who was named captain.

Smyth was one of 34 players invited to the team’s training camp in the summer of 2001. With the 23-man roster to be announced that December, Gretzky and co. were watching the 2001-02 NHL season very closely and for players on the bubble, their performance during this time could make or break their chances.

As if on cue, Smyth came charging out of the gate. He entered play on Nov. 16 ranked third in the NHL with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 20 games for the surprising Oilers. He was a lock to make the Olympic roster, and then suddenly he wasn’t.

Smyth’s Fast Lane on the Road to Recovery

Smyth underwent surgery the night of his injury, with a plate inserted in his ankle. The sun came up on Nov. 17, and he began early recovery sessions every morning with Oilers’ therapist Dave Magee. He was back on skates within two weeks.

“Two weeks? Think of that. He knew he had to be back playing by December,” Oilers medical trainer Ken Lowe recalled in 2014. “You don’t do that without a helluva pain threshold, and of course Fibber (therapist Dave) Magee saw Smytty early every morning. I’d put Smytty in my top-five athletes in terms of putting up with pain” (from “Smyth remembered as an old school player,” The Edmonton Journal, 04/12/14).

On Dec. 15, 2001, Team Canada unveiled its roster on a national broadcast from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto after team executives had called the players to tell them the news. The documentary Gold Rush 2002 captures Smyth surrounded by family in his Edmonton home, picking up the phone to hear Kevin Lowe’s voice on the other end: “Are you sweating a bit?”

“Should I be?” replied Smyth, who could breathe a sigh of relief. He’d made it. The Oilers forward hugged his wife and parents, and shortly after, when Gretzky announced Smyth’s name on TV, all of Edmonton shared in the joy.  

“In terms of Ryan, yeah, I figured I’d have a little fun. He and I go back a long a time, so I figured you gotta be able to have a little fun with your friends, so we waited until the very end, and he said afterwards that he thought that time was going by that he might not be on.”

Kevin Lowe, from Gold Rush 2002

Smyth returned to the Oilers lineup against the New York Rangers on Jan. 2, 2002, receiving a hero’s reception at Skyreach Centre. It had been just 47 days since his injury, and there were still 44 days before Canada’s first game at the Olympics, Feb. 15, against Sweden.

Team Canada Goes for Gold

It requires a book – actually more like a series of them – to do justice to the Canadian men’s hockey team’s journey in Salt Lake City, from its disastrous start to the ultimate triumph. To summarize: Canada was blasted 5-2 by the Swedes in a shocking opener; eked out a 3-2 win against Germany; tied the Czechs 3-3 in the game that inspired Gretzky’s famous “crock of crap” speech; got past Finland in the quarterfinals 2-1; rolled to a 7-1 semifinal blowout of the Belarusians, who had done Canada a favour by upsetting Sweden; and saved the best for last in defeating the host Americans 5-2 to claim gold.

Theo Fleury Gold Medal
Team Canada 2002 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

The gold medal game was played on Feb. 24, 2002, 50 years to the day that Canada had last topped the podium in men’s Olympic hockey. The victory touched off celebrations across the country. Trying to convey to an American audience what the gold medal meant to Canada, NBC’s Gary Thorne may have said it best: “If you could sense what’s going on in Canada right now, it is a national holiday in Canada because this gold medal has been won and their cultural inheritance has been saved.”

It would be the highlight of the year for Oilers fans in 2002. An extended mid-season slump around the Olympic break was a bit too much to overcome for the team, who finished two points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But in so many ways, that gold felt just as good as a Stanley Cup.

Smyth’s Enduring Legacy

Smyth, who turned 26 during the 2002 Olympics, played in all six games and recorded an assist for Team Canada in Salt Lake City. He returned to the Winter Games in 2006 in Turin, Italy but Canada was unable to defend its Olympic title, finishing out of the medals after being eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinals.

By the time he retired in 2014, Smyth had played 89 games for Team Canada. His medal collection from international competition rivals anyone in the sport: Spengler Cup champion; World Cup of Hockey champion; IIHF World Championship gold medallist twice and silver medallist once; IIHF World Junior Championship gold medallist; and of course, Olympic champion. He was named to the Hockey Order of Canada in 2018, just one of 24 individuals to receive the prestigious honour at the time.

Smyth’s return from injury is an oft-referenced source of inspiration. When Steven Stamkos broke his right leg in mid-November 2013, three months before the 2014 Winter Olympics, his drive to come back for the Games reminded him of Smyth. Unfortunately, Stamkos didn’t recuperate in time to play for Team Canada in Nagano, which was by no means an indictment; it only underscored how remarkable it was that Smyth made it to Salt Lake City.

For all the beatings, batterings, bumps and bruises that he absorbed over nearly two decades  – and there were a lot of them – Smyth is defined by his Olympian recovery. “Everybody talks about the playoff game where he lost his teeth and how he came right back and played,” Ken Lowe said. “But the real Ryan Smyth was about his broken right ankle and how badly he wanted to play in the Olympics in 2002.”

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