Former Edmonton Oilers player Ryan Smyth chokes back tears. (CP PHOTO/John Ulan)
The star winger had tears rolling down his cheeks Wednesday as he spoke publicly for the first time since the Oilers dealt him to the to New York Islanders after 11th-hour contract negotiations between GM Kevin Lowe and agent Don Meehan fell through.
"This is not what my family and I had in store," said Smyth, who met with the media at the Edmonton International Airport. "This city is like home to me and my family. We've been here for 12 years. I never thought I'd come to this day."
After 770 games with Edmonton, Smyth's ticket out of town was punched when the sides couldn't bridge what sources say was a US$300,000 a season financial gap on a five-year deal. It's believed the Oilers offered $5.4 million a season while Meehan was asking for $5.7 million.
With that, Lowe pulled the trigger, sending the 31-year-old from Banff, Alta., to the Islanders for prospects Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra and New York's first-round pick in the 2007 draft. With Smyth due to become a free agent July 1, Lowe didn't want to risk losing him for nothing in the off-season.
"I've got to turn the page and get a new chapter in life," said Smyth, who was traded on the same day another star Oiler - Mark Messier - had his jersey retired at Rexall Place.
"The Islanders have given me that opportunity and I thank them for this," said Smyth. "I'm going to go there and (do) my best to make the playoffs and win that Cup so I can bring it down here to Edmonton. That's where my heart is."
Smyth missed the much-anticipated ceremony for Messier, who was one of his heroes growing up as an Oilers fan.
"I shed a few tears at home," Smyth said. "It was very tough for me. Obviously, all those guys I respect on and off the ice. Seeing those old retro jerseys, that hit home a lot. That brought me back to when I was a kid again."
Selected sixth in the 1994 draft, Smyth's story had been that of an Alberta boy made good with the five-time Stanley Cup champions. It was a tale scripted on and off the ice.
The longest-serving Oiler and the team's leading scorer when traded with 31 goals and 53 points in 53 games, Smyth was as well-known for his charitable pursuits in the community, notably with the Stollery Children's Hospital, as for his dogged determination in front of an opposing goaltender or battling in the corners.
"You go there and you appreciate life when you go there and see kids who don't have an opportunity to do what we do," Smyth said of the association he and wife Stacey have with the hospital.
The first player on the ice and the last one off it, Smyth had a routine before every game - home or away - during his 12 seasons with the Oilers.
He'd gather three pucks when the pre-game skate was done and toss them to young fans before heading back to the dressing room. Smyth was as big-hearted with children as he was fearless in front of the net, tipping shots and taking a beating from defencemen.
"My wife and I, we tried to broaden out to the community," he said. "You're embedded in the community because of the profession we're in. We wanted to reach out to different charities.
"Kids really touch my heart. The Stollery was one of them pretty much from the get-go."
Smyth is expected to make his debut with the Islanders on Thursday against the visiting St. Louis Blues.
Dubbed Captain Canada for his many appearances in international competition - he participated in seven consecutive world championships and is this country's all-time leader in games played - Smyth overcame a badly broken right ankle during the 2001-02 season to win a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake.
During last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs, Smyth took a puck in the mouth from teammate Chris Pronger. He spit out three teeth, went to the dressing room and returned after a few shifts with his jaw frozen to deaden the pain. Then, there's the pain of what unfolded Tuesday.
"It's really tough to swallow," said Smyth, who bid farewell to teammates at the rink Wednesday morning. "I've gone through a lot of emotions. You look back . . . if Wayne Gretzky can get traded, anybody can get traded, but, obviously, I didn't think it would ever come to that.
"I hope the best for the Oilers, but I've got to move on and try to win a Cup."