R. I. P. Ron Smith: NHL coach, SF Giants minor leaguer

Ron Smith had a brush with greatness after being signed by the San Francisco Giants. At Rookie-class Magic Valley in Twin Falls, Id. he wore the hand-me-downs of Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

Ron Smith had a brush with greatness after being signed by the San Francisco Giants. At Rookie-class Magic Valley in Twin Falls, Id. he wore the hand-me-downs of Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

It was 1964 when a roving San Francisco Giants' scout by the name of Herm Hannah from Detroit was making the rounds through Ontario and stopped in Galt to see a game.

His eyes came upon six-footer Ron Smith, a crackerjack infielder, who spent that season playing for both the Galt Cubs' junior team and the Galt Terriers' senior club.

Hannah loved what he saw in Smith but wanted one of his U.S. superiors to come in and double-check the player.

"The Giants brought in Ray Lucas for a second opinion and he gave his stamp of approval,'' recalled Ed Heather, Smith's friend for the last 57 years. "Herm Hannah also signed Chris Speier when he played for Stratford in the Intercounty league.''

Galt newspaper scribe Carl Fletcher talked about Smith in glowing terms at a time when a player from small-town Ontario signed by a major-league team was a rare occurrence.

"The day he affixed his signature to a San Francisco Giant pact, he became something a little special around here. A pro contract doesn't guarantee a successful diamond career, but it does ensure the potential is explored and tested,'' Fletcher wrote in a 1964 story.

"Smith has excellent infield reactions, moves around real good, shows a good arm and swings the bat,'' Lucas told Fletcher. 

"Ron went to play for the Magic Valley Giants in Twin Falls, Idaho for half a season of rookie-league ball in the Pioneer league,'' Heather related. "That was in the days when the major-league team passed hand-me-downs to the minor-league teams so that year, Ron ended up wearing a uniform that had been worn by Willie Mays. It even had Willie Mays' name inside the tag.''

At spring training the following year, Smith attended Giants' camp in Casa Grande, Ariz. and was sent to start the season in Decatur, Ill. Part way through that season, Smith decided to give up baseball and returned to school back in Ontario at the University of Waterloo.

"Ron had just gotten married and he really didn't look at baseball as a way of making a living unless you were going to make it to the majors. He more-or-less packed it in,'' Heather explained.

Smith, 72, died Jan. 2 in Cambridge, Ont. and is best remembered as a career NHL assistant coach under friend Roger Neilson with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers. Smith and Neilson promoted analytics and the use of videos in hockey at a time when many people scoffed at them. Today, analytics is a proven commodity utilized by many NHL teams.

Smith was also an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils and the head coach of the Rangers for 44 games in 1992-93. Over his long haul in hockey, he was also a head coach in both the AHL and IHL, including six seasons with the Cincinnati Cyclones.

Smith was head coach of Toronto's York University men's hockey team at one point and was director of player personnel years ago for the Canadian Olympic program. He was a member of the Galt Hornets who won the Allan Cup in both 1969 and 1971.

Smith was also the first technical director of the Ontario Hockey Association years ago, a position instrumental in the development of the Canadian national coaching certification program. To boot, he was a A-1 football player in his youth. Smith was a seasoned sportsman, without a doubt.

Smith could play either second, shortstop or third and ended up playing about eight seasons in Ontario's Intercounty league, including a long stint with the Kitchener Panthers.

"Ron never played baseball until he was 16. He had always played fastball,'' Heather said. "Same with Rob Ducey, my stepson. He never played baseball until he was 16. When Ron was signed by the Giants, they made a switch-hitter out of him. He had been a right-handed hitter and then he began to bat left, too.

"Here's quite a story about Ron. I don't know what year it was when he played for Kitchener in the Intercounty but him and shortstop Tom McKenzie turned a triple play and five double plays in the same game. Incredible. I've near heard of that before.''

Another trivia item pointed out by Heather was this: Smith and McKenzie played together on the first-ever Canadian national men's baseball team in 1967.

Smith is survived by his wife Patti, sons Devin and Landry and four grandchildren.