The good citizens of Edmonton should be pleased to know that Peter Pocklington forgives them. In the 21 months since he sold the great Wayne Gretzky, Pocklington, the owner of the Oilers, has been vilified for having disposed of a civic treasure. But Pocklington has proved to have a hide as tough as a rhino's and all the conscience of a ledger book.
As he stood in Boston Garden's visiting locker room last Friday night, after Edmonton had taken a two-games-to-none lead over the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals, Pocklington granted Oiler fans absolution for their initial refusal to acknowledge the wisdom of his master plan. Never mind that some silly people in Edmonton had fallen in love with Gretzky. "I don't ever buy friendship," Pocklington said. "I do what's right businesswise. If they like it, fine. If they don't, I understand. The people on the street are starting to say hello to me again."
A half hour earlier, the Oilers, winners of four Stanley Cups in the last six years, had served up Pocklington's vision of the future with an astonishingly easy 7-2 win over the Bruins in Game 2. Now Pocklington served himself with his comments. "I know that this is almost sacrilegious to say," he said, "but if you look at the depth we are going to have in the next three years, we're going to have an awful lot of talent. And the talent will be broad-based rather than on the shoulders of four or five people."
Less than two years after having sent Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for $15 million, two players and three No. 1 draft choices, Edmonton, though it dropped Game 3 to Boston at Northlands Coliseum by a score of 2-1, was playing as well as ever—and working more cheaply, too. Actually, the Oilers, as good as they are, had to play almost three games to win the first two. They required 115 minutes and 13 seconds of playing time, and five hours and 32 minutes of Eastern Daylight Time, to subdue the Bruins in a first game that was for all time. At 1:23 a.m. on the morning of May 16, Edmonton wing Petr Klima, who had played only six shifts during the game, beat Bruin goalie Andy Moog in the third sudden-death overtime period to give the Oilers a 3-2 win. Which team scored almost didn't matter. The effort produced by both clubs, while roasting in the 90° oven of Boston Garden, was so extraordinary that the competition produced far greater glory than the result.
The game was the longest in the 72-year history of the Stanley Cup finals. From the middle of the second period, it was played in a thin mist that hung a foot and more above the ice, a result of the interaction between the frozen playing surface and the hot air. Bruin center Craig Janney became dehydrated and had to be taken to a hospital after the game. The Garden's electrical system became so overheated that a circuit tripped during the third OT, knocking out television lights and forcing a 25-minute cooling-and-resetting delay. Even the players seemed to step out of their drained bodies and take note of the extraordinary circumstances. "We were sitting in here before the third overtime and somebody said, 'Can you imagine being a kid watching this on TV?' " said Bruin center Dave Poulin after the game. "There's no way your dad could make you go to bed."
Three nights later Boston was equally determined but no more fortunate. Though still carrying much of the play, the Bruins broke down far too often on defense and in goal. As a result, they went to Edmonton hoping to become only the fourth team ever to surmount a 2-0 deficit in the Cup finals.
Boston took one step toward that objective on Sunday night. It got the first goal, a bolt of lightning 10 seconds into the game by little-used rookie John Byce. When Greg Johnston made it 2-0 shortly before the end of the first period, the Oilers had to play catch-up and strain for breaks. "We got all of them the other night, and tonight they got all of them," said Edmonton left wing Esa Tikkanen after the Bruins had hung on for a 2-1 victory in the final period.
The Oilers still held the home-ice advantage, however, and Pocklington wasn't waiting for the required two more wins to declare vindication. He had done that two series ago, when the Oilers had avenged last season's first-round loss to the Gretzky-led Kings in four straight games. "This proves that the Oilers were never a one-man team," he said.
Because it had long been acknowledged that Gretzky was merely the brightest among what may have been the greatest collection of stars in NHL history, the only point of Pocklington's statement was to test his players' tolerance for nausea. He has never admitted that losses in his myriad financial holdings may have forced him to sell Gretzky, but his recent default on an Alberta government loan for expansion of his meat-packing operation is evidence that he has financial difficulties, though he denies it. One part of Pocklington's empire that's definitely not in trouble is his hockey club—only because Oiler president and general manager Glen Sather knew how to rebuild it.
"If I would tell you that I expected us to get back to the finals this soon," says Sather, "you'd say I'm a jerk with that smirk on my face again. But if I say no, then I'm a hypocrite. One thing I found out long ago is that if you don't believe in something, you're never going to convince your team that you're going to get there."
Sather, who coached the Oilers from 1979-80 through '88-89, and who as a player lasted 10 years with six NHL teams mostly because he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, indeed has one of the more superior smirks in the hockey business. He also has one of the best brains. "Nobody felt worse about the Gretzky sale than I did," he says. And few other general managers could have reversed such a loss to a top team still in its prime.
Sather built the Gretzky Oilers around speed, and he was determined to reconstruct them in the same way. He also needed bodies to flesh out Edmonton's deteriorating third and fourth lines. Center Adam Graves and right wing Joe Murphy, both of whom came in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings last November for center Jimmy Carson, have teamed with Martin Gelinas, who arrived in the Gretzky deal, to give the Oilers a young line of grit and scoring potential.
Gelinas, whom the Kings drafted seventh overall in 1988, is a speedy left wing who should develop into a 40-goal-a-season man. Murphy, miscast as a big scorer when he was chosen first overall by the Red Wings in '86, has good speed and a stronger work ethic than he showed in Detroit. Graves is strong and heady and has a developing touch around the net. In the first three games of the finals, when Mark Messier, the Oilers' MVP candidate, was nowhere near his dominating self and rumors swirled that he was hiding a rib injury, Graves emerged as Edmonton's best center.
Sather made at least one other shrewd deal to set up this latest run at the Cup. For Moog, a former Oiler whose unhappiness at playing behind the incomparable Grant Fuhr forced his trade to Boston in 1988, Sather acquired goalie Bill Ranford, who at 23 is seven years younger than Moog. Fuhr has been sidelined with recurring shoulder injuries for much of the season, but Edmonton, remarkably, has survived without him.
Ranford, who slumped down the stretch after having sprained an ankle in February, gave up seven goals in the Oilers' opening-game loss to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs. He admits that the pressure of having to replace a future Hall of Famer got to him. However, he quickly regained his confidence by making several excellent saves with Game 2 of the Edmonton-Winnipeg series on the line, and through Sunday he had been every bit as good as—dare we say it?—Fuhr at his best.
Moog, on the other hand, is a fine veteran goalie, as he proved again in Game 3 with 28 saves, 13 of them in the third period, and he was largely responsible for the Bruins' winning their first three rounds in the playoffs. But in the first two games of the finals, Ranford was by far the better.
After the Gretzky trade, the Edmonton veterans needed a year to get over their sense of betrayal. They also, at least in coach John Muckler's view, may have needed the shock treatment of seeing Gretzky take delight in defeating them last spring. Time may have been the best healer of all. Last season Messier, who was the second-best center in the league during much of the Gretzky era, took on too much of the burden of replacing him. This season Messier has simply taken on, and conquered, the world. At every crisis point during the playoffs, he has shined.
When the Oilers, down three games to one against Winnipeg, fell behind 3-1 in Game 5 of the opening round, Messier's quiet strength, both on the bench and on the ice, kept his teammates from panicking. They rallied, Messier scored the winning goal, and the Jets never recovered. When the Chicago Blackhawks, who were leading Edmonton two games to one in the semifinals, had an opportunity to take command of that series, Messier silenced roaring Chicago Stadium with a two-goal, two-assist performance. The Hawks did not win another game.
The Oilers, who won the Cup without All-Star Paul Coffey after he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988, have already demonstrated that you can prevail without a game-controlling defenseman. This Edmonton defense is as smart as 31-year-old Kevin Lowe and as strong as 6'4", 215-pound Steve Smith. Every season, veterans Randy Gregg and Charlie Huddy offer reason to believe that their best days are behind them. Since the playoffs began, however, their men have always been in front of them, and the puck has been safely out of the Oiler zone. Edmonton's transition game still might be the best in the league. The defensemen keep things basic, making the safe, simple chip of the puck from their end to a speedy forward breaking through center. When the Oilers force turnovers between the blue lines, a defenseman-to-defenseman pass buys time for the forwards to turn and take a pass with a full head of steam. The forwards fully understand their, defensive responsibilities, or like Klima, they sit. If they are smart, they watch Jari Kurri, who offensively and defensively is still the best right wing in the game.
Kurri, who was expected to suffer the most from Gretzky's departure, has instead grown because of it. During the Gretzky years, he was cast primarily as the Great One's triggerman and rarely had to carry the puck or create much offense. His point total actually increased during an I'll-show-them 1988-89 season, but he has not signed for '90-91 and played the second half of this season as though he were losing interest in the NHL.
As it turns out, Kurri, who has been the Oilers' leading goal scorer each of the four times they have won the Stanley Cup, may only have needed another spring challenge. He celebrated his 30th birthday last Friday by getting three goals (and two assists) in Game 2 against Boston to surpass Gretzky as the league's alltime leading playoff goal scorer, with 92.
He had help from Moog, who less than two minutes after the Bruins had fought back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the score, allowed a Kurri drive from the edge of the right face-off circle to carom off his pad and stick and squirt between his legs. Kurri also enjoyed the benefit of Boston coach Mike Milbury's decision to lift Moog, who had allowed three goals in four shots, in favor of Reggie Lemelin at 4:21 of the second period. An 11-year NHL veteran, Lemelin had not played since allowing five goals in two periods of Game 4 of the Bruins' opening-round series against the Hartford Whalers. Kurri's eyes lit up like a pinball machine at the sight of Lemelin.
The Bruins jumped all over the Oilers early in the second game. Nonetheless, they couldn't get ahead. Ranford, brilliant on consecutive stops against Brian Propp, Janney and Cam Neely, was an intimidating presence; he forced Boston shooters to take a split-second longer to look for the corner of the goal before they fired. The harder they pressed to get into the attack, the easier it was for patient Edmonton, playing with the lead, to pick them apart.
Ranford was getting a lot of help from Tikkanen, a good scorer and strong cornerman who turns into superpest when a top-notch opposition playmaker requires his attention. He had Gretzky for breakfast and Chicago's Denis Savard for lunch in the two previous rounds. Now he had Janney alive for dinner, and through the first three games of the finals the Bruin playmaker failed to score a point.
Though this series, which was rated a virtual toss-up when it began, had swung dramatically in Edmonton's favor, Pocklington was still nickel-and-diming the players who had put the Oilers in front. After Game 2, when he was asked about the status of Kurd's contract negotiations, he said, "It's up to Jari, not up to me. We know what we can afford to pay him. Somebody said to me it's too much of a business to be a sport, but one thing we never do in business is lose our head and change the chemistry of our team by overpaying one person."
By week's end, the Oilers were two games away from a fifth Stanley Cup, after playing with a cast far different from Edmonton's first championship team of seven springs ago. That should tell you that there is only one person Pocklington can't afford not to overpay: Sather. Amid reports of Pocklington's declining fortune, his general manager has proved to be worth one.