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Doug Smith: The rebound of a lifetime

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Doug Smith was one of the best hockey prospects ever to emerge from Ottawa. He was taken second overall in the 1981 NHL draft, but his pro career was turbulent and ended in tragedy with a broken neck. Surgery left him a quadriplegic. But Smith is not a man easily defeated: he’s using his epic story to teach others how to overcome adversity and to take advantage of second chances.

Doug Smith looks like a former NHL player — strong and square with a head shaped like a snub-nosed bullet — but he doesn’t sound like one.

“It makes you unhealthy if you hurt other people,” Smith, a man with more than 600 NHL career penalty minutes, says in his keynote address to the Brain Injury Association of Canada.

“Recognizing and respecting the value of others makes you healthier,” he tells 400 delegates crowded into a downtown Ottawa conference room.

That Smith is more thoughtful than most former hockey stars should come as no surprise. He has had to confront his deepest fear — paralysis — and has had to painstakingly rebuild his life, health and self-image in the two decades since his career ended, suddenly, in a violent collision with the end boards.

View a YouTube video of Doug Smith, including footage of his injury.

He has also had to think hard about the meaning of his turbulent NHL career, a disappointment to many, which began with so much promise in 1981.

That year, at 18, Smith was taken second overall in the NHL entry draft by the Los Angeles Kings. He was among the most promising players ever to emerge from Ottawa. Born and raised in the city, he played his midget hockey with the Nepean Raiders, then starred as a junior with the Ottawa 67’s.

But his NHL career would be marked by conflict, misadventure and trades. There were dramatic highlights for sure — game-winning goals, stirring playoff wins — but Smith ultimately failed to live to up to his draft day potential. He was too headstrong for even the NHL’s best coaches.

At 26, after a nine-year career, he washed out of the league and went to play in Europe, where he suffered the accident that would break his neck and shatter his world.

Not only would Smith have to learn to feed himself again, to walk again, he would have to come to terms with his squandered opportunities, his lost identity and an uncertain future.

Today, more than two decades later, 49-year-old Smith is a different man. He has remade himself into an author, businessman and community leader in Ottawa. Now a motivational speaker, he uses the epic story of his life as a teaching moment for audiences across North America.

It is the story of one man’s improbable rebound, a Henderson of the heart.

Doug Smith is convinced his story would be better known if he had retained the name of his biological father. But Peter Harlock went west just before his son was born on May 17, 1963. Doug would eventually adopt the surname of his stepfather, Wayne Smith, and be delivered into the semi-obscurity shared by all those in the tribe of Smith.

“If my name was Harlock, I would be a household name in Ottawa,” he says. Instead, he’s confused with every other hockey-playing Smith: Bobby, Billy, Brad, Jason and Rick.

No one could have foreseen Doug’s athletic career when he was a boy. Soon after he could stand, Smith was strapped into leg braces because of soft tissue deformities that twisted his legs. His left kneecap was in two pieces.

But he began running just as soon as the braces were removed. A hyperactive child, he would later be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

His mother, Carol, tried to channel his energy — or exhaust it — by enrolling him in everything: hockey, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, golf, downhill skiing, track and field. (She later forced him to study meditation.) Smith excelled at them all.

“He was phenomenal, one of the best athletes I’ve ever known,” says Ottawa’s Tony House, who played lacrosse with Smith. “His competitiveness was off the charts.”

Smith was drafted by the hometown 67’s and started for the team while still a 16-year-old student at Bell High School. He thrived under Brian Kilrea, not yet the coaching legend he would become, collecting 57 points in his rookie year. His mother came to every game, home and away.

Early in his sophomore season, Smith tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He was out for a month, but returned to score more than 100 points in just 54 games.

“He was tough, he could score, he could do everything,” remembers Kilrea, who nicknamed Smith, “Nutsy.”

Smith was always full speed: on the ice, in the dressing room, on the bus. He was a human electron.

“He had no worry in the world for any game,” says Kilrea. “He would just come in and he knew he could excel. He didn’t have to go to bed at 10 o’clock at night. He could go to bed anytime he wanted, get up, have a bowl of soup, and play great.”

Kilrea didn’t try to change him. “Sometimes rules get in the way, sometimes systems get in the way,” the ex-coach says. “We’ve never tried to change guys with talent.”

Kilrea would always be Smith’s favourite coach for just that reason.

In June 1981, the Los Angeles Kings selected him second in the NHL draft behind Dale Hawerchuk. Future Hall of Famers Ron Francis, Grant Fuhr and Al MacInnis went later in the first round.

Wren Blair, the Kings’ director of player personnel, told reporters that Smith had the potential to rival Bobby Clarke, the gritty, high-scoring centre for the Philadelphia Flyers.

For his part, Smith said he preferred to remain in Ottawa for one more season before tackling the NHL. “I think I need a little more maturity,” he told reporters.

It was a moment of perfect, prophetic clarity.

Doug Smith bought a Porsche with a bag of money early in his first NHL season.

Smith’s four-year contract with the Kings included a $100,000 signing bonus. With it, he had gone from being an Ottawa high school student, living with his parents, to being on his own — fat with cash — in the carnival that’s Los Angeles.

Smith had made the Kings out of training camp. Reckless, naive and ready for anything, the 18-year-old embraced all the city had to offer. He dated one of the L.A. Lakers’ cheerleaders, partied in Beverly Hills, and mastered the beach arts: scuba diving, surfing, Frisbee.

“I attacked the coast and its many playgrounds like a kid in a candy store,” he remembers.

Smith had a good rookie campaign — 16 goals and 30 points — and his team upset the heavily-favoured Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 1982 playoffs before losing to Vancouver.

But the seeds of Smith’s downfall in L.A. had already been sown. He had clashed in the dressing room with the team’s superstar, Marcel Dionne. They came to blows between periods of a game because Smith couldn’t abide Dionne’s dismissiveness.

“I had no diplomacy. None,” Smith says now.

At the beginning of his third season, Smith asked to be traded. Despite L.A.’s glittering distractions, he didn’t like playing in a city where hockey was ignored. He wanted to go north: Smith knew in his bones that Los Angeles was bad for him.

One year later, he was sent to Buffalo to play for coach Scotty Bowman.

Smith quickly established himself as a fan favourite, scoring two goals in his first game with the Sabres. But he was no more equipped for stardom than obscurity. He resisted Bowman’s attempts to adjust his game, and when the team got off to a slow start the next season, Smith was one of five players banished to the minors.

Bowman was soon fired as coach, but his replacement, Ted Sator, also became disenchanted with Smith the following season. Smith requested another trade.

During that off-season, as he awaited word on a deal, Smith retreated to his cottage, near Calabogie, with his new wife, Patti Connelly. His mother had introduced the couple.

On May 8, they went out on their ATVs. Doug ignored Patti’s pleas to slow down and drive carefully. He barrelled along Calabogie Road and at the bottom of a sweeping right hand turn, he slammed into a Pontiac Parisienne that had drifted into his lane.

Smith’s body mashed into the car’s rear quarter panel and bounced down the road. He was unconscious in a ditch when Patti came upon the scene.

“He’s breathing, he’s still alive, go get help,” a bystander told her.

She went to get an ambulance. Smith was conscious by the time he arrived in hospital, but his left shoulder blade had been broken in half and badly displaced.

Surgeons used a 15-centimetre steel plate, six screws and a bone graft to repair the damage. They had to cut him from the neck to the tip of the shoulder to do the work. Doctors said he was unlikely to play hockey again given the resultant damage to his nerves, muscles and tendons. (Smith doesn’t blame anyone for the accident: he believes the recklessness that made had him a formidable hockey player also set him on course for disaster.)

With his hockey career suddenly in jeopardy, Smith realized just how much the sport meant to him. He worked out three hours a day for six weeks and packed on 27 pounds of muscle.

Against all odds, he was cleared by his doctors to take part in training camp that fall. But Buffalo’s team physicians ruled him unfit.

Smith won the subsequent medical arbitration case, but the Sabres still didn’t want him. They left him unprotected and the Edmonton Oilers picked him up. Smith would go on to play several more seasons, first with the Vancouver Canucks, then the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He changed his game to stay in the league, becoming known more for his abrasiveness than his scoring touch.

But when Scotty Bowman was hired by Pittsburgh in 1990, Smith knew his time in the NHL was at an end. Bowman wasn’t about to give him a second chance.

His second chance would arrive in more dramatic fashion.

Smith was 29 when he played his final pro hockey game as a member of VEU Feldkirch in Europe’s Alpine League.

His career ended with 10 minutes to go in the third period on a routine dump-and-chase play behind the other team’s net. Smith took an aggressive, direct line to the puck in an attempt to beat the opposing defenceman.

But as the defenceman rounded the net, he lost his balance and took out Smith’s skates. A speeding Smith catapulted head first into the boards. He had no time even to raise a glove in defence. It was, he says, like a bird hitting a window in full flight.

Smith remembers the moment of impact as a lightning bolt that cracked through the entire length of his body. He lost consciousness for only a moment as he slumped to the ice. His face came to rest on his gloves, a stroke of fortune that quite possibly saved his life.

Flat on the ice, in intense pain, Smith understood that his back had been broken — and he warned those who came to his aid not to move him.

In hospital, X-rays revealed that his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae had shattered into small pieces; the ligaments in the back of his neck had been shorn.

He was fixed into a metal halo with four screws drilled into his skull. The halo transferred the weight of his head to his torso. For the first two weeks, he wasn’t allowed to move: he could only stare at the ceiling and come to terms with the end of his hockey career.

“The most exciting part of my day was when they used to take me from one room to the other because I’d get a chance to look at a different ceiling.”

It was February 1992. It would be 14 years before Smith laced up another pair of skates.

Smith flew back to Ottawa six weeks after the accident. He was still in a halo, but at least he could walk.

Months later, when the halo was replaced by a neck brace, Smith was still not out of the woods. Doctors told him he remained at risk of a catastrophic spinal cord injury because his neck ligaments had been ruined. He could either live a sheltered life or undergo bone fusion surgery, a delicate procedure to stabilize his neck.

“Surgery was the only option,” he says.

His wife, Patti, gave birth to their second child one week before Smith was wheeled into the operating room. He spent 11 hours in surgery — there were terrible complications — and when Smith emerged from anesthesia, he was paralyzed from the chest down. His spinal cord had been damaged. His bladder and bowels had shut down. He could only control a bit of his right bicep.

“I had nothing: I couldn’t feed myself,” he says.

Frustrated, angry, he found refuge only in sleep where he dreamed of hockey. He didn’t want anyone outside of his family to know what had happened.

Defined by his athleticism, Smith was suddenly an invalid. At one point, unable to work a hospital shower built for people in wheelchairs, he despaired: Smith asked his wife if she would help him take his own life. He could live without his arms, he said, but not without his legs.

“This kind of injury sends you to the darkest place you have ever visited,” Smith says.

Doug Smith’s rebound began with an involuntary twitch in his left toe, first noticed by his aunt, Judy. She asked him to try to do it again. Smith focused his mind on the task, and after a few seconds, the toe responded ever so slightly. It was, he says, among the most exciting moments of his life: he had something on which to build.

For the next two years, Smith pushed himself relentlessly to recover movement in his arms and legs, first at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, and then at home. With no insurance, Smith and his wife sold their Ottawa dream home and their Calabogie cottage to finance the help he needed: massage therapists, acupuncturists, naturopaths.

He overcame a morphine addiction and regained bladder function by eliminating all painkillers. He moved from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, and ultimately, discarded even that.

Today, Smith’s lingering physical deficits are manageable. His right arm is partially paralyzed and he suffers sporadic numbness from the chest down. He has little feeling in his fingertips and his right calf muscle remains spastic.

“I live in this very small space in between quadriplegic and able-bodied,” he says.

Smith is even back on the ice. He plays hockey once a week at Carleton University with a group that includes several former pros. He enjoys the game more than he ever did in the NHL.

“Even when I go into the dressing room with the guys, I’m at ease. I never felt at ease in the NHL, not ever, not for a second.”

Standing in front of an Ottawa audience, Doug Smith, the motivational speaker, extols the power of pain. “The more pain,” he says, “the greater the learning.”

With a PhD in pain, Smith has lessons to relate. He wants people to understand that they’re the product of their past, that they live unconsciously with the fallout from their previous conditioning.

“I was conditioned to knock people down, intimidate them and take what they have,” he says. “Today, I choose to behave differently … You can choose to behave differently.”

Smith exhorts his audience to take a hard look at their lives, to recognize their shortcomings, to not sleepwalk toward disaster. “You don’t have to break your neck to make a change,” he says. “I did, I did. It was just the path that I took.”

The accident forced Smith to slow down and come to terms with his younger self: the self-centred, hyperactive, hard-headed young man who drove coaches mad. He used to tell them it was their job just to put him on the ice.

“Even if you were Scotty Bowman or Glen Sather or Pat Quinn trying to explain the process to me, it just didn’t matter. I just couldn’t listen. I didn’t have the capacity to listen at that point in my life.”

Smith doesn’t beat himself up anymore for what might have been in the NHL: he has let go of his anger at his younger self.

Instead, he’s focused on making the most of his second chance, on being a positive force in the world, on listening. Six months ago, his younger sister, Tracy, came to him with a problem. She later told him: “You know, before you broke your neck, I never felt you heard a word I was saying.’”

Smith is particularly proud of that moment: “It made me realize the different person I am today.”

He is focused now on helping others overcome pain and on making up for past mistakes. He’s even called some of his former coaches, Bowman among them, to apologize for his behaviour in the NHL.

“If I had the opportunity to play for Scotty Bowman today, I’d be looking for every possible way that I could help that guy out, make him look as good as possible, listen to what he’s trying to achieve so I could figure out how to help him achieve that.”

His rebound has drawn him closer to his wife, daughters and extended family. It has brought him success, first as an Internet marketing specialist and then as co-founder of a local stainless steel fabrication company. And it has brought him the satisfaction of raising millions for charities such as the Ottawa Senators Alumni Association and the Canadian Paraplegic Association.

Smith has written two books about his hockey life, his recovery and its philosophical underpinnings. Earlier this year, he celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary.

“Being married to Doug,” says Patti, “it’s almost like being married to Wile E. Coyote. He’s always getting hurt, but then is back for the next scene.”

Still, Smith worries about the collective impact of all those anvils. He estimates that he suffered some 30 concussions during his hockey career; he has already announced his intention to donate his brain to science.

“I live today,” he says, “like I’ve always lived: like I have 10 seconds left.”

By Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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