Donald Martin McLeod
Born: August 24, 1946 (Trail, British Columbia)
Died: March 11, 2015 (Port Coquitlam, British Columbia)
Don (Smokey) McLeod stood out as a character even by the eccentric standards of the fraternity of hockey goaltenders.
McLeod once insisted on a six-figure contract. When his team offered only $99,999.99, one penny less than he desired, he skated away from the deal.
He later signed a lucrative contract with Quebec Nordiques only to discover the Quebec capital to be a place where French was disconcertingly de rigueur. The unilingual player had a hard time finding a home for his family and schooling for his children. He was traded after just seven games.
When selected to play for Team Canada in a series against the Soviet Union in 1974, he was told he could invite a guest for the European leg of the exhibition tournament. Most players brought along a wife or girlfriend. McLeod brought his mother.
Then there was his nickname. Known throughout hockey as Smokey, some thought it a reference to his birthplace of Trail, B.C., over which tower the smokestacks of a smelter and whose famous hockey team is known as the Smoke Eaters. Instead, he was known as Smokey for his enjoyment of tobacco products before, after, and sometimes even during games.
That he forged an 11-season pro career is all the more remarkable for the circumstances of his birth to the former Tracy Hemmerling and Gordon McLeod, a smelter worker.
Donald Martin McLeod, who was born on Aug. 24, 1946, had a deformed right foot. Surgery eventually made it possible for the boy to stand on his own unaided. His father used lunch breaks at the smelter to build a metal shoe so he could play baseball. He became a goalie in hockey because of his limited ability to skate. By the time he turned pro, shortly after his 21st birthday, McLeod wore a size 10 skate on his left foot and size 7 skate on his right foot. As well, his right leg was two inches shorter than his left.
The goaltender was just 17 when he made his debut with the hometown Smoke Eaters of the Western International Hockey League. His record: 0 wins, 7 losses. He left home the following season to play junior hockey with the Edmonton Oil Kings. The teenaged goalie led the Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup junior championship final. After a poor showing in the opening games, McLeod’s team defeated in six games the Oshawa Generals, an Ontario team whose lineup included several future NHL players, including superstar defenceman Bobby Orr.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound goaltender spent four seasons in the minor leagues with the Quebec Aces, Springfield Kings, Baltimore Clippers and Fort Worth Wings. He made his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings in a game against Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 28, 1970. With Toronto leading 6-1, McLeod was called on by coach Ned Harkness to replace Roy Edwards in goal for the third period. The rookie lasted 101 seconds before surrendering his first goal on the first shot he faced. The scorer was Maple Leafs rookie Darry Sittler, the first of what would be 484 goals in a career in a hall-of-fame career. McLeod gave up two more goals in his debut, as Detroit lost, 9-3.
It was a grim season to be a Red Wings goalie. McLeod saw action in parts of 14 games, including a 13-0 drubbing by the Maple Leafs, the worst game in franchise history. The rookie ended his first NHL campaign with an inflated 5.16 goals-against average. He was claimed by the Philadelphia Flyers the following season, but only played in four games, spending most of it in the minors with the Richmond Robins and Providence Reds.
His major pro career was salvaged by the appearance of the World Hockey Association, the wacky, free-spending rival to the NHL The Houston Aeros signed him and by 1973-74 he was recognized as the best goalie in the league, backstopping the Aeros to the Avco Cup championship.
When the Aeros refused a six-figure contract, McLeod jumped to the Vancouver Blazers, staying with the franchise when it moved in 1975 to Calgary, where the team was called the Cowboys. Calgary fans adopted the mustachioed character as one of their one, a free spirit who seemed as likely to rush up the ice with the puck as freeze it.
“McLeod is leading the Cowboys from behind,” reported the Winnipeg Free Press. “He even helps out in the odd rush. A favourite trick of his is to play the puck with his curved stick, inviting a wave of checkers, only to loft the disc high in the air, over the attackers’ heads, to centre ice where someone fast like Danny Lawson or George Morrison is waiting on side for the breakaway pass from McLeod.”
Once, Bobby Hull of the Winnipeg Jets fired a wicked, wild slap shot that came perilously close to the goalie’s head. Later in the game, the goalie got the puck on his stick and rifled a shot at the Golden Jet’s head.
“We just all laughed on the bench,” teammate Butch Deadmarsh told the Calgary Sun recently, “and said, ‘Way to go, Smoke!’”
McLeod said the only time he ever feared for his safety at a game came during an ugly brawl at the Colisée in Québec on April 11, 1976. Calgary forward Rick Jodzio jumped over the boards and skated 80 feet before catching Quebec’s Marc Tardif with a two handed cross-check to the face. (Jodzio denied the charge. “I checked him and I punched him, but I didn’t hit him with my stick,” he insisted.) Tardif, the WHA’s scoring champion that season with 71 goals, was knocked out.
Tardif was taken to hospital to recuperate, while Jodzio faced a criminal charge of assault, which carried a maximum 14-year sentence. Calgary won the game, by 8-4, but the Nordiques wanted Jodzio suspended for life before the series would be allowed to resume. Jodzio eventually was fined $3,000 after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of causing bodily harm. Tardif, who suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the playoffs and part of the following season, filed a $150,000 personal damages suit, which was settled out of court in 1981.
Mcleod’s brief stint with the Nordiques ended with a trade to the Edmonton Oilers.
In six WHA seasons, McLeod was credited with 43 assists, including 13 in the 1975-76 season, a major pro record at the time for a goaltender.
He retired as a player in 1978. He attempted a comeback a year later, appearing in the Maple Leafs camp along with seven other goalies, including regulars Mike Palmateer and Paul Harrison, Czechoslovakian defector Jiri Crha, highly-rated rookie Vince Tremblay, and three others. The Leafs used five goalies that season, none of them named McLeod.
What should have been one of the highlights of his career turned out to be a lowlight. McLeod was selected with Gerry Cheevers to represent Team Canada in a series of exhibition games pitting WHA players against the Soviet Union in 1974. In what would be his only start, McLeod surrendered eight goals in an 8-5 loss in Winnipeg. Some writers, notably Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star, faulted McLeod for allowing some easy goals. Others insisted the margin would have been greater if not for the goalie’s acrobatics.
After leaving hockey, McLeod worked as a traveling salesman for Hershey Canada, working a territory between Calgary and Cranbrook, B.C. He divorced and endured a bankruptcy. Later in life, he could be found cheering his grandsons from the stands at a hockey rink. A dedicated card player, he enjoyed poker, rummy, and cribbage when not fishing, reading, or solving a sudoku puzzle.
He was a resident of the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam when he died on March 11 of a heart attack after suffering complications from knee surgery in January. He leaves two daughters, three grandchildren and three sisters.