VANCOUVER — The memories of a dynasty never fade.
At 72, Glen Sather, the architect of the Edmonton Oilers’ five Stanley Cup championships and current president of the Rangers, will add many more to his formidable collection on Friday when he will become the ninth Oiler to have a banner hung from the rafters at Rexall Place.
Sather, who grew up in Alberta and is returning as a hometown hero for two days of public events and private dinners, remains a charming mix of old-school hockey ethics and forward thinking, and that style emerged in an interview Wednesday night before the Rangers faced the Canucks.
For instance, while Sather will never forget those halcyon days in Edmonton, when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey put the city on the sports world map, he understands that time was a chapter in a book still being written.
When Oilers principal owner Daryl Katz first contacted him about the upcoming banner-raising, Sather said he responded: “Are you sure you want to do this? I still work for the Rangers. I wouldn’t say I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m a little apprehensive about it because I’m with the Rangers. I have to respect the position I had for a long time and I still respect and cherish all the memories, but that’s the past. I’m not a great kind of a guy that lives in the past.”
After resigning from the Oilers after the 1999-2000 season in a dispute with ownership and immediately hired by Rangers owner James Dolan, Sather recalled: “That was it. I’m a New York Ranger.”
But for the next two days, Sather — still a mentor, hockey lifer, hunter, golfer and fisherman and never far from a cigar — will accept the accolades from the glory days and share stories in colorful language, as he did on Wednesday.
“I’ve always said the most fun is being a player, then being a coach,” said Sather, who skated for six NHL teams, including the Rangers. “The least amount of fun is being the [general] manager. It’s still enjoyable, but that’s the way you would rate them. I like to try to be involved with everything. Once I got to be a manager, I still wanted to know what’s going on. I’ll never get rid of that. I tell everybody that hockey is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365. Keep your phones on.”
It was that indisputable talent for evaluating and attracting players — and his negotiating skills — that brought him the most success.
One of Sather’s fondest recollections was pushing Oilers owner Peter Pocklington to acquire Gretzky, then 18, from the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association in 1979. “When I saw him at a morning skate, I thought he was one of the players’ kids until he got into the game,” Sather recalled. “And his game was so much more cerebral than anybody else on the ice, it wasn’t even close.”
As a coach, Sather was tough, protective and a father figure to Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and others, insisting that if they had an issue, they call him before anyone else. “A lot of those guys were very young,” he said. “Like anybody else when you’re a teenager or early 20s, you’re going to be doing a few things that not everybody considers the right thing to do at the right time, so there were instances where I was able to solve something for them what I couldn’t solve today. It’s a different world today, everybody wants to put something on the Tweeter and expose somebody for something.’’
That guidance didn’t end in Edmonton.
“He was there from the beginning of my career,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “He came to Gothenberg to see me in my last year in Sweden, ’04-05, to talk to me. I’ll never forget, he asked me if I was right for New York. I said, ‘I think so’, but after I thought, I should have said, ‘Of course, I am.’ But I have so much respect for Glen, for all he’s done for the Oilers and New York. When times are tough, he comes in and talks to the group; when you’ve been around for that long, you have one or two things that can help. It’s really been fun to get to know him. He’s a character.”
The ever-independent Sather abruptly left behind a legacy in Edmonton because, he said, “It was a situation that I wasn’t prepared to live under. I bought our head scout Barry Fraser a watch for three thousand bucks, a Cartier worth about $7,000, I got a deal on it. One of the guys called me up and gave me [grief] for it and said you can’t be wasting our money like that. Called him up the next day and said, ‘You can stick this team up your [butt], I’ve had enough. I had three years left on my contract. It just wasn’t going to work, 26 owners, everybody telling you what to do about hockey and how to do it.”
The departure didn’t diminish the more pleasant memories for Sather, which still resonate, starting in 1984, when the high-flying dynasty took hold.
“When we won the [first] Cup and Mark was down in the corner, with his mother and dad [in the stands] and he was down there banging on the glass, that’s what stood out to me, a moment to remember,” he said Wednesday, before delivering another memory that reflects as much on Sather’s enduring persona as anything else.
It was the first game of the Finals in Boston in May 1990. There was a power outage in Boston Garden in the third overtime, with the teams tied at 2 and Sather recalled “the Bruins guys were sitting on the ice, sitting on the boards, goalie Andy Moog had jumped up and was sitting on the net. None of our guys were sitting on the ice. One of the rules I had was, ‘Don’t sit on the ice, you don’t let anybody know you’re tired.’ I thought it was a sign of giving up. I knew then that we were going to win.”
Indeed, Petr Klima’s wrister won it, and four games later, the Oilers, without Gretzky but with Sather still the general manager, hoisted their fifth Cup in seven years. That’s just one of the reasons a banner will rise in an old barn on Friday night.