Photo Credit: (Zach Laing / Postmedia Network)

A chat with Slats

Working in the Journalism industry, I get to meet some pretty cool folks.

I’ve interviewed guys like Garry Unger who played alongside Gordie Howe in Detroit, former Oilers like Jason Smith, Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo and numerous other people of stature. However none of these compare after having the chance to speak to the one and only Glen Sather.

Slats was recently inducted into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame alongside Mel Davidson, Bill Hay, Perry Pearn, Tony Kollman and the entire Sutter family. I was fortunate to be able to write up an article for the Crag and Canyon about Slats’ induction and his connection to Banff.

He and I ended up having a half hour long phone conversation last week talking hockey and here is my story on his induction which features more of a conversation on his time living in Banff.

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I thought Oilers fans would be interested to hear about what he has to say about what it was like at the helm of the Oilers in the ’80’s, the NHL today, stepping down from his general managers post with the Rangers and how trading Cam Talbot to the Oilers was one of the last moves he made as a general manager.

Zach Laing: First of all, congratulations on your induction into the AHHF. What does it mean to be inducted into this class? 

Glen Sather: It means a lot. I’ve had a relationship with the Sutter’s for years… We had got started in the same small town playing hockey. Bill Hay has been a good friend of mine for years. He is the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame, I’m on the board of directors. It was quite an experience. Of course, I did play against Kollman in Drumheller so I knew him as well. [Mel] I didn’t know.

ZL: And you got to work with Perry in New York as well?

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GS: Perry Pearn I’ve known since he played in Edmonton*, so I’ve known him for ever. He’s a good friend, I know him well. It’s quite a crew actually.

Note*: Pearn’s hockeydb page says he was a member of the AJHL’s Edmonton Moves in the 1969-1970 season.

ZL: No kidding, it was great a great class to be inducted in this year. You’ve got all the accolades as a top coach, numerous Stanley Cups, you built one of the best dynasties in all of hockey. For you, when you look at this induction where does it rank with everything you’ve done in your career?

GS Well it’s quite an honour, but I’m not one for rating things. Guys used to say ‘Well who’s the best team you ever coached?’ I think the NHL had some kind of a survey done on the top-100 teams in the NHL and the Oilers were picked number one. Out of those teams I think there was three [Oilers teams] in the top six. So that was quite a feat and it really says a lot about the players. I’ve been fortunate to coach some great players.

ZL: You had a bit of an interesting start with the Oilers after playing around in the NHL then WHA a bit. What was the transition between being a player-coach to stepping into a full-time coach and later GM with the Oilers? 

GS: It was sort of a natural evolution. I was fortunate in one sense to play as long as I did in the NHL, there were a lot of good coaches I learned from. I had started to run a hockey school in Banff… [inaudible]… The transition from running the hockey school to running and organizing the Oilers in Edmonton wasn’t such a difficult step for me. I didn’t find it that complicated, I tried to treat all the players as individuals as well as a group. You get to know each player and treat them as a solid person and that’s what I tried to do.

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ZL: Through all the cups in the ’80’s, was there one moment or something that stood out to you most?

GS: There were many stories. When we played against the Islanders they had beat us in five games*, our team wasn’t that beaten up but players walked by the Islanders room and we could see through the door guys with ice packs and patches all over them. They were a little more committed than us and our team was young at that stage. They learned a lot from the Islanders and they had been at the transition point. The players knew it took a great deal to win that cup, that’s a tough cup to win.

Note*: I think he was talking about the 82-83 final when the Islanders won the series 4-0.

ZL: As you mention with it being so difficult to win, how hard do you think it was to put together the dynasty winning as many as you did?

GS: It was a little different, we didn’t have much money then. The players all grew up together and wanted to stay together. They were very a very close, tight-knit unit because when they all came to Edmonton they were young and they really grew up together. With Wayne and Mark and Kevin Lowe, that crew they kept that team together. Wayne was the most important thing to them, they were a very dedicated group of players. They had their goaltender in Grant Fuhr and had solid guys that did their dirty work for us with Semenko and McSorely and Kevin McClelland. There was a lot of great team guys on that team. They all focus on the team and that’s what it takes to win.

ZL: When you look at it, do you think that’s something that teams nowadays in the NHL can look back on and learn from? Trying to keep a team together and trying to do what they can to win as much as they can? 

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GS: Well it’s a whole different era right now with the cap situation. Look what happened to Chicago – they had to dismantle a lot to keep their top players. It’s difficult, but Pittsburgh has done a good job. Of course they have Crosby which makes a big difference but we had Wayne which made a big difference. There had a lot of great players on that team and Pittsburgh has a lot of great players on their team.

ZL: A lot of people I talk to think the game has gone back to what it used to be in the 1980’s, the style of game you guys played. Do you think the NHL is starting to shift back to that? What have you noticed as the big changes in the way the game has been played?

GS: Well absolutely, speed is the name of the game today. You need to have a whole team that’s tough, but a whole team that can skate and you have to play that free-wheeling style of game today. At the end of the day it’s a great sport. It’s not necessarily the size of the players but it’s the intelligence and speed they have today. There are a lot of smaller players playing, I like the way it’s played today.

ZL: You’ve been with the Rangers for nearly two decades and you recently stepped down as GM. What prompted you to step down and let Jeff Gorton take over in that role?

GS: We work as a team. We have a lot of guys in the organization that make the decisions but at some stage as you’re fighting for roles the general managers in the NHL are getting younger and you need to create relationships with a lot of these younger guys. Gorton has been with us for 10 years, a smart guy. He’s the guy that signed Chara as a free agent when he was the manager in Boston for a short period of time. It just makes sense to move out once in a while, besides I want to spend my old man time here in Banff. It gives me a little more freedom to do so as I don’t have to travel as much as I have in the last 40 some years doing this job. I need a little bit of space. Besides, we are all on the downside when you get over 50 years old.

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ZL: One of the last trades you made as a GM was with the Edmonton Oilers when you traded Cam Talbot at the draft. How did that trade come about and how did it end up getting completed on the draft floor?

GS: Well Cam’s development in New York, we think we have the best goaltending coach in the league in Benoit Allaire. Every guy that we’ve brought in as a backup goaltender to Henrik has been developed by Benoit and it’s the same thing that happened with Talbot. He was ready to be a number one goaltender, he was 28 or 29 years old at that stage and it was important to do something to try and get him in the right position so somebody could benefit from his abilities. I have a warm spot in my heart for Edmonton so I tried to get him there and it worked out there for him, he’s turned out to be one hell of a goaltender. Same thing with us sending our backup goaltender to Phoenix this year, he’s ready to be a number one goaltender and you have to give some of these guys the opportunity to enhance their own careers.

ZL: Oh of course, especially when you guys have someone like Henrik in net as is.

GS: Yeah, we will bring in some other young guys to teach them and train them. Eventually one of those guys will take Hank’s job when he gets too old and in the meantime you’re always moving assets around to help yourself improve. We got the sixth pick overall from that deal [with Phoenix] so it worked out well for us.