From the rafters of the Montreal Forum hang 23 Stanley Cup banners. They date back to the 1915-16 season and proclaim the triumph of the most successful franchise in North American professional sport, the Montreal Canadiens. The latest— marked 1985-1986—is a surprise addition to the collection. Before last season that banner seemed destined to hang 3,000 km to the west in Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum, home of the Oilers. But last spring’s conclusion to the National Hockey League season was unpredictable, and on a sunny May afternoon the Canadiens paraded Lord Stanley’s celebrated vessel past 1.5 million fans lining the streets of Montreal.
This week, as the NHL opens its 70th season, the Oilers, not the Canadiens, are once again expected to win the cup. Said Montreal coach Jean Perron: “We simply have to go out and prove that it wasn’t a fluke.”
months the Oilers will
In the next eight
have even more to prove. League champions in 1984 and 1985, and the most talented team in hockey for the past three seasons, the Oilers lost to the Calgary Flames in the playoffs last spring. That shock was compounded by a May article in the U.S. magazine Sports Illustrated alleging drug abuse by Edmonton players. While the Canadiens spent the summer basking in the adulation of their fans, the Oilers squirmed under repeated questioning about the series with the Flames and the use of cocaine. Said all-star defenceman Paul Coffey: “Not only do we have to contend with losing to Calgary, but we want to lift the name of hockey players above being just partyers. We have to win some games early to put the drug stories to rest and get rid of the black cloud.”
Unlike professional baseball, basketball and football, all of which have been stung by drug scandals, hockey
maintained a relatively clean reputation until last spring. And although no charges followed the police investigations of Sports Illustrated’s allegations, the cloud lingers. In May Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Borje
Salming told a Toronto newspaper that he had experimented with drugs “five or six years ago, but not since.” For that admission, NHL president John Ziegler suspended the 35-yearold veteran for the entire 1986-87 season.
Said Ziegler: “The NHL’s policy on illegal drugs is very clear. If you use illegal drugs, no matter how slight the contact, you will be suspended.”
Ziegler later commuted the suspension to eight games and a $500 fine, saying that Salming had not violated the NHL policy “for at least the past five years.” But the game’s best player, Oiler centre Wayne Gretzky, urged the league to
take its drug policy further. Said Gretzky: “I spent all summer answering questions about drugs. I told everybody that I believe in mandatory drug testing for players. A lot of players don’t agree with me, but as a
professional athlete you have to set an example for young kids. Other people in society aren’t watched by 18,000 people.”
Although the league is not yet prepared to institute tests of the players’ off-ice activities, spectators crowding NHL arenas this week will likely be watching the league’s attempt to police its players’ on-ice behavior. Prompted by Montreal’s president Ronald Corey, the NHL introduced harsher penalties for fighting and high-sticking for the 1986 preseason games. League governors will vote this week on whether to enforce the new rulings for the regular season. The
new rules are designed to reduce fighting and rid the game of so-called goons—players whose singular role is to fight. The preseason experiment allowed referees to decide the instigator of an altercation. In addition to the usual five-minute penalty for fighting, the instigator received another two-minute minor or five-minute major penalty and possibly a game misconduct penalty. A player who received multiple “instigator” penalties in the same game was assessed an automatic game misconduct. The outcome of this week’s vote on the new rules will determine if the NHL is finally committed, as is every other major professional team sport, to discouraging fighting.
The new penalties did not prevent a series of preseason brawls —notably between Montreal and Quebec’s Nordiques, and Toronto and Edmonton. But Corey says that he is more optimistic about curbs on high-sticking. The new rules call for a two-minute penalty for carrying a stick above the shoulders and four minutes for striking a player above the shoulders with a stick. Said Corey: “We lost two players—Jean Hamel and Pierre Mondou—to eye injuries over the past three years. The helmets, cages and visors make players carry their sticks in the air—they feel they can’t get hurt. The only option is to apply the rules and apply them firmly.”
Despite Corey’s push for stiffer penalties, the Canadiens have assembled one of the biggest and most belligerent teams in their storied history. Although forward Chris Nilan, who received 274 penalty minutes last season, is under orders from coach Perron to keep his gloves on, six-foot, 200-lb.
John Kordic is Montreal’s new policeman. Explained Corey: “We need a tough, physical team just to get out of our division. The rinks in Buffalo and Boston are small, and both Hartford [Whalers] and Quebec have big, aggressive teams. I’m like Ronald Reagan. I don’t want to fight the war, but I want to be ready if I have to.”
Montreal is unlikely to resort to war. In addition to the scrappers, it has polished forwards Mats Naslund, Ryan Walter and Bobby Smith, as
well as outstanding rookie forward Shayne Corson. Veteran defenceman Larry Robinson and left-winger Bob Gainey, who are the heart and soul of the club, are back.
Any reduction in the mayhem that has characterized NHL play in recent years should help the Oilers’ quest to reclaim the Cup. With Gretzky and Coffey, forwards Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, and
goalie Grant Fuhr, Edmonton has the most skilled players in the league. Said Calgary coach Bob Johnson: “They have the best team, let’s face it, because they have the best players.” Last season the Flames finished in second place in the Smythe Division, an impressive 30 points ahead of the third-place Winnipeg Jets. But they finished 30 points behind Edmonton. In the past three regular seasons, the Flames defeated the Oilers only twice and earned
three ties, while losing 19 times.
Yet Calgary dumped the Oilers in seven games in the playoffs. Said Oiler coach and general manager Glen Sather: “I had a horrible summer because of what happened against the Flames. It will bother me the rest of my life.” Added Coffey: “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about it. Every day I’d look at our roster and tell myself we had the best team.”
Although suffering no illusions that they are better than the Oilers, the Flames expect to meet Edmonton again next spring and hope for a repeat performance. Said coach Johnson: “We would like to be more competitive during the season so that when we play Edmonton in December and January, the games will really mean something. But the playoff series last spring was no fluke. We deserved to win.”
The Calgary victory forced the Oilers to rethink their freewheeling offensive style. John Muckier, who shares coaching duties with Sather, says that he thinks that the team became too predictable last season. Said Muckier: “When you are successful, it’s hard to tell a player to change. When you’re not, it’s easier to get their attention.” Indeed, Sather said that trying to tell team members to change their style of play last season was like “wrestling with 21 grizzly bears. They didn’t want to hear it.”
This season the Oilers have listened—and accepted—several changes. Principal among them is the separation of Gretzky and Kurri. Said Muckier: “We want to have a team where people become familiar playing with different people. Montreal is highly successful with it. Putting Gretzky and Kurri on different lines will make them think more.” And the Great One, who owns or shares 37 NHL scoring records, and Coffey, who scored a record 48 defenceman goals, have been told to pay less attention to the record books. Said Coffey: “If Glen [Sather] wants me to play differently, I will. When you lose in the playoffs, everything else goes for nothing.”
But before another banner is hung in Montreal or a third flies in Edmonton, the defending and former champions will receive strong challenges from Calgary, Quebec, Hartford, Philadelphia’s Flyers and Washington’s Capitals. “They will all be gunning for us,” said Corey. “And we have to live with the pressure. But it is the kind of pressure the others wish they had.”
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