By Paul Post
Neil Smith has enough memorabilia to fill a wing in the Hockey Hall Fame.
With trades, free-agent signings and smart draft picks, the former New York Rangers general manager built the “Blueshirts” into a Stanley Cup winning team in 1994, their first championship in 54 years.
However, many of his fondest memories are from the job that launched his NHL career. For several years in the 1980s, Smith was general manager of the Adirondack Red Wings, Detroit’s former top minor league franchise in Glens Falls, New York, which won AHL Calder Cups in 1986 and ’89.
Smith wore rings from both those championships during his induction to the Adirondack Hockey Hall of Fame in January 2018.
“At this level it was just pure fun,” he said. There’s no bonus check or limousine waiting for you, but you know what? You won the Cup and you won it in the American League, the second best league in the world.”
Going from Glens Falls, a small upstate New York city, to the bright lights of Broadway was quite an experience for Smith, who was hired in the summer of 1989 after former Rangers GM Phil Esposito was fired.
“I was only 35 years old, so I was scared to death,” he recalled. “At the NHL level, you’re worried, am I going to get fired if we don’t win it this year? Am I going to get a new contract?”
At his very first press conference, where he was introduced as the Rangers’ new GM, a sportswriter asked Smith: “When do you think you can win the Stanley Cup?”
“I looked at him like, Stanley Cup? I just want to make the playoffs!” Smith said.
“That’s how it was in New York. Right away, boom, when can you win the Cup?” he said. “They were on you right away. You’d better hurry up and put it in high gear or else you’re going to be out and the next guy’s going to be in.”
“Being general manager in the NHL is not like being general manager in the minors where you’re basically dealing with whatever the big team gives you,” Smith said. “In the NHL you’re making all the decisions for everybody. So it was quite a change.”
However, he went right to work putting pieces in place for the most memorable season in Rangers history, and he has the collectibles to prove it.
“From the ’94 Rangers I have the three pucks we scored goals with in that Stanley Cup-winning game,” Smith said.
The Finals went seven games, which ended with a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden. Mark Messier scored what proved to be the game winner at 13:29 of the second period. The Canucks answered early in the third frame to make it, 3-2, but the Rangers held them off the rest of the way to secure the victory.
Smith collected items from many of the game’s all-time greats during his front office career.
“I have a tremendous amount of stuff, things that sat behind my desk when I was in New York,” he said.
One of his favorite pieces is the puck from Wayne Gretzky’s 2,500th point. It’s in a frame with an action picture of Gretzky, along with a game sheet.
“I have numerous jerseys,” Smith said. “I also have two seats from Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens and four from the Montreal Forum. All those buildings are gone.”
“I’ve also got Adam Graves’ puck for his 51st goal, when he set the Rangers record and a picture of him shooting it into the net. The puck is on the plaque,” he said.
Having worked in New York, Smith had his photo taken with celebrities from all walks of life including Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
During his first four seasons as Rangers GM, Smith made deals to acquire Messier and other major contributors such as Mike Gartner, Jeff Beukeboom, Esa Tikkanen, Jay Wells, Joe Kocur, Eddie Olczyk, Kevin Lowe and Mike Hartman. He also signed Graves and Phil Bourque as free agents.
At the same time, through the NHL entry draft, he added the likes of Sergei Nemchinov, Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Zubov.
His in-depth knowledge of the game and keen ability to recognize talent make Smith well-suited to his present job as an NHL Network television broadcast analyst.
One of his closest friends was the late Dallas Stars broadcaster Dave Strader, who passed away following a courageous battle with a rare form of cancer. Strader was a Glens Falls, New York native whose career began with the Adirondack Red Wings during Smith’s time there.
“Dave’s personality, his love for the game and his love for the work he was doing was infectious to everyone,” Smith said. “We lost a really good friend, a good person. I’m just lucky that I got to know him.
“I met Dave in 1982 when he was the broadcaster here at Adirondack,” he said. “We got to be great friends because of our sense of humor. He had a tremendous sense of humor. Both of us could riddle each other back and forth about many things. Then he moved up to the Detroit Red Wings and was their broadcaster for quite a while before going to ESPN. I followed Dave everywhere and I was very prejudiced for Dave’s call. He was a great voice. I liked him the best of anybody.”
While at Adirondack, Smith also forged closed bonds with Red Wings coach Bill Dineen, whom he credits with teaching him how to win.
“Bill won two Stanley Cups with Detroit as a player, and he won two Avco Cups as a coach in the WHA, so he knew what it took to win,” Smith said. “What it takes hating to lose, and to do anything you can to win. Bill really instilled that in me. Without Bill there never would have been the championships here at Adirondack.”
Smith, a New Jersey resident, still visits Glens Falls whenever possible. The city is halfway between Saratoga Springs and Lake George, both extremely popular Northeast tourist destinations during the summer.
In winter, hockey is the name of the game. Glens Falls has had a professional franchise for all but three seasons since 1979, starting with the AHL’s Red Wings, which stayed 20 years. Their 1986 Calder Cup championship, against the Hershey Bears, might have been the most exciting as Games 1 and 4 went to two and three overtimes, respectively.
“Detroit missed the playoffs in ’86 so you had rookies like Adam Oates and Dale Krentz with eligibility to play in the playoffs for Adirondack,” Smith said. “We moved all of them down here to give them the experience of wining and to give them playoff experience. It really turned out well for everybody.”
Glens Falls is now home to the Adirondack Thunder, a Double-A affiliate of the New Jersey Devils in the ECHL.
“It’s such a unique place,” Smith said. “I just love the town, I loved my time here, everything that Adirondack meant to me.”
After leaving the Rangers, in 1990, Smith owned and was head coach of the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs, and then became president, general manager and governor of the Greenville Road Warriors.
He broadcast the league’s 2018 All-Star Classic in Indianapolis for the NHL Network. Despite reaching the sport’s pinnacle with the Rangers, he still has a strong affinity for minor league hockey.
“I understand the love for the game you have to have to keep playing at this level,” Smith said. “When you’re in the ECHL, quite a ways from the NHL, in your heart you love the game so much you want to keep playing. That’s how I was.”
He added, “There’s an innocence at this level you don’t find at the other levels. These guys aren’t trying to get rich. They love the game. They just want to play the game.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.