Ever since Bobby Orr came into the National Hockey League in 1966 and singlehandedly changed the concept of how to play defense, people have been waiting for his successor. The next Orr! Every young defenseman who showed flashes of greatness, from Dale Tallon to Denis Potvin to Ray Bourque, has had the name Orr slung around his neck like an albatross. It has happened so often that the comparison has taken on sarcastic overtones—as in "the next Babe Ruth"—and suggests a young hotshot who will never live up to expectations. "The next Bobby Orr," one scout smirks to another as some phenom messes up. Then their two scarred faces frown and they slowly nod, remembering. Because beneath it all they miss Orr. They miss his reckless, end-to-end rushes—the excitement he generated when he touched the puck. But in their hearts they would like to, really and truly, find the guy. The next Bobby Orr.
"Well," says Glen Sather, a former Boston Bruin teammate of Orr's and now the coach of the Edmonton Oilers, "he's here."
Here? Or heresy? Not according to the stats: The Oilers' Paul Coffey is knocking at the once secure doors of Orr's records. By age 24, Orr had played six NHL seasons and had scored 152 goals; the 24-year-old Coffey has 144 goals in five seasons. But forget the numbers. No one is saying Coffey is better than Orr, nor as revolutionary, nor that his skills are quite so astonishingly complete. But he is the first defenseman to come along who can play Orr's game—who can suck the air from a cram-packed arena, then bring it out as a gasp. "Orr controlled the pace of the game more than Coffey," says former Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor. "He seemed to burst, then slow down again; burst, then slow down. But for pure speed I've never seen anyone like Coffey. When he winds up behind his own net and breaks down the middle in full flight, it takes your breath away."
Whoooshh! And effortless! "When he wants to he can go around anyone in the league," says Wayne Gretzky, who refuses to skate beside Coffey in Edmonton practices for fear it would shake his faith in his own speed. "And he doesn't even have to stride around them. He gets going so fast, he just glides by."
October 13, 1985
"He's probably the most dominating skater in the game," says Sather. "When Paul gets the puck, the whole building starts to rumble."
At no time was the rumbling louder than during last season's playoffs, when Coffey led the Oilers teams to their second straight Stanley Cup. He scored a record 37 points in 18 playoff games—12 more than Potvin's previous mark for a defenseman—and outshone even the luminescent Gretzky. Coffey's 12 playoff goals broke a record that had been held by Orr and Brad Park and those goals were magnificent in their diversity: blasts from the point, tap-ins from the crease, breakaways off feeds from Gretzky. "For the last two months of the season Coffey was really the guy who ran our team," says Sather, who believes that the playoff MVP trophy, voted to Gretzky, should have been split between the Great One and Coffey. Gretzky agrees.
Adds Ted Green, another Bruin teammate of Orr's and a former Oiler assistant coach, "In last year's playoffs we leaned on Coffey the way the Bruins used to lean on Orr. No one could have risen to the occasion better. Not even 'himself.' "
Himself. That's Orr, of course. And no one is more embarrassed by being likened to him than Coffey. A late bloomer, Coffey was spared such comparisons until the last two seasons, when his scoring totals—126 points in 1983-84 and 121 points in '84-85—were the third- and fifth-highest for a defenseman in NHL history, the first, second and fourth highest totals belonging to Orr. Coffey is the only defenseman besides Orr to score 40 goals in a season, and many believe he'll be the first to crack 50. "He'll do it," says North Star general manager Lou Nanne. "He gets more goals than most defense-men get shots on goal."
"I still get goose bumps when people mention me in the same breath as Bobby Orr," says Coffey, who last season was named the league's top defenseman for the first time. "I don't have those moves Orr had in tight, that quick cutting ability that let him lose two or three guys at once. His side-to-side skating was phenomenal. My style is more pure speed."
The secret to Coffey's speed is his stride. It's enormous. He seldom looks like he's skating hard because he eats up so much ice with one stride that his pursuers need two to keep pace. "Push and glide, that's all it is," says Coffey, who has an unusual "hollow" sharpened into the blades of his skates to reduce the friction. "My father used to tell me when I was a kid that if my groin muscles weren't sore after skating, then I wasn't working hard."
Coffey gets goose bumps over Bruce Springsteen, too, and during the off-season he tore himself away from his ski boat and the golf courses in Muskoka, Ont. long enough to catch the Boss's concerts in Toronto. His estimated $300,000-a-year salary pales next to Gretzky's reported $825,000 a year, and he has yet to land any major endorsement deals, but it's only a matter of time before he gets the full NHL star treatment. It surely helped when the 6-foot bachelor shaved off his mountain-man beard last season and revealed his chiseled good looks.
Coffey came into the NHL without the burden of being touted as "the next" anything. Far from it. Rod Seiling, one of Coffey's junior coaches, once told him he would never make it in the bigs if he didn't improve his skating. Still, Coffey was the sixth player—and fourth defenseman—selected in the 1980 draft, having scored 102 points in 75 games in his final year of junior hockey. The Oilers at the time were one of the worst teams in the NHL, without much to show for themselves but a kid named Gretzky. Coffey stepped right in and played.
Badly. Nearly 20 years old, homesick, and playing for a young and struggling team, Coffey floundered his first year. "People kept saying I was a great skater, great on offense, but that I couldn't play defense," Coffey recalls. "You read that enough times and I don't care how mentally tough you are, it affects you. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to show them I can play defense,' and I got away from what got me where I was."
"He tried to live up to what other people expected of him," says Green. "Once he got past taking to heart everything he read in the papers he became the player he's been the past two years."
Unlike some prodigies—Gretzky comes to mind—Coffey acted like the 19-year-old he was. Oilers broadcaster Rod Phillips's Ford Bronco was banged up after one snowstorm when Coffey smacked into it while doing doughnuts in the team parking lot. Another time Coffey showed up at an Oiler team function at five minutes to seven—an hour and 55 minutes late. Asked for an explanation, he replied that he thought he was being punctual. The time on the blackboard had read 5 TO 7. Often tardy for practice, Coffey was called into Sather's office once and asked, "What's the last thing you do before you leave that locker room?" The correct answer would have been, "I check the blackboard for the time of tomorrow's workout." Coffey's reply? "Say goodby to the guys."
"He had a lot of self-doubts," says Sather. "And he was stubborn, I guess. But he was always determined to be a great player. He just wasn't always as involved in the play as he should have been."
Sather didn't care what they were saying in the papers about Coffey's defensive lapses. Are you kidding? You could always teach a player with Coffey's skills to play defense—the basic requirements being positional play and concentration. "I always told him to do what he does best," says Sather, "and that was to rush the puck."
"It's a blessing that Edmonton was the team I broke in with," says Coffey now. "The worst thing for my game is to go up ice on pins and needles, worrying about getting back. When I see an opening, I'm supposed to go for it. Now every team is looking for a defenseman who can follow up a play like a fourth forward."
The problem then, as now, is with the term "defenseman." It's too closely associated with the word "defense." Approximately half the time a defenseman is on the ice, his team is on the attack—or should be—but hockey pundits have always treated defensemen who attack, Orr included, as some undefinable species of daredevil. If hockey would borrow from the lexicon of basketball and rename its defensemen "guards," maybe people wouldn't get so hung up about it. Offensive defensemen, defensive defensemen—what nonsense!
The NHL, you see, isn't used to defensemen behaving like Magic Johnson on a drive to the hoop. Says Gretzky, "The biggest weak spot in the NHL is that back-checkers forget to pick up the late man." So Gretzky and Coffey devised a play with which they have terrorized the league the last two years. As the Oilers are breaking in three-on-three, Gretzky buttonhooks when he crosses the blue line, drawing a back-checker with him. His two wingers burst for the net, each zeroing in on a defenseman, setting picks. Then suddenly—whooosh!—here comes Coffey out of nowhere, those huge strides churning toward the slot. Gretzky feathers one onto his stick. Snap! Top shelf.
They make it look so easy. Too easy. So that for a long time the temptation was to pooh-pooh Coffey's scoring totals and say: Anybody could chalk up those kinds of stats if they played with Gretzky. In the Oilers' Cup-winning 1983-84 season, Coffey scored 40 goals and added 86 assists, which was second only to Gretzky in the scoring race. But the "experts" weren't buying. Rod Langway of the Washington Capitals was voted the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. The knock on Coffey was still that he didn't play defense properly—didn't block shots, didn't tie guys up in front, was too often out of position—even though he was on the ice for 52 more even-strength goals than were scored against him. (Langway was plus 14.) "The number one responsibilty for a defenseman in his own zone is to get the puck out," says Green. "Whether you smother it, flip it out, pass it out or carry it out, the idea is to get it out. Coffey does that as well as anyone in the league."
Not always, of course. One of the most persistent raps against Coffey is that every now and then he will give the puck away in his own zone for no discernible reason. "It happens when you get a guy like Potvin or Bourque or me, who handles the puck a lot," says Coffey. "Sometimes you're trying to make a perfect pass that isn't really there. Sometimes it's the result of miscommunication between me and a forward. Then, of course, a lot of times it's a bonehead play."
The game that earned Coffey recognition for his defensive skills was the Canada-Soviet Union match during the 1984 Canada Cup. With the score tied 2-2 in overtime, the Soviets broke in on Coffey two-on-one. "Just before he passed, the guy with the puck tilted his whole body slightly, so I was able to anticipate," Coffey recalls. Diving forward, he intercepted the pass, then got back to his feet to start the counterstrike that ended with Mike Bossy tipping in Coffey's wrist shot for the winning goal. Says Coffey, "That play right there made a lot of people realize I can play half-decent defense."
Which is about the way Coffey played until Christmas last year—half-decent. Obsessed with proving to his critics that he could play the role of the traditional stay-at-home defenseman, Coffey had only nine goals in Edmonton's first 33 games. "Gretzky told me one day to stop playing like a tabletop defenseman," says Coffey, referring to the game kids play at home in which the defensemen slide up and down a narrow track about three inches long. "My job is to get the puck and lug it."
Coffey got the message, and during the last 65 games of the season, including playoffs, Coffey scored 40 goals—a rate that projects to 49 goals over an 80-game season, three more than Orr's record for defensemen. In so doing, Coffey emerged out of Gretzky's shadow. Instead of being seen merely as a supporting member of the Oilers' cast, he is recognized as that great defenseman you will find as a cornerstone of all great teams. Whether Coffey is indeed the next Orr is less important than the fact that he is carrying on Orr's work, making those dazzling, end-to-end dashes that turn into memories.
"My philosophy is the same as Wayne's," Coffey says. "When we've got the puck, they can't score."
The last Orr might have said that.