The thing that annoys NHL folks most about Glen Sather is not that he led the Edmonton Oilers, a World Hockey Association team, from expansion to the Stanley Cup in just five years. Not much. Nor that Sather, once a consummate mucker and brawler as an NHL player, has achieved coaching success by embracing a style of play that was imported from Europe, for heaven's sake, like quiche or Julio Iglesias. Naw. It has nothing to do with the fact that Sather, who wears $500 suits and owns a small fortune in Alberta real estate, was hailed as the savior of Canadian hockey last September when his hand-picked team recaptured the Canada Cup from the Soviets. Uh-uh. Nor even that Sather has "an ego the size of a mountain," according to just about everyone, but in this case attributable to his good friend and fishing partner, Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers, who has crowned Sather with nearly as many Oiler titles (president/general manager/coach) as England has conferred upon the Prince of Wales (Charles, not the conference).
Nope. The thing that most annoys NHL folks about Sather is that he has Wayne Gretzky. And they don't. Somehow that seems reason enough to root for his comeuppance.
"He's a smart, sharp guy. Never underestimate him," says the Islanders' general manager, Bill Torrey, visibly uncomfortable at the very mention of Sather, whose Oilers ended the Isles' drive for a fifth straight Stanley Cup last spring. Torrey then adds, "And he's lucky. No other expansion team came in with Wayne Gretzky in its pocket."
Torrey and Sather have been feuding, more or less, for the last two years, each of which saw the Islanders and Oilers meet in the Stanley Cup finals. "They gave our players lousy complimentary seats, so we gave them lousy seats," Sather says. "They gave us lousy ice time to practice, so we gave them lousy ice time. Being the new guys on the block, we probably should have been more gracious to the champions. But I didn't want to be gracious. I wanted to win." At the Stanley Cup luncheon last year—ordinarily an amicable affair—Torrey and Sather exchanged barbs from the podium. "What Torrey and I were trying to do was intimidate each other in front of our teams," Sather says. "I'll tell you what really upset him was that we knocked him off his perch." Sather smiles with undisguised glee. "I enjoyed that a lot."
That's another thing about Sather. His smile. It's crooked and is always being referred to as a smirk. A puck hit Sather in the chops years ago, scarring him in such a way that one side of his mouth smirks while the other side smiles impishly. For this, and other reasons, Sather is constantly being referred to as "brash" and "arrogant," though the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler has it right when he suggests that the word for Sather is "saucy." He is also shrewd, patient, innovative and vastly underrated as a coach.
"He hasn't had nearly the acclaim he deserves," says North Stars general manager Lou Nanne. "Many people look at a team that's got a lot of talent and think all you have to do is open and close the door to coach it. That's not the way it works. You still have to deal with people."
Even archrival Torrey gives Sather his due, though he tempers his praise. "His team was as well prepared last year as any we faced in the playoffs," he says, then adds: "They should have been. They had nine days to get ready for us. But the fact remains that they were."
The sound you hear in the background is the grinding of Torrey's teeth.
Across the ice of the Northlands Coliseum comes another sound, a single voice, faint but clear, ringing above the murmur of 17,000 Edmontonians at a game against the Red Wings one night recently. "Force him! Force him!" Sather hollers, at a forechecker. It is a stubborn voice, insistent, devoid of doubt.
"He doesn't 'coach' on the bench," says Gretzky. "He's yelling and talking almost like he's another player."
Gretzky and Sather have an interesting relationship—mutually respectful to the point of awe. "There's only one star on this team and that's the big fella," says Sather. In his office, revealingly, are three framed photos of the Great One and a print of LeRoy Neiman's painting of the lad. Both Gretzky and Sather were unproven when they joined forces in 1978. Gretzky, still grateful for the confidence Sather showed in him early in his career, knows that had the coach not built a marvelous team around him, he might be looked at today as a skilled but selfish scorer. Sather knows that without Gretzky, the Oilers would be just another contender.
"Around the league, people interpret [Sather's] actions as arrogance," says Gretzky. "But he believes in the best of everything: the best effort, the best refereeing, wearing the best clothes. He expects a lot from people. He had to work hard to stay in this league, and that's what he wants out of everyone."
Sather's wife, Ann, some 150 feet away from her husband at the Detroit game, sits back and smiles at the sound of his voice. A native of Ambler, Pa., she was working in Boston for TWA when she met Glen, then a rookie on the Bruins, in 1967. They married two years later and have two sons, Shannon, 13, and Justin, 10, both of whom are playing in youth-hockey games this night. "We can hear Glen all the time from here," she says, laughing, fully aware of her husband's reputation as a tireless heckler. "You know, he had never even mentioned coaching before we got to Edmonton. We were always going to go to Europe after his career ended. But once we got here, he kind of fell into it. And with ease. That's what was funny. It was not a difficult transition for him to make."
Since Sather had spent most of his playing career on the bench, the move behind it was not such a big step. In his nine NHL seasons he played for Boston, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal and Minnesota, picking up 80 goals, 724 penalty minutes and the nickname Slats, to which he answers today. "Damned if I know how I got it," Sather says. "Somebody said it was because I was always on the bench, and that sounded good, I guess, but I always thought it was because [goalie] Eddie Johnston kept calling me 'Slathers' when I first came up to the Bruins."
For a man with an ego the size of a mountain, Sather is remembered as an awfully unselfish individual throughout his career. He was a role player—killing penalties, filling in for injured players, starting fights against opponents far more valuable to their team than he was to his, working hard in practices without complaint. "He was different than other players," Ann remembers. "He always worked. He could never afford the luxury of a day off. We were always the first couple to leave a party, because he couldn't afford to go to practice with a hangover. He's just very disciplined."
"He'd do anything to win," says Hartford G.M. Emile Francis, Sather's coach in New York. "Baseball fans might say he was like an Eddie Stanky."
When he's of the mind to, Sather is capable of using his mouth as an offensive weapon. One time, when both were coaching in the WHA, Sather goaded Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor, who has only one eye, into a brawl by calling him "Cyclops."
"Brash? Arrogant? No question, he's both those things," says Pocklington. "And a bully in some instances I've seen. Don't get in his way."
Sather's major weakness is that he will not suffer fools. And there are a lot of them out there. When the L.A. Kings came back from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Oilers during a 1982 playoff game, the Kings' public relations director cheered the Oilers on their way to the dressing room. Sather scuffled with him and was taken to task for it in the press. Another time, in December of 1983, a 70-year-old Vancouver fan wearing a Sony Walkman heckled Sather and Sather took the bait. "I called him a stupid old——and knocked his Walkman off," recalls Sather. He refused to write a letter of apology, and for his trouble he was convicted of assault. He was then given an absolute discharge by the judge.
Sather reacts. He becomes involved. "He was a yapping player and now he's a yapping coach and a yapping general manager. Nothing's changed," Torrey remarked during the 1983 playoffs after Sather had called Isles goalie Billy Smith "a maniac" following a slashing incident.
If Sather hasn't changed, the game has, and the Oilers are at the very root of it. NHL hockey has always been a sport of follow-the-leader, and now the Campbell Conference teams in the West are following the Oilers' lead by emphasizing high-powered, wide-open offenses, while the Prince of Wales Conference teams in the East are, by and large, sticking with time-tested NHL tactics of checking and disciplined defense.
The irony is that Sather, a plodding, occasionally goonlike forward, would be the first NHL coach to be successful using so-called European tactics. His Oilers emphasize speed, passing and puck control rather than a lot of shots and territorial advantage. At the core of Sather's system is the transition game—five players switching from defense to offense, then back again, as the puck changes hands. The Oilers make those transitions faster than any other team.
Sather, who was named player/coach of the Oilers in 1977, first became intrigued with the European style of play when he saw the great Winnipeg Jets teams of the mid-to-late '70s led by Bobby Hull and a host of Swedes. "The system is no good unless you have players with the skills to pass the puck," he says, and by that Sather means fire it on a string. When the surviving WHA teams were allowed to merge with the NHL in 1979, the Oilers had only one such player, name of Gretzky, an 18-year-old kid who most NHL people—though they deny it now—figured would be eaten alive once he was in the big time. It was Sather's job to build a team around him.
It didn't take long. Despite having the last spot in the 1979 entry draft, the Oilers came up with stars-to-be Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson on their first three picks. The next year Sather selected Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog. In 1981 he added goalie Grant Fuhr. These eight players, with Gretzky, now average but 24 years of age. They have one Stanley Cup in hand and will be the core of the Oilers' dynasty through the '80s. "I think next year's team will be even better," Sather predicts, citing in particular the expected addition of a tough young forward from Finland named Esa Tikkanen.
Sather is standing in the front of the team bus. The Oilers have been drubbed 6-3 by the lowly Vancouver Canucks, their fourth loss in the last seven games, which is a terrible stretch for a team that now stands 46-17-10 on the year. Despite the fact that the Oilers clinched a playoff berth practically on opening night, and the loss is essentially meaningless, the mood is somber and sulky. "Anybody doesn't want to go for some Chinese food?" Sather shouts. "I know a place and I'm buying." No one answers, and Sather waits for a couple of "all rights." "O.K., no moping around in there, eh?"
At the restaurant Sather orders all the food plus as much beer and wine as the players want. After a while they begin to loosen up. The next day, back in Edmonton, Sather chews them out for 20 minutes, then skates them hard for 40 more. Everyone agrees it's a dynamite practice.
As a journeyman player Sather got to see some fine coaches in action, among them Harry Sinden, Francis, Scotty Bowman. "One of the things I learned from Scotty was not to be predictable," he says. "Otherwise the players think they've figured you out and stop reacting to you."
This season Sather has done far less on-ice coaching than he has in years past, handling practices on game days but, with rare exceptions, allowing his assistants, John Muckler and Ted Green, to run the show the rest of the time. The first week in March, in fact, Sather took off to Hawaii for a week's vacation.
"He knows how to relax," says Muckler, who has been widely rumored to be taking over behind the Oiler bench next season, despite the team's 4-5-1 record under his direction this season. "He's the same person during the Stanley Cup finals that he is during the exhibition season," Muckler continues. "Like most people, I doubted his philosophy before I came here. Now I'm firmly convinced it's the best way to get the most out of your players. An athlete cannot function well if he's not relaxed."
The Oilers are the loosest team in the league, and it's that, more than anything, that makes their critics drool at the thought of their losing in the playoffs. Hockey is an uptight game. Suddenly, here come the Oilers with a Ping-Pong table in their dressing room, carrots hanging from the ceiling and rock music blaring from the stereo in the corner half an hour before game time.
But there's another side to the Oilers'—and Sather's—image. Cocksure. Unafraid. When the Oilers fell behind the Islanders three games to none during the 1983 finals, Muckler came into the locker room to find that Kevin Lowe had scrawled on the blackboard: ISLES 3 OILERS 0. WE'VE GOT THEM WHERE WE WANT THEM. NOW LET'S START PLAYING.
It's the sort of attitude Sather encourages. "He operates using positive rather than negative motivation," says Dr. Art Quinney of the University of Alberta, who oversees the Oilers' physical conditioning. "The carrot approach."
The Oilers have known all kinds of carrots, including trips to Palm Springs and Hawaii. "Sather's a master psychologist," says Quinney. "He has an intuitive grasp for what turns people's cranks."
On the Oilers' Stanley Cup rings, carved into the thick gold band, is a carrot with a single bite in it. That was the players' idea. There is room for more.
It is late, after midnight, and Sather pulls his Jaguar to a halt. He has a taste for the finer things in life, no question about that. He also owns two Jeeps, a snowmobile and a Tennessee Walker. Over his garage door is a bumper sticker that reads HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS. So far, among hockey general managers anyway, he's ahead.
Sather proposes a plan he has been thinking about. What if, he wonders, Muckler coached the club for a year, then Green for a year, then Sather for a year. Co-coaches. A surprisingly warm family man, Sather is concerned that his sons are growing up without him, and he's the one who's missing out.
"Let's face it, Glen. You're not prepared to give up coaching yet," Ann says.
"Well, maybe I'll coach just a little bit."
"You see," she says with a grin, "now it's a little bit."
"Well, why can't I be an assistant coach?"
"I see. President/general manager/ assistant coach."
"Why can't I?" he repeats, a note of stubbornness creeping into his tone.
"You can be, Glen," Ann says. "You can be anything that you want."