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Greg Smith served as the Washington Capitals’ Head Athletic Trainer for 18 seasons, leaving the team prior to the team’s 2017-18 Stanley Cup-winning season. Recently, he joined the “Alz Caps” podcast of former Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner to talk his time with the Capitals and memorable moments, time after hockey, and dealing with medical situations.
Smith, who also served as an emergency fill-in for the National Football League’s Washington Football Team after their Head Athletic Trainer and an assistant came under an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Agency in October.
“[Washington Football Team Head Coach] First and foremost, Ron Rivera was the guy who convinced me to make that 76-mile drive from my house to Ashburn. I talked to Ron about three times on the phone and he just seemed like a genuine, nice guy. I’ve worked for a lot of coaches, and Karl knows this, some good, some not so good, some who had ridiculous expectations and stuff like that, but Ron and I connected right over the phone…the NFL is a lot different. It’s unbelievable to be at your house every night for the whole week, that was the first thing. The travel is incredibly easy [compared to the NHL]”.
In his time after hockey, Smith (known affectionately as “Smitty” during his time with the Caps) worked for other sports leagues, while at the same time noticed the similarities among the athletes.
“When you’re talking about athletes, you know I’ve worked with NBA guys since I’ve retired, I did a little bit of a stint at the University of Maryland when the player passed away. So since I’ve retired from hockey, I’ve had a couple opportunities to work with a couple of D1 athletes, NBA guys, and now NFL guys. By far hockey is my favorite because I connected with them for so many years, but the athletes were all the same, they were trying to get better, trying to make themselves better, and trying to provide a living for their families. It’s an easy time trying to connect with folks that want to do that stuff”.
The NHL schedule is one of the more rigorous in professional sports, with teams traveling cross-country to play opponents miles away from their home arenas for 82 games in the regular season plus playoffs.
“It’s funny because I got a lot of those guys on the team, ‘What’s hockey like?’, I’m like it’s an 82-game schedule and 42 of those are on the road. And then home games, we actually practice in the morning and then go to the rink at night. I’d leave my house on a game day for the Caps at six in the morning, get to the rink around seven, and I was there from seven in Arlington [at the Capitals’ practice facility], and then mid-day I’d drive downtown for the game, and then get to my house at 12 at night”.
“I’d take hockey over NFL any day and here’s why. Hockey has a start and an end to every day. We have practice and then before practice you have treatments, and then after practice you have treatments. In the NFL we get there, we might not start meetings until eight o’ clock, but we’re there at six for two hours before in case somebody wants to come in for treatment. And then you’re there for meetings, so you’re getting guys when they’re available. And then you have meetings upon meetings after practice, so you’re just waiting for guys to show up. So the days are longer…”.
Over the course of 18 seasons with the Capitals, Smith (who served as the Metropolitan Division’s Athletic Trainer in the 2017 NHL All-Star Game and served his 1,500th game behind the bench during the 2014-15 season) compiled a number of stories and memorable moments with players.
“Karl was always good. The only issue he and I had, and he’ll remember this story better than I. One day he was really banged up and he was going for the iron man streak. And he we had to work on how to keep him in the lineup. And I can’t remember who the coach was at the time, but wanted him to sit out a game and I had the coach going ‘Hey’ I’m going to sit him out tonight’ and I had Karl going ‘No, no I’m playing’. So I was basically pin-balling between the trainer’s room and the coach’s room. He ended up playing, but there was a lot of injuries between that streak that he probably could’ve taken the night off”.
On what player he went on the ice for that usually needed little attention, Smith had a story from the Capitals’ time under Head Coach Glen Hanlon.
“You know exactly who I’m going to say”, Smith chuckled when asked by Alzner which player he believed went down but didn’t need attention, “Yeah [Alex Semin] was the guy I had in mind too. There was a time he went down on the ice, right before intermission and Glen Hanlon was our coach. He got hit “between the pockets” because this is a family show and he goes down, and Glen Hanlon looks at me and goes, “Don’t you f-bomb go on that ice” and I’m like ‘are you sure?’. So the period just ended and he’s still laying on the ice, all the people go into the locker room and I’m still standing on the bench. The zamboni starts coming out and he’s still lying on the ice. Finally he gets up and comes in. And I think we were on the road too so all these fans are probably like ‘what is the matter with that guy, he’s just standing there looking at him’. Because back in the day, I think I would go on the ice twice a game for him, easy. It got ridiculous there. As he got older it got a little better, not normal, but a little better”.
Semin, who was sometimes considered an enigmatic figure during his time in Washington, provided Smith with a memorable off-ice moment as well.
“Remember the time where, and I forget the baseball player, but one of these baseball players signed a huge deal back in the day and Alex was walking by the training room and he looks up at the tv and it was like seven years and $100 million or whatever that contract was and he goes, ‘That’s $9.75 million dollars a year’. And we were all like not only stunned that he could speak English, he heard and understood what they were talking about, and he could the math like this, and we all like ‘What just happened?'”.
While players are often visitors to the training room for the odd bumps and bruises, the longtime trainer found himself as the patient on one occasion.
“It was during a snowstorm and we got to the hotel and it was snowing outside, so I hopped off the bus to help the driver unload the bus with all the bags, and he goes to open one of the doors and it comes off the hinges and the bus door came down on my quad because as I’m stepping up, the whole door came down and crushed my quad, of course I didn’t know the guys were going to come over that early. You have to keep that s**t on the down-low”.
At times during a hockey game, freak accidents or injuries can occur, and when asked about a particular memory, Smith revealed a tragic incident at the Capitals’ practice facility (then Kettler Capitals Iceplex) and dealing with medical situations.
“A guy had an aortic aneurysm before practice. A guy who worked at Kettler, we ended up not being able to save him. But they called us over and when it happened we took all our emergency equipment over and we ended up shocking him and stuff but unfortunately when you blow out your aorta it’s hard to bring somebody back to life and he ended up passing away. And I remember probably four or five hours later, somebody said the guy’s name and I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t realize that was the guy I was working on. And it’s been like that even some of the times when we have emergency situation. Whether it’s [former Capitals defenseman] Jamie Heward taking the skate across the face, and it’s not that I black out, but everything just closes in and all I can see is the injury. And it’s funny because, for me, I don’t get excited, I get the opposite I get more calm. The more stressful the situation becomes, medically, the more calm I get”.
While medical issues can be serious, the Capitals and Smith also made dealing with ailments a little bit more light-hearted when it came to deciding on whether a player was fit to play.
“I had a rule that you could be hurt, but you had to pick Top 3, and if you had four different things going on, you just didn’t play. Three you could play, but I came with this rule a long time ago. And Eric Fehr would literally come into my room and he’s like ‘Alright, I got five or six things worn off’. There was one time he tried to convince me, he had a hot pack on both shoulders, both knees, and had it on both groin. And I’m like Eric, you can’t have that, that’s six things. And he’s like “No Smitty, it’s three things, knees, groin, and shoulders’, so we had to take it to kangaroo court and he was all discombobulated”.
While on-ice battles are anything but funny, off the ice, there are plenty of opportunities for players and team staff to have some fun.
“Sense of humor to be honest with ya, Kuzy [Capitals Center Evgeny Kuznetsov] has the greatest sense of humor but it’s one-on one humor because he doesn’t feel comfortable because he doesn’t know how to translate those words into English, he has a problem kind of giving that, but he is so far the funniest guy. I don’t think he’ll mind me telling you this, but Kuzy sends me Instagram videos all the time. And I got to be politically correct, but it’s all Instagram videos of little people. Back when I used to be there and [former Capitals Assistant Athletic Trainer Ben Reisz] Benny used to be there, Benny and I would fight Kuzy and Orly [Dmitry Orlov]. If Kuzy was in the stick room by himself, me and Benny would go in there and jump him, and then Orly would come out of nowhere and then we’d all be battling. So we used to start sneaking up on each. Like they would wait for Benny and I behind our cars and jump out at us, or we’d see them at the hotel and hide behind the plants and jump out from the plants. So now whenever Kuzy sees Instagram videos of shorter-statured people, he sends them to me. So I think Kuzy as the player, he enjoys life but he’s got a good sense of humor”.
The full podcast can be listened to HERE, as Smith talks more Capitals stories, his go-to breakfast, and more.
By Michael Fleetwood