All right, Swift, you have some good points there, but you're forgetting something very important. If the Edmonton Oilers proved one thing in their third consecutive march to the Stanley Cup finals, it's that they are truly a team and not just a one-man band, as you suggest. There's more to them than Wayne Gretzky sparkling at center ice in his statistical glitter suit (73 goals, 135 assists), while 19 guys stand behind him snapping their fingers and singing, "Doo wah, doo wah." Indeed, Wayne and the Backups is more supergroup than solo act; that was evident in recent games as four of those Backups—right wing Jari Kurri, defenseman Paul Coffey, right wing Glenn Anderson and center Mark Messier—moved to the forefront on the strength of performances so brilliant they sometimes outshone His Greatness.
"We use Gretzky now more as a diversion. He's our bait," says Oiler coach Glen Sather. Sather exaggerates. Going into the finals, Gretzky's 10 goals and 26 assists still led all playoff scorers. But Sather's point, that Gretzky is not the only Oiler who bears watching, is well taken, and it's one you shouldn't dismiss, Swift. Let's take a look at the Backups and their contributions to Edmonton's success thus far.
In the five seasons they have skated together, Kurri, a Finn, has been so overshadowed by linemate Gretzky that he jokingly complains that even in Finland his team is referred to as "Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers." But his identity is much less shadowy after a semifinal in which Kurri destroyed the Black Hawks with an NHL playoff-record 12 goals in one series, including four goals in last Thursday's 8-2 Game 6 clincher, hat tricks in Games 2 and 5 and two goals in Game 1. His performance against Chicago, plus an earlier hat trick against Winnipeg, set an NHL record for most three-goals-or-more games in a playoff season. And he did this while playing with a bruised little finger on his left hand, prompting Chicago's beleaguered goalie Murray Bannerman to say, "We need a few guys with broken thumbs."
Of course, the Hawks, or any team, could also use a few guys who are being set up by Gretzky, who assisted on nine of Kurri's 12 goals against Chicago and on all four Thursday night. "I was afraid Wayne would get tired of passing me the puck," said Kurri.
Never. Those two live by the pass. "The only thing we ever talk about is moving the puck, going to the hole and getting it back," says Gretzky. And there are few players in the game who can find the holes quicker than Kurri. Indeed, as Gretzky was held to four goals in the Chicago series by the shadowing of Black Hawk center Troy Murray, Kurri was finding time and space to play his subtle game.
Kurri's shot, one of the hardest in the game—"Sometimes he just knocks you over with it," says Edmonton backup goalie Andy Moog—produced 71 goals in the regular season, breaking Mike Bossy's NHL record for right wings by two. He became only the third NHL player and the first European to get more than 70 in one year. He also had 64 assists for a total of 135 points, second to Gretzky in the NHL.
Unlike a lot of scorers, Kurri is also a star when the other team has the puck. He and Gretzky kill penalties and, says Sather, "When it's five against our three, he's the guy I put out there." This season his plus-77 was second on the Oilers only to Gretzky's plus-99.
Kurri is a quiet, modest man on a team so brimming with exuberance and swagger that its players are often regarded as arrogant. Although in Finland Kurri is "almost as popular as [Grand Prix driver] Keke Rosberg," according to Raimo Summanen, one of four Finnish players under contract to the team, he remains a man who, says Summanen, "does not want to be the middle of attention." "And I don't want to be mouthy," says Kurri, who makes his presence felt without being so.
Despite Kurri's best-ever season and dazzling semifinal, it is really Coffey who ranks closest to Gretzky as a co-superstar. A few years ago he was the butt of jokes about his defensive shortcomings—Q: What's that smell at the Coliseum? A: Burnt Coffey—but he has tightened his defensive game while losing none of the speed and ability to rush the puck that make him the preeminent offensive defenseman, Bobby Orr reincarnate, when he wheels behind his net and starts the rush up the right wing.
There are those in Edmonton who believe that over the last two months of the season Coffey, not Gretzky, was the Oilers' best player. In the team's last 35 games, Coffey scored 20 goals and had 55 assists, ending the season with 37 and 84, good for fifth place in league scoring. His point total was only five less than his 126 for 1984, third highest (to Orr's 139 in 1970-71 and 135 in 1974-75) by a defenseman.
And Coffey hasn't let up in the playoffs. His 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) going into the finals is a record by a defenseman in one playoff year, and his six points (one goal, five assists) in a 10-5 Oiler home win in Game 5 against Chicago set a record for most points by a defenseman in a playoff game and tied him with Orr and Brad Park for most goals by a defenseman in a playoff season.
It was Coffey who started and finished the quintessential Oiler goal in Game 2. With the Oilers leading 4-2 in the third period, Coffey scooped up a loose puck in front of the Edmonton net, accelerated through center and cut down the right wing. Now, instead of shooting, he dropped a pass to Messier in the slot. Instead of shooting, Messier slid the puck to Gretzky at the left post, and Gretzky, instead of shooting, passed back to Coffey at the right post for a tap-in. As the sign on the balcony reads, OUR COFFEY IS HOT.
But when it comes to pure speed, Coffey's no hotter than Edmonton's two top burners, Anderson and Messier.
"Blue line to blue line, it's Glenn. He has an incredible jump," says Coffey of Anderson, who likes to crank it up and beat defensemen on the outside. Anderson has scored nine goals and 14 assists in the playoffs. His real value, however, is in the balance he gives the team, skating on a line with Messier and Mark Napier. Says Chicago forward Bill Gardner, "Gretzky on one line and Messier and Anderson on another line is the best one-two punch in hockey. It's like Muhammad Ali followed by Larry Holmes."
Let Gretzky float like a butterfly, it's the more physical Messier who stings like a bee. Messier is a player of intimidating bulk (207 pounds on a 6-foot frame) and explosive speed. Edmonton scout Lorne Davis says timed drills showed Messier to be the fastest of the Oilers from a standing start. And as the Oilers' No. 2 center, Messier gives his team another dimension by being as tough as Gretzky is slick. Asked if Messier is an intimidator, Gretzky laughs and says, "Mark doesn't intimidate people. He hurts people."
In Game 1 Messier hurt Chicago defenseman Keith Brown, hitting him with a clean crunching check that put Brown into the boards and out of the playoffs with a hip pointer. "He won't score in the blowouts," said Lowe after Messier failed to get a goal in the 11-2 Game 1 Oiler shootout, "but he and Gretz are the guys we look to when the game is close."
After going pointless in the first playoff game. Messier is on a 12-game scoring streak with 10 goals and 19 assists.
It is also Messier who stands opposite Gretzky in establishing this team's emotional polarity. On the one side is the self-contained Gretzky, sustained by a quiet joy in the game, and on the other the driven and passionate Messier, who cried after the Oilers won the Cup last year.
On Thursday, as Messier's shouts of "Well, aw-right" cut through the noise of the Edmonton dressing room, singer Paul Anka, who is from Canada, stood in the room beaming. He said he knew Coffey and Messier and Kurri and, "Oh, yeah, Gretzky," and "Aren't they a great skating team? A great passing team?"
Anka knows a headline act when he sees one. As the Oilers headed into the finals, it was clear that all that glittered was not Gretzky.