It’s been a few years since I’ve had Glen Sather on the show, but yesterday the New York Rangers’ GM joined Ryan Rishaug and I yesterday and shared his thoughts an wide range of topics. I always enjoy talking to Sather, because he always gives you a straight answer, and he always finds a way to throw in a good story or two.
Sather was in Edmonton recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Edmonton Oil Kings last Memorial Cup championship, so we started the conversation talking about his junior playing days.
Gregor: You were just in town recently for the 50th Anniversary of the Oil Kings Memorial Cup championship. How was it to go back and relive your youth as a player?
Sather: Well, it was a lot of fun actually. I played with Roger Bourbonnais and I hadn’t seen him since, gosh I can’t remember the last time I saw him. It was probably fifteen, twenty years ago. He was the Captain of that Oil King team that won the Memorial Cup. He was a great player and it was good to see him. He’s a lawyer in Vancouver now. Pat Quinn was there, there were a lot of guys who I haven’t seen for ages- Max Mestinsek, Bob Falkenberg. I think there were twelve or fourteen players that played on that team, so it was a lot of fun reminiscing and kicking around old times.
Rishaug: How clear are the stories, Glen? It’s been a long time since those days and you always hear NHL players talk about their pro days. But when you’re going as far back as 1962, 1963, how clear do the stories remain and how much have they maybe been embellished over the years?
Sather: Well, you know hockey players love to tell stories, there’s no doubt about that. We learn at a young age to make it sound better than it really is. But I think the three years that I spent with the Oil Kings were great years. We had a lot of fun; we rode a lot of buses together. Pat Quinn and I used to play chess together on the bus. There was a story that Greg Pilling and I were talking about after we played in Estevan. He got high sticked in the game and he was cut for six stitches. We had an old trainer by the name of John Mitchell, who was probably seventy something or eighty years old at that time. The bus is rough and he kept putting the stitch into Greg’s head, so I finished the stitching job for him. Those were true stories, so there was a lot of that stuff going on. It was a lot of fun.
Gregor: We were just talking about the upcoming Olympic Camp for Canada. Obviously there are a lot of great players going to camp. You were in charge of putting together a few of the Canada Cup teams in the 1980s, which also had loads of talent. Was there one or two cuts that you guys really debated over; one that was really a tough decision?
Sather:Well I think the most difficult cut that I had, and there were a lot of great players who didn’t make that team, but the most difficult one was Brian Sutter and I had to cut him. He was a heart and soul guy, a great player with a terrific career, but in that calibre of hockey, speed is what does it. You’d have to really be able to play on that hockey team and ever guy that was there was a great skater. We had a great team and it was tough up against the Russians, nobody had really beaten those guys. We beat them in Calgary, then of course we won in Edmonton, we beat Sweden. Sutter was the toughest cut for me.
Rishaug: One of the big story lines for Canada, is they have a wealth of talent at centre and there is talk about centre icemen playing the wing on this team. What’s your philosophy and do you even recall, the idea of taking a natural centre and throwing him over on the wing at that calibre of tournament, versus going with a guy that’s played there his entire career?
Sather: I don’t think that it’s going to be much of a complicated change for any of these players that Canada has. They’ve got so many talented guys and as you know, the talented players can pretty well play any place. One of the strategies that we used in Edmonton with Gretzky was that, in our own end of the building, Kurri was really the centre iceman. Wayne, we let him stay up around the boards because it would force the other defence to move out all the time. It worked very well.
I’m sure they’re going to have a very talented group, so that team is going to be versatile enough that the players can move around from position to position. They’re not going to have a problem going from wing to centre, centre to wing. The other advantage is every time you have two centres on the ice, one guy can get thrown out and the other guy is going to win the draw for you. I think it’s a great advantage.
Gregor: It’s definitely easier to move a centre to the wing than a winger to centre. Mark Messier was one of those guys who was able to do that. There is a lot of talk in Edmonton that they should try do that with Taylor Hall. When you made that decision many years ago with Messier, how did he make that switch look so easy when a lot of players can’t?
Sather: I think you have to remember that if you’re going to run a fore checking system, the centre iceman is generally the first guy and you need somebody who can really skate. With Messier, he was All-Star left winger when we moved him to centre. It didn’t bother him at all. Mark was the kind of character player that was willing to do something like that. He knew he’d have to play behind Wayne and it didn’t bother him at all because it made the team stronger. I think the great players like that can adapt, they’re versatile enough that positions don’t really matter. It depends how the coaching style is going to be if these guys are able to move around like they’re capable of doing, they’ve got some freedom on the ice, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.
Rishaug: You made some pretty significant changes in the off season, most notably at the head coaching position putting Alain Vigneault in. After having had a little bit of time to work with him and to prepare, what’s your sense of the man and the type of coach that you think he is going to be?
Sather: I think he’s going to be exactly what we need and probably for John exactly what Vancouver needs. Just because a guy gets fired, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad coach or he’s lost the ability to coach a team. I think, in most cases, if the players just get tired of listening to the same voice day after day after day, you need to make a bit of a change just to get some of that enthusiasm back in your team. It reminds me as much as when my own boys were growing up and I was giving them instructions, you know, they were reluctant to listen to you. But if somebody comes along that’s a little different or they don’t know as well and gives them instructions, they’re eager to do it. So I think the same thing is going to happen to both of these teams, I think it’s a good move for both of us.
Gregor: During an interview in Vancouver, John Tortorella said he was kind of hurt that he heard some of the players went to management to express they were upset with the coach. If players had an issue with a coach would you always want them to go to him first, and if players actually did what Tortorella said and came to you, what did you say?
Sather: Well, first of all, it’s not true that the players came to me. That’s a story that started and, as you guys know, once something gets some legs, pretty soon it becomes a life of its own. But it’s not true. I’ve watched John every game when he was in New York, I watched all of his practices, I knew what was going on out on the ice, I knew what was going on in the dressing room, and that’s from experience from being around for so long. I wouldn’t allow a player to come to me and say, “listen, we don’t like the coach anymore. He’s got to go.” That’s just not the way it works. Whoever’s making that story live longer than it should be shouldn’t be doing it, because it’s not a fact.
Rishaug: Can you talk about the offensive component on your team and how you think, from a goal scoring stand point you’re going to stack up this year compared to last year?
Sather: I think one of the things that I really didn’t like about the system that we played, is that we inhibited the ability of these offensive players to be as creative as they can be. I know John well and John always said, “I don’t stop these guys from being on the offensive side of the puck.” But there is a way you do inhibit them by stifling their creativity. I wanted him to be a little more open styled and I think that’s what we’re going to get out of Vigneault. That’s the style of play that he’s always played.
He is still very conscious defensively, but he likes to play his room a little more than John would. So I think that these guys are going to come along and produce a lot more than they did last year. The other thing, Brad Richards spent all summer negotiation the CBA with the Player’s Association. I think that hurt his conditioning, when he got to camp he was behind the eight ball. If you don’t come to training camp today in tremendous shape, you’re never going to catch up and it hurts you a lot.
Gregor: Glen, you’ve made two pretty big blockbuster deals the last few years. You acquired Rick Nash from Columbus and then you went out and traded Marion Gaborik to Columbus. How hard is it to make a blockbuster deal now, compared to when you first started thirty years ago in Edmonton?
Sather: Well it was difficult then, it’s still difficult today. The problem today is that you can’t absorb any contract money, or the other team can’t take any money, although that rule has changed a little bit in the last two years. But it is still a difficult time to trade one great player for two or three guys that may not have reached their peak performance yet. So it gets a little bit complicated.
You know if you look around that National Hockey League, there haven’t been many big deals in the last few years because it is difficult. The big deals really happen at free agency time because what you’re doing is trading money for talent. If you look at what’s gone on with the contracts today, most of the players that are very talented are getting eight year contracts at pretty near maximum money. When you go to trade a player like that, it’s going to be very difficult because people won’t be that eager to take somebody like that.
Rishaug: There was a report the other day saying that potentially the salary cap could reach as high as eighty million dollars in the next three or four years. I don’t know if that’s going to be accurate or not, so would you say day to day you’re operating under the principle that it will be going up significantly, and is that a safe way to operate right now?
Sather: Well it depends on the revenue of course and if the league can keep creating revenue, billions of dollars, the salary cap is going to go up because that’s what the deal is that we have with the Player’s Association. It’s complicated. Last year, we were at seventy-two million, this year we’re at sixty-three million, then the following year it’s supposed to go back up again.
It hurt a lot of teams that signed players to large contracts under the old rules, then suddenly now you’re stuck in a position where your cap is not as big as it was before. We need to have some consistency from year to year, so that we can properly plan and develop a business program that your planning is going to be pretty fluid so you can understand where you’re going and where you think you’re going to be. If the revenue, I mean there are lots of television contracts coming up, I think that’s where their projected increase is going to come from. If that happens, then so be it. They get fifty percent of whatever it is, so there is not much we can do about it.
Gregor: Are you confident that Derek Stepan will have a contract before camp starts?
Sather: Well, Derek is in one of those positions where he’s coming off an entry level system. What we’ve done, historically, with all the players that we’ve signed, is we put them into that gap contract; you sign them to a two year contract. After the first year, then you negotiate an extension to that contract. That’s pretty well what we’re going to do with Derek. I’m not going to give a long term contract at this stage. He’s a good player, he’s a smart player, he’s a good team guy, there’s certainly nothing wrong with him, but you’ve got to wait a little while before you’re going to get the big bucks.
Rishaug: What about a guy like Brian Boyle? I know from a point wise it wasn’t a great year for him. What do you sense is the direction this player is heading in, how high the upside can be, and is he a guy a lot of teams ask about?
Sather: Ya, I get a lot of request for Brian’s services. I’m not anxious to trade him. I think he’s a good player, he’s a great team player and I think he still has an upside to go to. He’s one of those guys that you may regret trading if you do trade him, so I’m not anxious to do anything with him at this time.
Gregor: Are you confident Mar Staal is going to come to camp one hundred percent healthy?
Sather: Ya, he’s a hundred percent now. He had a pretty serious eye injury last year. He’s fully recovered, he’s a great athlete, and he trained hard. He’s from the Staal family; these guys are all terrific athletes. I expect he’ll come back and have a great season. He’s been invited to Team Canada’s camp and he’s the kind of player that will make that team better.
GOLF WITH THE RANGERS FOR CHARITY…
Gregor: I know you’re a played a big part in having training camp and the Rangers golf tournament in Banff to help the flood relief down south. Can you talk about how it came about and how anybody out there can help out?
Sather: This all started three years ago, the Garden is under a transformation, it’s being renovated and it’s taken three years. This is the final summer that we’re going to be displaced. We can’t play any home games at training camp and we can’t play any home regular season games until the twenty-fifth of October. So we’re on the road for the first nine league games.
We’re on the road for six pre-season games and we play two at home against New Jersey and Philadelphia. The next day we fly to Calgary, and then we bus to Banff. The next day we’re going to play in a charity golf tournament that’s going to benefit all the people in Bow Valley that have lost their homes or had their homes damaged. Our players are excited about it; they think it’s a wonderful chance for them to see the mountains. I think it’s a good time for these players to bond, to get to know each other, to spend some time with them in Banff. It’s going to be exciting for them; it’s the playground of Western Canada if you ask me.
The mountains are beautiful, the weather’s terrific here today. The Banff Springs Hotel Golf Course is one of the best in the world. We’re staying at the hotel for five days, so it will be a great experience for them. They’re going to have a chance to spend some money here, to help these people here in the Bow Valley, and then many, many people in Canmore have lost their homes. It’s a great thing for them to do.
By the way, let me just mention that there are still some openings to this golf tournament. We’re still looking for some major sponsors. If anybody wants to get a hold of us to play in this tournament, there is going to be one of the Rangers playing on every foursome. It’s an experience that players are going to share with a lot of people from around here. Kevin Lowe has given us a box to the Calgary-Edmonton game to be auctioned off and Daryl Katz has given us some money towards the charity fund that we’ve organized. So we still have some friends in Edmonton who I’d like to see down here in Banff.
Gregor: How can people get involved if they want to get into the golf tournament?
Sather: The best thing is to call the Banff Springs Hotel. That’s an easy number, call (403) 762-2211 and just ask about the golf tournament and they’ll send you to the right people.
- Sather’s explanation of how they used Gretzky and Kurri in the D-zone illustrates how great of a two-way player Kurri was. He was one of the smartest and most complete players to ever play.
- I always find it interesting hearing about tough decisions when cutting players, and Brian Sutter was a hell of a player,, the type of blood and guts guy that Sather would respect, so I understand why it was tough on him. I doubt Steve Yzerman will admit in February which cut was the most difficult, but down the road it would be intriguing to hear which player Yzerman had to cut that was the most difficult for him. There will be some great players not going to Sochi for Canada next February.
- Slats said he felt Tortorella’s system inhibited the Ranger’s forwards. It will be interesting to see what system/style the Rangers will play under Vigneault, and conversely how the Canucks will play under Tortorella. It will be one of the most interesting story lines to follow this season.
- Sather has many friends in southern Alberta, and I think it is great that the Rangers will be helping out those who were devastated by the flooding.
- I had the pleasure of being invited to take part in the inaugural Hockey Alberta Summit in Banff this weekend. Lots of great discussions on trying to improve the game, and I had the chance to host a Q and A with Ken Hitchcock and Mel Davidson. Both were exceptional and in the coming days and weeks I will recap many of the topics we discussed. Tomorrow we discuss an economic impact study as well as the acceleration to perfection.