Smith played junior hockey before attending Western Michigan University. As a freshman, he was selected to the All-American team as a defenceman, and was named team captain his sophomore season. He was drafted in 1974 by the New York Islanders (His neighbor was the GM and selected him in the 13th round 204th overall.)He spent several seasons in the minor leagues before working for the organization as a talent scout. With Neil Smith working in an important capacity for the Islanders minor league system, the Islanders CHL affiliate, the Indianapolis Checkers (which at the time was the Islanders most prominent minor league team) won the Adams Cup in 1981–1982. While on the island, he worked closely with the Islanders chief scout and assistant GM, Jim Devellano, and when Devellano was contacted by the new Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to become GM in the summer of 1982, Smith moved with him to the Detroit Red Wings, where he won two Calder Cup championships as the General Manager of the team's minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings in 1985–1986 and 1988–1989.
Success with the New York Rangers
Smith was hired by the Rangers in 1989 to be their General Manager, inheriting a team that included future stars Brian Leetch and Mike Richter. Under Smith's watch, the Rangers groomed Tony Amonte. Neil Smith was also responsible for drafting star players such as Sergei Nemchinov, Alexei Kovalev, Doug Weight, and Sergei Zubov before he made his mark in 1991 with a blockbuster trade for superstar Mark Messier. Mark Messier was immediately given the captaincy by the Rangers organization and this decision would pay huge dividends. Over the next three seasons, Smith continued to shape the team through trades and free-agent signings, acquiring several players from the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, such as Kevin Lowe, Adam Graves, Esa Tikkanen, Jeff Beukeboom, Craig McTavish and Glenn Anderson. Messier become one of the most popular athletes in New York, winning the Hart Trophy in 1992, and the Rangers grew into an elite team. The Rangers won the Presidents Trophy, for the NHL's best regular season record, twice, and, in 1994 won their long-awaited fourth Stanley Cup championship. Neil Smith remains the only GM in the modern era to win a Stanley Cup with the Rangers.
Fall of the Rangers
The next few years would see the team struggle to stay in contention, but, having traded away many of its prospects for the Stanley Cup run, the team had to increasingly rely on aging veterans acquired through expensive free agency. A major dispute between Smith and hard-driving coach Mike Keenan ended when Keenan left for St. Louis after the championship season. Unfortunately, none of the coaches that succeeded Keenan could motivate the highly paid stars that played for the Rangers in the mid to late 90's. Attempting to one more time bring in an older superstar to re-ignite the magic of 1994, Neil Smith signed Wayne Gretzky in 1996, reuniting him with his old teammate Messier. During the 1996–1997 playoffs the Rangers earned their way into the semifinals, where they were beaten by a bigger and younger Flyers squad. The reunion would last only a year, however, as Messier left amid an acrimonious dispute with the organization. With his departure the Rangers sank into mediocrity; though Smith acquired a succession of veteran players with expensive contracts and drafted a host of promising young players, the team continued to underperform and miss the playoffs until Smith's departure from the organization following the 1999–2000 NHL season. The Rangers did not again reach the playoffs until 2006.
Short tenure with the New York Islanders
On June 8, 2006, Smith was introduced as the New York Islanders' general manager, making him the only person in professional hockey history serve as general manager with both New York teams.
Said Smith of his new job: "Knowing that I'll be working in the same office where one of my mentors, Bill Torrey, created a dynasty is an unbelievable feeling. Al Arbour, whom I owe everything to, gave me my first hockey job as an advance scout. I wear my Islanders Stanley Cup ring with immense pride. To be able to come full circle and return home to the Islanders is a dream." But, on July 18, 2006, months before the season began, Smith was fired and replaced by Islanders goaltender Garth Snow, who retired from his position on the team upon being hired.
Smith reportedly had grown frustrated with his lack of authority on personnel and staffing decisions, as owner Charles Wang had instituted a setup where decisions were made collectively by a group of advisers rather than by the general manager alone. Wang realized that Smith was incapable of fitting within this model and therefore let him go. Pat LaFontaine, who had recently been hired by the team as a senior adviser, quit his post the same day.
Neil Smith has also served as a guest host on Hockey Night in Canada Radio on Sirius offering his unique insight along side host Jeff Marek.
- 1981–82 Adams Cup Championship (CHL) Indianapolis Checkers
- 1985–86 Calder Cup Championship (AHL) Adriondack Red Wings
- 1988–89 Calder Cup Championship (AHL) Adriondack Red Wings
- In 1991, Smith was inducted into the Western Michigan University Hall of Fame.
- 1991–92 Executive of the Year by The Hockey News
- 1993–94 Executive of the Year by The Sporting News
- 1993–94 Stanley Cup Championship (NHL) (NYR)
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