Former NHL defenseman Greg Smyth passed away earlier this month after a long battle with cancer. He was 51 years old. While many remember “Bird Dog” for his tough play and willingness to drop the gloves, there is a little-known fact about Smyth that truly made him unique. For a short time during the 1992-93 season, Smyth opted to play without a helmet.
There were five players who played that season full-time without a helmet: Doug Wilson, Randy Carlyle, Brad Marsh, Rod Langway and Craig MacTavish. All of these players had signed their first contract prior to the 1979-80 season, so helmets were not mandatory for them. But Smyth, who was drafted in 1984, joined their ranks, albeit temporarily. During the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons, the NHL repealed its mandatory helmet rule as a way to lure its star players to doff their headgear and be more recognizable to TV audiences. Meaning, anyone who wanted to play without one could do so after signing a waiver.
The only player to take the NHL up on its offer to be helmet-free during the regular season was Smyth; Brett Hull played the 1993 All-Star Game without a helmet, then resumed wearing one. I interviewed Greg Smyth back in 2016 for an article that I wrote for The Hockey News about the various gimmicks the NHL tried in order to grow the game — and frankly, noting seemed more gimmicky than a rule that would make things less safe for the players. Still, I wanted to know why Smyth would ditch the brain bucket.
Below is a transcript of our short conversation from August 7, 2016, which includes previously-unpublished remarks that Smyth made about playing without a helmet.
Sal Barry: Why did you decide to play without a helmet during the 1992-93 season?
Greg Smyth: I grew up watching the Maple Leafs play without helmets, so it was something I just wanted to try.
SB: Why did you resume wearing a helmet?
GS: I don’t think there was one particular incident or anything that changed my mind. I just tried it.
SB: Were you injured when you went without a helmet?
GS: It was a long time ago. I don’t recall any injury. I had a couple of fights. I didn’t get hit in the head with high sticks or anything. If anything, players might have been a bit more tentative, keeping their sticks down and everything. Just no particular reason. There wasn’t one particular reason. I didn’t get hurt. I didn’t get high sticked or anything. I just tried it. I played ten games without a helmet, then put it back on.
One point of contention is exactly how many games Smyth played without a helmet. In an October 26, 1993 article for The Los Angeles Times, Helene Elliott reported that Smyth played three games without a helmet during the 1992-93 season, then put it back on after being injured in a fight.
But that does not sound right. When I asked Smyth, he claimed that he wasn’t hurt in a fight, and that he went without a helmet for ten games, and not three — or just one game, as mentioned on page 355 of the book “The Biggest Book of Hockey Trivia,” by Don Weekes.
According to Hockey Draft Central, Smyth missed the beginning of the 1992-93 season with a “strained stomach, suffered during Calgary’s training camp in September 1992.” He made his debut that season on October 17, 1992 against the San Jose Sharks. It is likely that, since this was Smyth’s first game of the season, that it was also his first game without a helmet.
Nine games later, Smyth got into a fight with Robert Dirk of the Vancouver Canucks. Video of that fight is available on YouTube. Smyth does not have a helmet on before the fight, so we can assume that this was one of the games that he played without one.
According to Hockey Draft Central, Smyth suffered a rib injury in the Flames game against the Islanders on November 21, 1992. Smyth did not fight during that game — he wasn’t even penalized — so his rib injury wasn’t fight-related.
Until I find information to the contrary, I am going to side with Smyth and his recollection of ten games. But regardless of how many games he played without a helmet, the important fact is that Smyth had the guts to play in the NHL without one, even if for a short time. According to his teammates, Smyth was his own person, and his helmetless stint further proves that. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.