I’ll let others debate exactly where Glen Sather belongs in the NHL’s history books. What I know is Sather damn sure belongs up in the rafters at Rexall Place, and that’s exactly where he’ll finally be when the Oilers honor their former coach, president and GM with a banner raising Dec. 11.
When the Oilers announced today they’d be raising a banner in the name of the man who led them to five Stanley Cups 1984-90 as coach and/or GM, I thought back to October of 2014 and an anniversary bash for the 1983-84 team.
There was Sather, almost 15 years after he reluctantly left Edmonton for the brighter lights and bigger budget of the New York Rangers, with his hands on the Stanley Cup in a group photo with Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr. Sather had his hands all over every one of those five Cups.
Just as important to me when I think of Sather, I know he left a little bit of his heart here when the demands and frustrations that came with working for the small-budget Edmonton Investors Group in the NHL’s pre-salary cap era finally prompted the native of High River to bolt for the Big Apple.
Edmonton is where Sather, now 71, enjoyed his greatest success. Edmonton was where he was at the height of his powers, sitting behind the wheel with an unlit cigar in his yap and that smirk on his face with the Boys on the Bus. This is where that banner belongs.
The remarkable success Sather and the Oilers enjoyed in that stretch from 1984-90 is nothing more than ancient history to a large segment of fans — a lot of them weren’t even born when the last, and most unlikely, parade rolled through town after the Oilers beat the Boston Bruins.
I’m in much the same boat. By the time I arrived in Edmonton in December 1989, Sather and the Oilers had four Cups in the books. I’d get in on the last one, playing caddy for Jim Matheson and Cam Cole, but the glory days were coming to an end as owner Peter Pocklington’s financial empire crumbled. Gretzky had already been sold. I spent one spring covering the last hurrah and the next decade watching Sather and the Oilers in decline until he packed for Broadway.
I won’t pretend to know Sather nearly as well as media people like Jim Matheson, Terry Jones and Rod Phillips, who witnessed and chronicled a juggernaut the likes of which we’ll never see again. The Sather I knew, with Pocklington dismantling the team piece by piece until the EIG moved in, was a fighter. Many of those fights were with the EIG, just looking to drag the franchise to the level playing field that didn’t exist.
It was a bitter break-up. At the 2001 Entry Draft in Florida, Matheson and I spent some time chatting with Sather. As we talked, Sather kept reaching over to me, opening the lapel of my sports jacket, peering inside at the breast pocket. “Slats, what are you doing?” Sather said: “Just checking to see if you’ve got Cal Nichols in your pocket. I know he’s got you in his.”
After years of pinching pennies under the EIG, Sather thought I’d been a bit too sympathetic of the group of 30-something owners and not as aware as I should have been – at least in terms of what I wrote – about the challenges he faced. That was his way of letting me know. He said it with a twinkle in his eye, as you’d know he often did if you looked close enough.
Sather fought for this franchise, even when his hands were financially tied. The frustration of doing so would eventually drive him out three years after his induction into the HHOF in 1997. It ended badly here, of that there is no question. Sather, who once proclaimed, “If I had the Rangers payroll, I’d never lose a game,” has never enjoyed near the success he had here.
HERE AND NOW
Like I said off the top, there’s certainly room for debate about where Sather fits in NHL record books. There are those who believe Sather was little more than the benefactor of timing, two splendid drafts (1979 and 1980) and the acquisition of a skinny kid named Gretzky. That Sather made a career of it. I don’t believe that for a second.
You’ll hear from plenty of people – Kevin Lowe spoke to the media at Rexall Place about Sather today – who played for Sather and know him better than I do, and they’ll talk about him as a mentor and a tactician and father figure between now and Dec. 11.
What I know is that even after the Boys on the Bus were a distant memory and Sather left, he’s had a soft spot for the Oilers and the fans who came to watch them over the years. I can’t think of an Oiler event in this city, be it the anniversary celebration of the 1983-84 team, the outdoor game at Commonwealth Stadium or a host of others Sather has passed on if he was available to make it.
You can be sure, after stepping down as GM (he’s still president) of the Rangers July 1 as he eases toward retirement, Sather is thrilled at the possibility that his old team, the team he coached, built and found greatness with, might finally be headed in the right direction again after so many lean years.
Welcome back, Slats. Your turn.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.