By Jim Amodeo
Behind every championship team there is a great goalie that stands tall and during the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty era, Grant Fuhr loomed large in the crease.
In his final year with the Victoria Cougars in 1980-81, Grant Fuhr was considered to be the top ranked goalie in junior hockey. Johnny Bower, who backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, recognized Grant Fuhr’s potential while scouting for his former club. “I have seen him four times,” Bower told Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell in February 1981. “He’s probably the best in the country – certainly the best in the west. Any club that is looking for a goalie will have to regard him as a first-round choice.”
A leak of the rankings prepared by Central Scouting in March 1981, revealed that Grant Fuhr headed the list of goalies for the NHL Entry Draft. An NHL Draft preview in The Globe and Mail highlighted the Edmonton Oilers interest in selecting Grant Fuhr, who hailed from near-by Spruce Grove, Alberta. “General manager Glen Sather hopes to get Grant Fuhr, Victoria Cougars’ fine young goaltender,” the newspaper noted of Edmonton setting their sights on drafting Grant Fuhr. Choosing 8th in the first round at the 1981 Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers were elated to announce Grant Fuhr’s name as their selection. “For me it was a great thrill because I’m from Edmonton,” Fuhr told me in an interview. “It’s home and any chance you get to go home and play pro makes it an easier transition. I was excited about that.”
The next step for Fuhr was to attend his first pro training camp and show the Oilers brass what he could do in the National Hockey League. For most prospects, this came with a degree of pressure, but for Grant Fuhr that wasn’t the case. “I went to camp thinking we have four or five goalies of NHL caliber, so I didn’t think there was any pressure at all. I figured I would be going back to junior to play some more.”
Grant Fuhr’s return to junior didn’t materialize and he played 48 games in his rookie campaign with Edmonton. Only 19-years-old, his regular season stats – 28-5-14 – showed he could hold his own against the games best. His effort earned him a spot on the Second All-Star Team. “I guess I didn’t know any better,” Fuhr said as he began to comment on how he went about taking care of business between the pipes for Edmonton. “I just played and was having fun. There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into it. I got dressed everyday and went out and played. Looking at it that way made it easier for me. I didn’t get caught up with everything else.”
The Oilers finished second overall in the 1981-82 regular season standings, but hit a brick wall that prevented them from advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs. The Los Angeles Kings eliminated Grant Fuhr and his teammates from post-season action by taking the fifth and deciding contest. “Part of it was a growing process and part of it was I just wasn’t any good,” stated Furh of his initial taste of hockey’s second season. “My first playoff game I lost 10-8. I didn’t play very good and I thought it would be a short run after that.”
Like many in the game, Grant Fuhr struggled in his sophomore year and posted a 13-12-5 record. Several factors came into play when examining the cause for his dip in production. “I had a shoulder rebuilt and I got off to slow start that year and I lost my confidence a little bit.” To help Grant Fuhr regain in his form, Glen Sather sent him to the American Hockey League to play 10 games for the Moncton Alpines. “Going down there helped me find my game and find myself again.”
How one responds to adversity can have a lasting effect on the future and after participating in just one playoff game in 1983, Grant Fuhr was eager to bounce back. In 1983-84, it was time for Grant Fuhr and the Edmonton Oilers to put together a banner regular season followed by success in the playoffs. At the conclusion of the NHL schedule, Grant Fuhr had regained his winning ways by putting up solid numbers, which included 30 victories in 45 encounters. The Oilers were a determined bunch when the playoffs rolled around and reached the Stanley Cup Final where they faced the New York Islanders.
To lift Lord Stanley’s mug, the Oilers had to dethrone the NHLs reigning dynasty, as the Islanders had won four consecutive Cups starting in 1980. For Grant Fuhr, his maiden voyage into the Final meant he would have to outduel Billy Smith at the other end of the ice. And right off the bat, Fuhr proved he was up to the challenge. “Everything that Billy Smith usually does to rival teams was done to the Isles by 21 year old Grant Fuhr,” observed one scribe after Fuhr shutout the Islanders 1-0 in game one. “For me it was fun,” recalled Grant Fuhr of his competition with Billy Smith. “I looked up to Billy as he was the best money-goalie in the game. That’s what you tried to attain in your career. We became friends over the couple of series’ we played against each other. To be put in the same category as Billy was awesome.” Grant Fuhr suffered a shoulder injury in game three, which forced him out of the Final. “I was out handling the puck when I shouldn’t have been. Pat Hughes was taking Pat LaFontaine out of the play and I happened to be in the way.”
Glen Sather, in a gesture to acknowledge Grant Fuhr’s contributions, instructed him to dress for the remaining contests and take a seat at the end of the bench. The official back-up goalie to starter Andy Moog was Mike Zanier.
Still, the inability to play frustrated Fuhr, but being seated at ice level was a plus. “It was frustrating because everything had gone pretty well to that point,” Fuhr told me over the phone. “It also gave me the chance to witness everything,” said Grant Fuhr of his time on the bench. “I got to see the play first-hand.” Edmonton captured the Stanley Cup by downing the New York Islanders 4 games-to-one. “It was awesome,” proclaimed Grant Fuhr of his first Cup win. “As a kid that’s what you strive for and to actually be able to do it was a lot of fun.”
While Fuhr enjoyed the celebrations associated with a championship, he used the fact he missed two games as a motivational tool. “There was nothing I could do about the injury, but it gave me a little bit of fire for the next year.”
In the 1984-85 Stanley Cup playoffs, Grant Fuhr had one focus and that was to help his team duplicate the success they had the previous spring. His sparkling playoff numbers, 18-15-3, contributed to the Oilers second Stanley Cup run, which concluded with a 4 games-to-one triumph over Philadelphia in the Final. “To be able to have the opportunity to do it again was even more fun,”
I was curious if Grant Fuhr and the other Oilers thought they were becoming a dynasty after two straight titles. “No because we never really looked at it that way. We just wanted to be as good as could be everyday and we went out and performed that way. We just wanted to win every year.” And part of the winning philosophy for Grant Fuhr was nourished in how he performed in practices. “We didn’t want to be scored against in practice,” said Fuhr without any hesitation. “And the guys wanted to score, so that’s what made it fun. We pushed ourselves to be better – the forwards pushed us and we pushed them. By having fun in practice and being competitive it made us better.”
Aiming for a three-peat in the 1986 playoffs, the Oilers were derailed by their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames, in game seven of the Smythe Division Final. The game-winning goal occurred when Edmonton defenceman, Steve Smith, banked a misguided pass from behind the goal off Grant Fuhr. “It was just one of those things that happened. Obviously, no one wants it to happen. If anything it made us focus on being better the next year because we wanted to be on top again.”
The manner in which they lost to Calgary made the Oilers aware of another important fact. “It wasn’t that we got beat, we beat ourselves,” stated Fuhr in reference to the own-goal. “It made us realize we could be beaten more so by ourselves than an opponent. So, we just had to concentrate a little harder and we were pretty determined the next year.”
The job of getting the Oilers ready to return to championship form in 1986-87 belonged to Glen Sather. “Glen always set the bar high for us,” stated Fuhr of his former coach. “He wanted us to be the best. He gave us the tools and opportunity to do that. It was just that we had to figure it out.” It didn’t come as a surprise when the Edmonton Oilers met the Philadelphia Flyers in the ‘87 Cup Final.
During the gruelling grind of the playoffs, Grant Fuhr had a unique way of getting away from it all and charging his batteries. When possible, he hit the links to play golf. “It was relaxing playing golf,” said Fuhr of the other sport he excelled in. “People don’t realize that during the playoffs, if you sit and think and worry about it all the time, you’re going to burn yourself out. I could spend two or three hours and just get away from the game and give my mind a rest. It made me fresher for what I had to do during games.”
This time around in the Final, Grant Fuhr had to battle Ron Hextall in the Flyers net. “Hextall was fabulous that year. I think that was the sole reason it went seven games because Hextall was that good. In game six we had a lead, but we let it get away.” Although Hextall was frustrating Edmonton’s big guns, Wayne Gretzky knew the Oilers had an ace-in-the-hole. “We kept saying Grant’s going to out play him and Grant’s going to win it for us,” stated Gretzky after his team won game seven in Edmonton at Northlands Coliseum.
Grant Fuhr offered an interesting slant to teammates depending on one another and the confidence that can be cultivated from the process. “You better be good if your teammates have confidence in you, then obviously, it does wonders for your own confidence.”
On the topic of playing behind such explosive weapons like Gretzky and company, I wondered if Grant Fuhr ever experienced times where he had trouble staying motivated or keeping his head in the game. “We were never shy about giving up shots and there was always enough work. That is one thing our system did during the years. We played an offensive style of hockey, so the goalies were always going to get their work. We were more run-and-gun than most teams were. You were going to get your work as a goalie, but at the same time, you knew you were going to get a three or four goal cushion to work with.”
The fourth Stanley Cup in the dynasty era came the following season when Edmonton swept the Boston Bruins in the 1988 Final. Boston coach, Terry O’Reily, knew Grant Fuhr was an obstacle to the Bruins having any luck against Edmonton. “Our goalie would have to play better than Edmonton’s and that is a lot to ask of your goalie to play better than Grant Fuhr,” noted O’Reily. This comment by O’Reily demonstrates how vital Grant Fuhr was on team mostly recognized for filling the opponents net with pucks. “It was fun because we were a big happy team and it was like a family,” stated Fuhr of the dynasty Oilers. “You wanted to do your part so you weren’t the weak link. And that’s what we were always taught.”
In addition to adding another Stanley Cup to his trophy case, Grant Fuhr took home the Vezina Trophy and finished second to Wayne Gretzky for the Hart Trophy. Also, he was named to the First All-Star Team. He registered 40 wins in 75 games.
A blip on the radar screen occurred in 1988-89 when the Los Angeles Kings ousted the Oilers in the opening round. When hiccups like this happened there was no joy in Oilers Nation. “We were our biggest critics,” said Fuhr. “We wanted to win more than anybody. If fans were hard on us, we were harder. We had high expectations and we thought we should win every year.”
They returned to the winner’s circle in 1989-90 by upending the Boston Bruins for their fifth Stanley Cup since 1984. However, for Grant Fuhr the last hooray in the Edmonton Oilers dynasty era included another injury for him to deal with. During the regular season he only played in 21 contests and didn’t appear in any playoff games. “Yeah, more shoulder issues,” said Grant Fuhr referring to his downtime. “I had the shoulder rebuilt, again. Another year of getting glued back together. Billy (Ranford) happened to get on a great run and I got to watch as we got into the playoffs and found a way to get it done.”
I asked Grant Fuhr if there was one ingredient in the dynasty era that made the Oilers unique from the competition? As though on cue, he answered, “the chemistry.” He went on to explain what this entailed. “I think the fact we all treated each other like family resulted in us being different from everybody else. And if Glen said someone didn’t fit in, they were moved right away. It was all about making sure you could fit in as a teammate. When you were a general manager, coach and president, you get a feel for all that stuff. Glen knew what was going on in the room.”
A dressing room that was home to Grant Fuhr and his teammates during the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty era.