(Reuters) - If you play in the National Hockey League what better way to celebrate your birthday than by scoring the winning goal in Game Seven of a Stanley Cup playoff contest.
On April 30, 1986 Edmonton Oilers rookie defenceman Steve Smith did just that - unfortunately it was for the other team the Calgary Flames.
Smith would go on to play 804 regular season games and have his name engraved on three Stanley Cups, but for all he accomplished the indelible mark on a productive 16-year career will forever be a birthday howler that will surely follow him to the grave.
Smith long ago came to terms with his moment of infamy, but there is no escaping the own goal, a staple of year-end highlight packages and Top-10 sporting gaffes.
“That moment taught me very quickly that you can be knocked off that pedestal really fast,” Smith told ESPN. “It doesn’t define you as a person. It doesn’t define you as an athlete or competitor.
“You have to understand that there’s a possibility that things could go wrong within a game, and they certainly did.”
There are no shortage of howlers in the sporting archives, what amplifies one over others is the circumstances and the stage set for Smith’s was as grand as hockey could provide.
Smith was an Oilers rookie on one of the greatest NHL teams of all-time led by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and netminder Grant Fuhr.
He was playing in Game Seven of a then Campbell conference division final, the score tied 2-2 in the third period with Edmonton chasing a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
As with most disasters no one saw this one coming.
Smith routinely took control of the puck behind his own net and attempted an outlet pass but instead of the puck landing on the stick of a team mate it banked in off the back of Fuhr’s left skate and into the goal.
A groan echoed through the arena, then a moment of disbelief and silence as an anguished Smith collapsed to the ice.
The own goal gave the Flames a 3-2 lead, one that Gretzky and company could not erase as Calgary moved onto the conference championship and eventually the Stanley Cup finals where they would fall to the Montreal Canadiens.
“I went back for the puck,” Smith, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector for the book The Battle of Alberta. “As I went back for it I knew I was being forechecked pretty quickly.
“I think it was Mike Krushelnyski I saw heading toward the penalty box. I turned, pulling the puck back away from the net towards the bench side, and went to force a seam pass across the ice.
“At that point in time, you’re looking at your receiver. You’re not looking at where the puck is, or whether it’s on your stick or not.
“You’re looking up ice. Obviously, I didn’t see Grant or his leg. It went off of him.”
That goal did more than spoil Smith’s 23rd birthday, it ended the Oilers season and very well might have interrupted a dynasty.
The Oilers had won the previous two Stanley Cups and would win the next two giving them four in five years.
“It was an honest mistake that he would love to have back but it’s part of sports,” said Gretzky.
A tragic sporting tale might have ended there but instead Smith’s story became one of perseverance and redemption as the Oilers came back to reclaim the Cup the following season.
NHL tradition has the Stanley Cup presented to the winning team captain who then passes it onto a deserving team mate.
That night Gretzky chose Smith for the special honour.
“As tough as the loss was for us it was incredible to see the growth of player and a person in Steve Smith,” said Messier. “To accept what had happened and deal with it move on from it only to come back next year and win the Stanley Cup and to be handed the Stanley Cup from Wayne.
“Talk about coming full circle.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis
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