Fife Flyers: 30 years ago Doug Smail’s arrival in Fife lit up British ice hockey
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Thirty years ago, season 1993-94 saw one of those landmarks – the year Doug Smail came to UK ice hockey as Flyers became the first British club to sign a player direct from the NHL.
The 1992-93 campaign saw Fife finish well down the league standings, and out of the play-offs as four defeats in seven days shredded their hopes of championship glory. Post-season, Frank Morris and Moray Hanson joined Murrayfield Racers, rink manager, the late Bob Korol, departed for Cardiff, and coach, Jim Lynch, looked to create a team that stood out from the rest. His first signing set the bar.
Mark Morrison was brought to Fife from Italian hockey, and Lynch knew exactly what he was getting and the impact he would have: “We are trying to recreate the heyday of Fife Flyers and we have secured a player here who could set the place alight again.”
He then added defenceman Jim Leavins, a former Detroit Redwing and New York Ranger who had played with, and against, Morrison in Italy. A last-minute business deal in Canada saw him pull out of the move, opening the door to ECHL defenceman, Ryan Kummu, and then came Neil Smith, a Toronto university skater Toronto.
Lynch lost out on a deal to sign Tyler Larter, a third round NHL draft pick who went to Nottingham, but, with former Ayr GM and ex-NHL goalie turned commentator, Don Edwards, offering an insight into the top end of the north American market, the coach had other targets - and it was one worth waiting on.
August 1993 heralded the signing of Smail, a 13-season NHL veteran still so highly rated that Team Canada were angling to negotiate his release for the Winter Olympics.
Smail’s CV included spells with Winnipeg Jets, Ottowa Senators, and Quebec Nordiques, and he held the record for the fastest goal scored in the NHL – a mere five seconds on the clock when he rang the red light. He was the sort of signing Fife fans savour; someone to draw the old-timers back rinkside, and make hockey nights come alive.
Early results were far from good. It took Flyers until October to register a win – the qualifying section of the Benson & Hedges Autumn Cup was tough going as the defeats piled up. Smail quickly discovered the joys of playing in Durham. He queried a minor hooking call and ended up with a gross misconduct! The the BIHA overturned the decision. With one point from those qualifying games, legend has it the stars were invited into the boardroom for an explanation.
Smail compared the opening month to a training camp as he got used to a very different game and set-up on and off the ice, and also forged what turned out to be a thrilling first line with Morrison and a young Steven King whose game developed at rapid pace as he learned from two masters.
Morrison was the perfect foil for Smail whose electrifying pace and vision thrilled crowds, and when the team clicked, they hit the goal trail with a vengeance.
They went to Nottingham and shut out Panthers 4-0, destroyed Teeside Bombers 13-2 in front of a huge crowd, and then dispatched Peterborough Pirates 10-1 and Bracknell Bees 9-1 – the latter a bruising game which saw Smail bag a hat-trick. The match was also notable for Morrison being hit in the face and the impact, plus a flu bug, saw him black out.
A 7-6 loss in Cardiff was as close as Fife had ever come to winning in Wales – defeat was avenged in style later in the season. By November, Flyers moved into third in the league thanks to a 14-1 demolition of Whitley Warriors – a game more famous as the night Ryan Kummu dangled David Longstaff over the boards by his ankles!
Sheffield Steelers were dispatched 9-4 and Peterborough again coughed double figures, losing 15-7 in a game played on neutral ice in Nottingham; Smith 5+1. Kummu 4+1, Morrison 2+4 the pick of the stats. A 6-3 result in Humberside made it six wins in a row and then came a huge 4-3 result over Cardiff to really turn up the pressure in the title race. Smail bagged a hat-trick in a 7-1 win in Basingstoke, Morrison followed suit the next night in a 10-2 defeat of Durham on the road.
The dawn of 1994 saw Flyers maintain their stranglehold on Durham – a solid 11-6 win – before a 7-6 victory over old rivals Murrayfield Racers. The game was not without incident. Referee George Nicholson took both teams off the ice after objects were thrown from Sections B and C.
Lynch was furious with Murrayfield coach, Rocky Saganuik, accusing him of sending Dean Edmiston out in the final minutes to deliberately start a fight with Morrison. Racers demanded a replay, claiming their players had lost their appetite for the match after defenceman Paul Pentland had been struck by a coin.
Amid the froth, a far more significant moment – a first ever league win for Fife in Edinburgh. After 20 false starts - 18 defeats, one draw - they finally savoured victory on the ice pad of their fiercest rivals, and it was Smail who bagged the winner in a truly absorbing 3-2 match. “That,” he said afterwards “was a hockey game.”
Durham came to town and Smail plundered stats of 3+5, Morrison 5+5 and King 3+4 in a 15-3 hammering to go second in the league, but their title hopes were dented with defeat in Cardiff. Lynch added Bobby Brown to the squad, and the mu ch travelled skater made his debut in a 5-4 win over Steelers. Devils then came to town as champions elect – 14 points clear and one hand on the silverware.Flyers nailed them 12-2 – Smail 5+3 and Mo 2+4 as they served up a staggering 8-0 final period rout.
Down to Durham and another debacle in the north-east as Lynch took a game misconduct for sarcastically applauding the efforts of referee Nico Toeman – he later demanded the chief stripey never handle another Fife game.
Second place in the league was formally conceded on the back of a 7-4 loss in Peterborough. Morrison pipped Smail to the Mirror of Merit trophy, and the duo led the line as Flyers powered into a tough play-off grouping with Racers, Steelers and Humberside Hawks. By then Murrayfield were homeless - locked out in a dispute over rent - so their ‘home’ game was played in Kirkcaldy.
It ended in a 5-2 win for Flyers amid some tousy scenes, most notably defenceman Mike Ware dragging linesman Gordon Pirry out of the way to land a blindside punch on Kummu.
The next night the teams were met with ’Goon Hockey’ posters in Section G. Flyers won 6-5 as Racers exited the competition, their season over.
Wembley beckoned – the perfect stage for Smail to shine. Once again, Cardiff had other ideas, eliminating them 9-5 in the semi-finals.
The game was remembered for two key moments - Kummu passing the puck back to his netminder and seeing it roll into his own net for an early, devastating goal, and then Smail breaking down the ice while short handed. One on one with the netminder, he was denied what may have been a game-changing moment as the puck bobbled on the ice as he went to shoot. It was a cruel way to end what had been a wonderful season.
Smail wowed everyone in Fife with his performances on the ice and the way he conducted himself off it too. A one-season player who left a lasting footprint on the dressing-room and in the stands. His record for short-handed goals still stands to this day.
His reputation perhaps best summed up by the banner which hung rinkside every match night. It simply read: “First class Smail.”