Goalie Billy Smith battled just about everything and everyone during his long and glorious National Hockey League career. He fought opposing players, using his stick like a scythe to rid his crease of encroaching forwards; he fought the media with his bold tirades; and he occasionally took on his own teammates and coaches, challenging them to raise their performance to match his own. Most of all, though, Battling Billy fought the puck he hated and attempted to keep away, especially when the Stanley Cup was on the line. Combative and competitive, Smith was one of the best of his era, winning the Stanley Cup four consecutive times with the New York Islanders at the beginning of the 1980s.
Smith was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, the team's sixth selection and 59th overall, in the 1970 Amateur Draft. He played the next two seasons with the Springfield Kings in the American Hockey League and led the squad to the Calder Cup in 1971. He played five games with Los Angeles before he was claimed by the Islanders in the 1972 Expansion Draft, a move that changed his life.
In his first season on Long Island, he earned a record number of penalty minutes for a goalie and actually fought some of the league's tougher forwards. In one game against the Buffalo Sabres, Smith broke three of his sticks on the ankles of opposing players in one period.
After several difficult early years with the expansion Islanders, Smith was left as the number one goalie in 1974-75 when veteran incumbent Gerry Desjardins bolted to the World Hockey Association. Smith would play 58 games that year and his winning record led New York into the playoffs for the first time. In those playoffs, however, Glenn "Chico" Resch, a rookie, grabbed the spotlight in a few important games as the Islanders went further into the post-season than expected.
For the next few seasons, coach Al Arbour made both men his "number one goaltender." Still, Resch stole most of the attention because of his outgoing personality. The two goalies were friends and even played tennis together - a sport Smith credited with improving his footwork - and supported one another on the ice, but Resch loved to talk to the reporters and fans. Smith stayed quiet or gave terse replies when he was interviewed. But the two opposites were solid on the ice and helped make the Islanders into a powerhouse in the late 1970s.
When the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs began, Smith was the Islanders' main netminder. He played all but one of the Islanders' 21 games while on their way to the team's first Stanley Cup. Midway through the 1980-81 season, Resch was traded to the Colorado Rockies. The Islanders, with Smith dominating in the playoffs, went on to win their second consecutive Cup. Smith was a hero in New York, but his aggressive style and his petulance enraged fans throughout the league.
Only once, in 1982, did Smith lead the league in regular-season wins to take the Vezina Trophy. But five times, from 1980 to 1984, he led the NHL in playoff victories. With his clutch play and the increased number of games in the expanded post-season format - from three rounds to four, from best-of-five to best-of-seven - Smith quickly surpassed all other goalies in playoff wins. He passed Ken Dryden on April 28, 1984, in a win over the Montreal Canadiens, his 81st victory.
Aside from his reputation as a clutch performer, Smith is also remembered for scoring the first goal by a netminder, though he had little to do with actually putting the puck in the opponent's net. The Islanders were playing in Denver against the Colorado Rockies on November 28, 1979. In the early minutes of the third period, the referee signaled a delayed penalty against the Islanders. Colorado coach Don Cherry pulled his goalie for the extra attacker. The puck was sent into the New York zone and bounced off Smith's chest into the corner. Rockies defenseman Rob Ramage moved in from the point to collect it but then made a blind pass to the position he'd just vacated. The puck floated 190 feet down the ice into the Rockies' unprotected net. The goal was at first given to Islander defenseman Dave Lewis, but after the game the official scorer viewed the tapes and Smith, as the last Islander to touch the puck, was given credit for the goal. It didn't help New York as the Islanders lost the game 7-4, but it was a historic use of the chest protector!
Billy Smith retired from the game after the 1988-89 season, still an Islander. He finished his career with 305 wins and 88 more in the playoffs. He stayed with the Islanders for several years as a goaltending coach before joining the Florida Panthers organization in the same capacity. In 1993 this unique winner, who danced to the beat of his own drum throughout his hockey life, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.