Time to come up with a new knock on the Edmonton Oilers, if that's possible. Team Imbalance has achieved equilibrium. Sure, Edmonton has half a dozen all-world skaters. In recent seasons, however, all the Oilers seemed to care about was offense. Even the club's defensemen—a.k.a. Gamblers Anonymous—hogged in on the action. As a result, Edmonton games were right out of Shootout City, with scores that looked like tennis tiebreakers.
But in Sunday night's 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Oilers pleased their hometown fans by playing both ends of the ice at the Northlands Coliseum. Gretzky and company outchecked Philadelphia's all-world checkers. More important, the Oiler defensemen, who never knew how to spell the word defense, stayed home like so many henpecked husbands and made life easy for goaltender Grant Fuhr.
"Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey—they're all you hear about," says Edmonton president, G.M. and coach Glen Sather. "I think Randy Gregg is one of the most interesting guys in hockey. He just does things...differently.
May 24, 1987
In the NHL, Gregg, 31, stands out as the only player with a medical degree. Among the Oilers, he stands out by failing to stand out. That is, unlike his more illustrious teammates, the 6'4", 215-pound Gregg never looks like a threat to break any scoring standards. Nonetheless, when the Oilers got off to a disappointing start last fall and were ailing at the blue line, they called on Gregg, who had been retired for all of five weeks.
"When he wasn't there, the team wasn't the same," says Sather. "I thought we could fill the hole with some young guys, but the hole was too big. Guys like Randy who come out of college are usually better disciplined. Some guys get programmed to playing one way, but Randy can adapt right away when we make technical changes—probably because he is such a student. That's his game, and I think he takes a lot of pride in it."
Gregg is a thinking man's defense-man, sifting options and calculating angles, as unobtrusive on the ice as a wallflower at a cocktail party. No movement is superfluous. No winger gets around him. "You don't notice him out there, because he's doing his job correctly," said Detroit assistant coach Don MacAdam after Gregg helped run the Red Wings out of the Campbell Conference finals. "He anticipates so well he can stop a play before it has even started."
"He is almost elegant for a man his size," says Kevin Lowe, Gregg's partner at the blue line during most of the playoffs. "He's calm and composed, and he plays very well under pressure."
Gregg, Edmonton born and bred, did not have a hockey career in mind when he enrolled in the University of Alberta's premed program at age 16. "In Canada, by the time you are 16 your hockey skills are pretty highly developed," says Gregg, whose skills weren't. "The guys who are going to play hockey are invited to the prestigious camps. I was going to university to go to university, not to play hockey."
So, while achieving honors in his courses, Gregg played two seasons in a community league. "Just for exercise," he says. At 19, the same year he was accepted by Alberta's med school, where he would complete the final four years of his medical studies, Gregg decided to play varsity. "He was like a newborn colt, so skinny and clumsy," recalls Clare Drake, Alberta's legendary coach.
But Gregg's oldest brother, Ron, who was in his early 30's and an established anesthesiologist, encouraged Randy to focus on academics. "You can forget about all of this hockey b.s.," he said.
The Gregg family had always placed a premium on hard work and achievement. Randy is the sixth and youngest child of Roy and Ellen Gregg. Roy, 72, was a railroad engineer for 15 years. An all-consuming work ethic drove him, and he expected it to rub off on his brood. Randy remembers the day Ron came home from high school very pleased with himself for getting the third-highest mark of 120 students on an exam. "Why weren't you first?" asked their father.
Roy supplemented his income by selling hoses and fittings for the oil industry from the back of a station wagon. Two of his daughters became registered nurses and a third manages an art gallery. Gary, the middle brother, took over the nascent oilfield-supply business, which today is Gregg Distributors, Ltd.
As for Randy, medicine was uppermost in his mind. "As soon as the hockey became too much, I was going to drop it," says Gregg. "Little did I know how much I would learn. Clare Drake is the reason I am playing in the NHL."
With classes from eight in the morning until five in the evening, Gregg would hustle over to the rink for 5:15 practice. "In four years, I can't remember him missing more than one practice," says Drake. By then, Gregg's coordination had caught up with his physical development, and he blossomed under Drake. He played on two national championship teams, and in 1979 he won the Sullivan Award as Canada's best collegiate player. Then he made the Olympic team.
Gregg admires the strategy and playmaking that typify high-level international hockey. "Watch the Soviets," he says. "They can change their forechecking scheme on a whim, four, five times a game. That's tactical hockey, and that's why they're so successful. They are the Ali of the sport."
At the Lake Placid Games in 1980, Team Canada lost 6-4 to the Soviet Union. Gregg was captain of that team, and he yearns for one more crack at the Soviets and an Olympic gold medal. It is no coincidence that, shortly before he came out of retirement last November, the International Olympic Committee voted to allow professional athletes to participate in the '88 Games. Gregg won't discuss his Olympic ambitions in the midst of the playoffs, but this could well be his last NHL season.
The Canadians finished a disappointing sixth at Lake Placid, despite having beaten Team USA, the eventual gold medal winner, in four of seven exhibitions preceding the Games. But the Olympics were not a complete wash. At an obligatory meal with the rest of Canada's Olympians—"the sort of thing where everyone wanted to be somewhere else," recalls Gregg—the women's ski team arrived. "That got our attention," says Gregg. Then the women's speed skating team walked in. "I noticed Kathy right away," he says. "I was intrigued."
"It's funny," says Kathy, who finished 16th in the 1,500 meters in 1980 and is now Mrs. Randy Gregg. "I remember that night, but I don't remember noticing Randy."
To which Randy responds, "Are you gonna believe that?"
Before Lake Placid, recalls Gregg, Hockey Canada had offered to subsidize team members in international competition during non-Olympic years in order to hold the squad together until 1984. But after the Games, Hockey Canada withdrew its offer. Still, Gregg was determined to represent Canada at the next Olympiad, so he remained an amateur. He became player-coach of a company team in Tokyo, trading in his Team Canada jersey for the crest of the Kokudo Bunnies. "The owner just admired rabbits," says Gregg. "To him they were noble animals, or something. Of course, it was a little difficult going into corners trying to intimidate your opponent when you had a bunny on your jersey."
Because the Japanese season lasts only six months, Gregg could complete his internship, which normally takes a year, over three summers at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital. He was a dominant player in the Japanese Ice Hockey League, but two years away from home was enough. He had also become thoroughly disillusioned with Canada's amateur program, and when the Oilers offered him a contract in March 1982, Gregg signed it. "I just couldn't wait any longer," he says. "If too much more time passed, I felt I'd never get the chance to pit my skills against some of the greatest hockey players in the world."
Thus began Gregg's belated NHL career, which also ended his intercontinental courtship of Kathy. They were married in the summer of 1984. Among the guests at a reception one week later in Edmonton was the Stanley Cup, the first of two that Gregg has helped the Oilers win. After Calgary eliminated Edmonton in the semis of last season's playoffs, Gregg decided to hang up his skates and concentrate on medicine.
The first task at hand was to apply to Alberta's orthopedic-residency program. Making that cut would be tough—the school annually chooses three or four from a pool of some 40 applicants. Then he sat back and waited. That's when the phone started ringing. Most of the time it was Sather. Gregg had sent his retirement papers to the Oilers. From there, the documents were to have gone to NHL offices. Guess who sat on them?
"I never filed them with the league," says Sather, grinning wickedly. "I had a feeling he'd change his mind." In October, Gregg withdrew his application to Alberta and went back into training.
Even with a third Stanley Cup in sight, Gregg harbors some mixed feelings about his decision. Two-week road trips tend to drag a little bit more when you leave a young family at home, which, incidentally, is the same prefab house where he was raised. "It's awfully hard for Kathy, especially with those two at home," says Gregg. Those two are Ryan, just a year old, and two-year-old Jamie. This season, Jamie learned to kiss the television and say "Good night, Daddy!" if an Oilers game was on when bedtime rolled around.
Gregg's un-retirement is also risky for professional reasons. When he reapplies to a residency program, he will be up against a pool of voracious 25-year-olds fresh out of med school. "I hope that's not going to be a problem," says Gregg. "I'm older than the other applicants, but maybe I'm a little more disciplined, more efficient and time-effective."
Says Ron, "Randy will never be a hockey coach. They have to take criticism well, and Randy doesn't take criticism well. But if he wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, he's gonna have a lot of catching up to do."
Not to worry, Ron. Rest assured that, as soon as the hockey becomes too much, Randy will drop it.