Brawn drain: Oilers to New York

Once more the great national identity crisis begins. Can rubes from the fringes of the Arctic Circle implant another jewel upon the world’s most sophisticated city?We’re talking hockey here, folks, and as the new season now begins, the question is, can sinewed thinkers from far off Edmonton sprinkle the sidewalks of New York with yet another dose of Stanley Cup gold dust?Twice in the past 16 years, artisans from Canada’s far off, frozen boondocks have turned the self-anointed greatest metropolis in the universe into hockey’s tallest temple. Now, in another staggering transfer of culture, the Edmonton maestro.

Oilers hit New York
Heading the list is, of course, Sather himself, the new president and general manager of the New York Rangers.

  • His first Big Apple impact was felt in 1984 when his Edmonton Oilers abruptly ended the four-year Cup reign of the New York Islanders and took over custody of the trophy themselves.
  • The next Edmonton wave hit New York in 1994, when trades took a former Oiler quartet led by Mark Messier to the Rangers and inspired the first Stanley Cup for Madison Square Garden since 1940 – apan of 54 seasons.
  • Messier the Moose had thumped people on five Oiler Cup teams and was accorded lavish leadership credit in that Rangers success. But he also had his share of Edmonton help. Teammates Kevin Lowe and Glenn Anderson were Oilers for the five Cup teams, and Craig MacTavish for three.
  • So now comes Edmonton’s third assault — Sather again — for the next five years at $15 million or so, a sum that represents an Everest elevation for the cool-eyed Sather. He turns 57 this month, an Alberta native from High River, who paid his dues in such minor-league outposts as Memphis and Oklahoma City, then toured the NHL for 10 years playing for Boston, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal and Minnesota. He is remembered as a cocky, scrappy player (80 goals in 658 games and 724 penalty minutes in penalties says it all.

Sather’s history
Sather began his long Edmonton odyssey in 1976-77 as an Oiler player with the ill-fated World Hockey Association. Late that season he became the coach, and two years later, with the Oilers surviving the death rattle of the WHA and joining the NHL, he became a triple threat when duties as president and general manager were added. (He got a certain boost toward success in 1978 when a skinny kid from Brantford, Ont., was absorbed by the Oilers from the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers. Name of Gretzky.)

It would hardly be accurate to call Sather an easy man to work for. Upon hiring Ron Low to coach an Oiler farm team in Halifax, he told him, “Some day I’m going to fire you.”

Still, last July with a new hockey season right around the corner at Broadway and 46th street, the guy who agreed to coach Sather’s new team is that same Ron Low. Diplomat or otherwise, Sather has bestowed hard cash upon other old boys. Indeed, at his signing one day last summer, tears large as light globes coursed down the cheeks of the aforementioned Messier.

And why not? The shiny-pated, Edmonton-born Moose had just agreed to accept $11 million (U.S.) for the next two seasons – a $9 million signing bonus plus a $1 million annual salary.

By the way, in case anyone forgets how much money a $9 million bonus is, think of it this way: If Messier were to spend $25,000 every day for a year, he’d be broke after a mere 360 days.

Two say no
Even so, is money everything? Two old Oilers courted by Sather declined the master’s blandishments — Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish. Instead, Lowe moved up from Oiler coach to general manager, and MacTavish from assistant coach to coach.

I remember Lowe from the Oiler run of Stanley Cups in the mid-1980s, four in five years. He’s standing in the middle of the Oiler dressing room after a playoff game surrounded by news hounds, speaking to both French and English scribes (he was born in Lachute, Que.), thoughtful and patient, very tall on his skates, answering questions quietly.

Maybe he told Sather what he told us back then: “There’s the quality of life to consider, and I think that’s true anywhere in Canada. I want to stay in Canada.” And so he has. Off Broadway.