SPORT

Oil is thicker than water—and it spreads

Alumni of the last Oiler dynasty teach a new generation how to win

KEN MACQUEEN June 12 2006
SPORT

Oil is thicker than water—and it spreads

Alumni of the last Oiler dynasty teach a new generation how to win

KEN MACQUEEN June 12 2006

Oil is thicker than water—and it spreads

Alumni of the last Oiler dynasty teach a new generation how to win

KEN MACQUEEN

The Edmonton Oilers’ locker room in the bowels of Rexall Place is pure working class—and working classroom. A Ping-Pong table is the only hint of luxury, that and an electric fan, straining, and failing, to remove the sweaty evidence of a hard morning practice last week. The room also reeks of history, with perhaps a whiff of future glory. The Oilers generated five Stanley Cups in seven seasons between 1984 and 1990, and a whole lot of lean years thereafter. But that dynasty also produced a legacy, which makes this spring’s crazy ride to the Stanley Cup finals not nearly as improbable as might first appear. From this room, and those glory years, emerged a graduate class of coaches and managers now shaping the Oilers and other teams throughout the National Hockey League.

A case in point: Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe—the first NHL draft pick in the team’s history in 1979 and a key player in all five Oiler cup wins. He’s built a coaching staff of ex-teammates: head coach Craig MacTavish, with three Oiler cup wins as a checking forward, and assistant coaches Charlie Huddy and Craig Simpson, who played in five and two Oiler cup wins respectively. Success is a great teacher, says Lowe. “All the lessons here were about team first and foremost, an appreciation of talent, and how to work with players,” he says. “We lived it every day. If you had your eyes open and your ears open that stuff sinks in.” It’s not that the coaches dwell on the days gone by, says Simpson, but they impart the disdain those championship-era Oilers held for second place. “The thing I’m impressed with in this group,” he says, looking around the locker room, “is that there’s no sense of accomplishment. Yet.”

Some players leave elite teams with great memories, a pile of cash and a fistful of Stanley Cup rings. But for avid students of the game, ice time with the Oilers of the ’80s, much like the Montreal Canadiens of the ’70s, was also the equivalent of an advanced degree in hockey management. The Canadiens, under legendary Habs manager Sam Pollock, were the Harvard Business School of hockey. A selection of graduates who migrated to lead-

ership positions throughout the league includes Cliff Fletcher (Calgary-Toronto), Ron Caron (St. Louis), Scotty Bowman (BuffaloPittsburgh-Detroit), John Ferguson (New York Rangers-Winnipeg), Al MacNeil (AtlantaCalgary), Serge Savard (Montreal), Ken Dryden (Toronto). And more. When Doug Risebrough, a former player in that Habs dynasty, became general manager of the Minnesota Wild, he went back to the well, recruiting former teammates Jacques Lemaire, Mario Tremblay and Guy Lapointe to coach and scout. “Guys who have been in winning sit-

FROM EDMONTON TO PHOENIX, DALLAS TO OTTAWA, GRADUATES POP UP. WINNING ‘SINKS IN’ SAYS LOWE.

uations are attractive because they know what it takes to win,” he explains. “If you’re a player and you’re involved in a successful team, you think, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to try to do the same thing in management?’ ”

Hence, the echo effect from Edmonton’s glory era. A guy named Wayne Gretzky captained four of the Oilers’ cup victories, and is now coach and part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes. He was there in the Oilers’ dressing room in Anaheim, May 27, offering congratulations after his alma mater beat the Ducks to advance to the finals. “Oil,” he said, “is thicker than water.” And oil spreads. Glen Sather, who assembled one of the greatest teams in hockey history during his 24 years with the Oilers, is now general manger of the

New York Rangers. And where did the Oilers fly last Thursday, to prepare for the finals in an eastern time zone and to escape the fever pitch of Edmonton? Why, north of New York City to the Rangers’ suburban practice facility-oil being thicker than water.

The list goes on. Jari Kurri returned to Finland where he is general manager of the national team. Three ex-Oiler netminders are now NHL goaltending coaches: Andy Moog in Dallas; Grant Fuhr with Gretzky in Phoenix; and Ron Low (also an ex-Oilers coach) in Ottawa. John Muckier, variously an assistant, co-coach or coach during all of the Oilers’ cup wins, is now general manager of the Senators, a team that habitually tanks in the playoffs. Apparently the Oiler imprint can grow faint.

Not so in Edmonton, where it, literally, is embedded in the battered metal of two doors that lead from the locker room to the video library. Back in the day, those doors led to the coaches’ office. One is plastered with neat rows of stickers, one for every playoff victory in Oiler history. The earliest stickers,

now faded and ratty, read: “Do it Oilers.” After the first cup win in 1984, the stickers read: “Do it again Oilers.” The last row to end with a Stanley Cup sticker was 16 years ago.

The doors also carry some deep dents— echoes of the Oilers’ boom time. “They’re actually from the championship years,” Lowe says. The coaches would come out of their office to offer a pre-game blessing, and players like Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen and Paul Coffey would pound the doors with their sticks. “The bigger the game, the bigger the bang,” says Lowe, smiling. “Those doors,” he predicts, “will go to the Hockey Hall of Fame some day.”

Just not yet, not when opportunity knocks. They serve to remind that victory leaves its mark. M With Charlie Gillis

Charlie Gillis