SUN Hockey Pool

Avalanche of emotions

Ryan Smyth purses his lips during a press conference at Lux Steakhouse and Bar in downtown Edmonton...

Ryan Smyth purses his lips during a press conference at Lux Steakhouse and Bar in downtown Edmonton on Tuesday morning. (Brendon Dlouhy/SUN)

Dean Bennett

, Last Updated: 12:49 AM ET

Edmonton - Ryan Smyth has returned to the Alberta capital, set to play his first game against the Oilers in an enemy uniform.

But unlike his emotional airport departure in February, the 31-year-old Banff, Alta., native didn’t shed any tears Monday at a news conference prior to Tuesday’s clash at Rexall Place (TSN, 9:30 p.m. ET).

That is, until he was asked if it would be emotional.

“I’m sure I’ll break down,” said Smyth, before stopping to compose himself, his eyes glistening just a little. “Lot of great memories.

“It was tough leaving and obviously it’s going to be tough tomorrow, but it’s nice to be back in Alberta.”

And the man who collected 549 points over 770 regular season games over 12 years with the copper and blue said there are no hard feelings over the contract impasse that prompted Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe to trade him to the New York Islanders.

“I don’t want to rehash all the scenarios that went on. Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “Kevin had to do what he had to do for the organization and it didn’t suit me at the time.

“We went our separate ways. They were going younger and they’ve got a good young team.”

Oilers captain Ethan Moreau, out with a foot injury, said the team will have its hands full with their old teammate, whose stock in trade is planting himself in front of the opposition goalie, deflecting shots and going after rebounds.

“We expect a lot out of him. He’s a hell of a player and we need the win,” said Moreau.

Oilers defenceman Matt Greene has often battled Smyth in front of the net in practice, but says even with that, Smyth finds a way to beat you.

“We’ve just go to go out and do our best and take his stick away from him as much as possible,” he said.

Many in Edmonton thought Smyth, the mullet-haired winger nicknamed “Captain Canada” for his inspired play in international tournaments, would spend his whole career in the oil-drop uniform and shatter the dubious tradition of local heroes — Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey to name a few — who finished their NHL careers at different addresses.

Not to be.

Instead, rather than lose Smyth as an unrestricted free agent, Lowe sent him packing on the trade deadline Feb. 27 to the New York Islanders for prospects Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra along with the Islanders’ 2007 first-round draft pick (which turned out to be defenceman Alex Plante).

Smyth, the team’s leading shot-maker (161 shots on goal) and goal-getter (31) for the season at the time, left in what had become a high-stakes game of chicken over, as it turned out, chicken feed.

Lowe reportedly offered a five-year US$27 million deal with a no-trade clause, but Smyth, who felt like he had signed for less than value to stay in his favourite city in the past, balked at anything less than $27.5 million.

Rather than risk getting nothing for Smyth, Lowe pulled the trigger on the trade, touching off a tearful reaction from fans that had not been seen since Gretzky left in a trade to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988.

Letters to the editor demanded Lowe personally account to their crying children for the trade, while others questioned Smyth for blowing up a $27-million deal for comparative peanuts — in effect $100,000 a year.

Eventually, he signed with the Avalanche for $31.25 million over five years.

The trade to the Islanders threw a pall over the jersey retirement ceremony for Messier at Rexall Place just hours later. Fans sat gobsmacked, chanted Smyth’s name and booed the dispirited Oilers off the ice when they fell 3-0 to the sad sack Phoenix Coyotes. The Oilers won just two of their final 20 games and missed the playoffs.

For Smyth, tears streamed down his face as he said goodbye at the Edmonton International Airport, promising to win the Stanley Cup and bring it home.

Since then, he has travelled south by southwest almost 6,000 kilometres. After leading the Islanders to the playoffs and a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, he signed on as a free agent with the Avalanche in July, thanks in no small part to repeated telephone calls from friend and now-Colorado teammate Joe Sakic.

Smyth said Denver was the right fit for him and his family: “Right from Day 1, the organization has stepped up and helped us in a number of areas, from realtors to everything.”

And although he’s gone, his No. 94 Oilers jersey is still a big seller in Edmonton, according to Jasmine Baker of the Game On sports store in West Edmonton Mall.

“He’s very popular,” said Baker, who said when Smyth was with the Islanders, those jerseys were also gone in a hurry.

At the Jersey City store in Southgate Mall, manager Mark Breakenridge said they’re bringing in extra Avalanche merchandise in anticipation of fan and Smyth interest. None of the Smyth Avalanche jerseys have come in, he said, but they have Smyth New York Islander T-shirts.

“Forty per cent off,” he said.

Good deal.

Give or take $100,000.

15:47ET 22-10-07


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