SUN Hockey Pool

The cheerleader

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:14 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- He's been a rink rat since he first ankled his way around the ice as a kid in Banff, so people shouldn't have been scratching their heads at what they saw at General Motors Place yesterday.

But they were.

Not long after the Edmonton Oilers finished their morning skate, out of the tunnel near the visitor's dressing room walked Ryan Smyth, wearing sweat pants and ready for a twirl in a new pair of skates.

The same Smyth who fractured his right thumb early in a 4-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday. The same Smyth knocked kicking and screaming out of the line-up for at least two more weeks, likely three. The Smyth who loves the game of hockey - maybe more than it loves him.

That Smyth.

"We were scheduled to come, so I thought I might as well be here and be a cheerleader for the team," said Smyth, one of several Oilers accompanied by their wives on this trip.

NO SURPRISE RETURN

While Smyth, 30, sent camera crews scurrying for footage yesterday, there was no new angle to be had. With his hand encased in plaster, he won't be making a surprise return to the lineup any time soon.

Fact is, the only angle at play was a very old one. For all the accolades he's received and the money he's made playing every one of his 742 NHL games as an Oiler - not to mention the ongoing debate about how much GM Kevin Lowe should pay to keep him from unrestricted free agency next summer - it's still about the game for Smyth.

How very refreshing.

"I'd love to be back early, but it's a break and I have to let it mend," said Smyth, who will have the thumb X-rayed again today.

"It's a good thing that it's my top hand, but it's still got to heal.

"If I'm able to skate, I'm going to skate. It's really up to me and I want to keep my body in game shape. I want to make sure I get the proper healing time because there's not much I can do about that, but I can take care of the rest of my body."

Anybody who knows Smyth knows he's the first guy on the ice for practice and the last guy off it. And we all know he's not easily discouraged or prone to change just because of a busted thumb.

This is the guy who willed himself back from surgery to repair a badly broken ankle ahead of even the most optimistic prognosis so he could play for Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake.

This is the guy who spat out three teeth and a puddle of blood in last spring's playoffs after taking a Chris Pronger clearing attempt in the mouth, got shot up with freezing and played his backside off.

He'd received the last of his regular-season pay- cheques long before then.

'AROUND THE GUYS'

A busted thumb? Whatever. No time like the present to break in a pair of skates and keep the legs in shape. Riding the stationary bike, after all, gets monotonous. Besides, almost nothing beats hanging out in the room.

"Being around the guys is great," Smyth said. "Watching them go out onto the ice and not being able to be a part of that and contribute, that's the hard part.

"I've been fortunate in the past. My body seems to mend pretty quick. So, hopefully, it's sooner than later in this instance. It's not an easy thing not playing."


Photos