It only seems that the smug look on Glen Sather's face has been there without interruption since his Edmonton Oilers began winning Stanley Cups in 1984. But it did vanish at least once. That was on April 15, 1989, eight months after Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings, when Sather, the Oilers' general manager-coach, stood in line at center ice in the L.A. Forum to congratulate Gretzky after the Kings eliminated the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs.
"The longest line I ever stood in," says Sather. As he accepted Gretzky's hand and wordlessly turned away, the arrogant Sather, the man Sather's friends never see but the public can't see past, had been given his comeuppance. While Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington—whose decision it was to deal Gretzky for cash, younger players and draft choices—was a target of greater animosity than Sather, few people felt sorry for the Oiler G.M. Gretzky, for one, appeared to have little affection for his former boss.
To anyone who was tired of the Oilers' dominance of the NHL—they had won four Stanley Cups in five seasons—or who was outraged that Gretzky could be treated like a depreciating asset, justice had served a cease and desist order on arrogance. Pocklington, who believed the Oilers could win without Gretzky, had gotten it in the end—deliciously, from Gretzky himself. And Sather, who up until that point had made all the right moves in building the Oiler dynasty, had finally been burned.
To those who professed to know the difference between right and wrong, the moral was clear: It was an abuse of power to trade the greatest hockey player who ever lived. To those who understood why professional sports transactions are made, however, there was no right or wrong. There was only smart or not smart. Which explains why, 13 months after that defeat in Los Angeles, Sather, every hair on his blond head soaked with champagne, was in a locker room at Boston Garden being hugged by 34-year-old Oiler defenseman Randy Gregg. Gregg shook Sather as if trying to dislodge his secret. "How do you find these young guys?" he asked.
November 12, 1990
Without much difficulty, apparently. The Oilers had won their fifth Cup in the last seven years with only seven players remaining from the team that won Edmonton's first. Now only five remain. Still, the Oilers began the season as a favorite to win another Cup, but they now face an uphill fight, having gotten off to an ugly 2-8-2 start. Mark Messier, last season's MVP, is nursing a sprained left knee and is out of the lineup. But Sather knows that it's too early to panic, especially with a team as talented as his Oilers.
It would be oversimplifying to suggest that Sather, now 47, learned how to build and rebuild a team solely from the master, Sam Pollock, whose Montreal Canadiens won nine Stanley Cups while he was general manager from 1964 to '78. Pollock was probably plotting how to win the ninth one at the same time he was winning the first. Sather played for Pollock for a year, but he also played for just about everybody during his seven-team, 11-season career, which ended in 1977. He was on enough good teams to understand what works and on enough bad ones to understand what doesn't, and he came to a simple conclusion: Talent wins. If you have to trade some, make sure you get some back.
Sure, the Oilers, who came into the league in 1979 after the NHL's merger with the World Hockey Association, had the best head start a new team could hope for: Gretzky was already on their roster. But Sather also drafted well during Edmonton's early NHL years, getting Messier, a center, in the second round and dynamic right wing Glenn Anderson in the third in '79 and Jari Kurri, the NHL's No. 1 playoff goal scorer, in the third in 1980. Before Sather astutely pounced, five teams passed on Paul Coffey—who would turn out to be the most prolific scoring defenseman in league history—in the 1980 draft, and a year later seven skipped over Grant Fuhr, a goalie who would backstop Edmonton to four Cups. That nucleus blended into one of history's powerhouses before success began to split its seams. "I remember [player agent] Don Baizley told me a long time ago that I would have to be a wizard to keep this team together because of money," says Sather. "I knew there was no way they would all stick around."
They haven't, and yet the Oilers have continued to win. In 1988 they won without Coffey, who had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins after holding out for two months for a renegotiated contract. Sather dealt Coffey in a package that brought Craig Simpson, a forward who scored 13 goals in 19 games in that season's playoffs. Last spring the Oilers won without Gretzky and Fuhr, who missed the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder and has now been suspended for a year by the NHL after admitting to using cocaine. In '88, Sather traded Andy Moog, Fuhr's backup, to Boston for goalie Bill Ranford, then 21. In last year's finals against the Bruins, Ranford outplayed Moog.
When Jimmy Carson—who went to Edmonton with Martin Gelinas, three No. 1 draft picks and $15 million for Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski—walked out on the Oilers in October '89 after only one season, Sather traded him to the Detroit Red Wings for four players. Three of them—Adam Graves, 22, Joe Murphy, 23, and Petr Klima, 25—played significant roles in the winning of championship No. 5. Thus has Sather confirmed that he has had a lot more to do with the Oilers' success than simply tapping Gretzky on the shoulder.
There may not have been a Gretzky to tap on the shoulder had it not been for Sather. When Nelson Skalbania, owner of the struggling Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association, stood ready to sell the skinny 17-year-old Gretzky to his friend Pocklington in 1978, the latter asked Sather, his recently appointed coach, whether he should make the deal. "Whatever you have to do," said Sather, "get him." For $850,000, which at the time was an astronomical sum, Pocklington acquired Gretzky and, indeed, an appreciation for Sather's instincts. Through their mutual worship of the art of the deal—Sather had invested wisely in real estate during his playing career—Sather's relationship with Pocklington has since grown deeper than that of a boss and a trusted lieutenant. "Glen is my best friend," says Pocklington. He's also pretty good at protecting Pocklington's assets. "I get to like the players, but when the possibility of improving the team comes up, I look at it as asset management," Pocklington says. "Glen is not a 45-day manager. He looks to the long term."
Pocklington was thinking long term when, in the summer of 1988, he negotiated a Gretzky deal—money, players and draft choices—with Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall without telling Sather all the details. Pocklington figured Sather could not effectively direct the Oilers if the players believed he had plotted the trade. "The players had to be upset with me, not Glen," says Pocklington.
Still, Pocklington insists that Sather took the thunderbolt like a true asset manager. "It's an understatement to say Glen wasn't happy," Pocklington says. "But I told him I had thought it out, worked it out and believed it was the best thing for the club. The fact that Wayne would be a free agent in four years, at which point we could get absolutely nothing for him, would have left us as another has-been hockey club, the way the Islanders became. They let their players get old without trading for new blood."
Sather says he was stunned by Pocklington's news, and he concedes that "it took me awhile to view it as an opportunity. We got a lot of players out of the deal, and they helped us win again last season, but the question of whether it was the right thing to do will never really be fully answered. From strictly a coach's point of view, no, I never would have done it. From the point of view of reality, there wasn't any choice. Peter had his reasons."
Pocklington denies that those reasons included needing cash for his businesses. At the time of the trade, Pocklington had recently acquired a food and dairy business with help from the Alberta government. Pocklington says he had negotiated an exchange of Gretzky, center Mike Krushelnyski and winger Kevin McClelland for left wing Luc Robitaille and No. 1 draft choices in 1989, '91 and '93, but Sather wanted to substitute Carson for Robitaille. Sather also asked for left wing Gelinas, who had been the Kings' first-round choice two months earlier.
"I'd gone back and forth with Bruce McNall for six weeks," says Pocklington, "but Glen talked to McNall and the G.M. [Rogie Vachon] and got more than I thought was possible."
So it was done. The Oilers, suddenly defending champions in name only, slid to third place behind the Calgary Flames and the Kings in the Smythe Division in 1988-89 and then blew a three-games-to-one lead over L.A. in that first-round playoff defeat. "Glen knew the players who had grown up with Wayne would go through an emotional turmoil," says Pocklington. "In fact, he coached one more year than he wanted to because it wouldn't be fair to turn it over to John [Muckler, Sather's longtime right-hand man, who became coach last season] right after a deal like that. It turned out to be tragic, even worse than I thought. I'd hoped the players would get over it in a few months. I believe subconsciously they wanted Wayne to win that series."
The Oilers, who finished second in their division in 1989-90, went into last year's playoffs as a dark horse to some, the smart favorite to others. This time they smoked the Kings in four straight on their way to another Cup. Gelinas, Graves and Murphy performed well throughout the playoffs, and Klima scored the triple-overtime goal in Game 1 of the Cup finals, which was pivotal to Edmonton's victory over the Boston Bruins.
When Gretzky was traded, certainly the Oilers' skill level dropped, but Messier stepped in and became the leader that Sather anticipated he would be. Both Anderson and Kurri were solid, as usual, and with the contributions of Gelinas and the trio acquired in the Gretzky-Detroit spin-off deal, Edmonton retained its trademark speed and much of its explosiveness. Sather had rebuilt the Oilers by pursuing one quality above all others: raw talent. "You can't have enough of it," he says.
He also knew when to play it safe. Midway through last season Sather had a substantial trade offer for Kurri (who in July signed a two-year contract with the Milan Devils of the Italian league) and declined to make the deal. "I knew Jari would be gone at the end of the season, and I could have traded him for something that could have helped us in the future too," says Sather. "But I couldn't do it, not when our players finally had the Gretzky trade behind them. We had to try to win last year."
While other general managers paint with a thin brush, upgrading their right wings with one deal, hoping to glue together a defense for one more season with another, Sather attacks the canvas with broad strokes. He figures he can always fill in the details later. He makes smaller moves for the same reasons that all general managers do—to fill roles and tinker with the team's chemistry. Sather constantly revamps his third and fourth lines. "He does it to reenergize his stars, too," says Mike Keenan, the Chicago Black-hawks' coach and general manager. "When the Oilers won in 1988, Gretzky was more excited about the enthusiasm Keith Acton [a nine-year forward acquired from the Minnesota North Stars in midseason] showed for winning than I think Wayne was excited for himself. He couldn't wait to pass the Cup to Acton. Glen is clever enough to see those players needed another reason to win."
He is also smart enough to understand that the most talented team usually wins. In 1982, the Oilers, who had scored what was then a record 417 goals in the regular season, were upset by Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. A year later they were swept by the New York Islanders in the finals, causing theorists to question whether an offensively oriented team, no matter how powerful, could win in the traditionally defensive playoffs. Instead, Sather saw his players as immature but inevitable champions, and viewed each setback as a learning experience. He preached defensive responsibility without frustrating creativity, and little by little the message took hold.
"Glen Sather is my role model," says Keenan. "He doesn't operate out of the fear of making a decision but out of a sense of confidence that feeds through the entire organization. That confidence has sometimes been labeled as arrogance, but I have a great deal of respect for it."
Sather's arrogance can be confrontational. "If a guy tells you 'Get lost,' you can smack him in the mouth, which is the sensible thing, or you can walk away," Sather says. "I like to do the sensible thing."
Sather, the quintessential role player, lasted twice as long in the NHL as men with twice his talent by accepting his limitations and by getting on people's nerves before they got on his. "I was smart enough to know what to do," he says, "and how to get out of it."
He took that aggressive attitude with him behind the bench. After the first period of a game in Vancouver in 1983, Sather thwacked the earphones off the head of a 70-year-old Canucks fan who was giving him a hard time as Sather was on his way to the locker room. "He's giving it to me and I can't give it back because he's listening to the broadcast on the radio," Sather says. "So I took his earphones off, that's all." Sather was found guilty of assault, but was given an absolute discharge by a provincial court judge.
After Islander G.M. Bill Torrey, speaking at an NHL luncheon during the 1984 finals, dropped a half-kidding remark about the too-early-in-the-morning practice times assigned to his team in Edmonton, Sather wasn't kidding at all when he took his turn at the podium. He criticized New York fans, New York weather and the Oilers' practice times in New York. He then predicted that the Islanders, who were then trailing 2-1 in the series, wouldn't win another game. They didn't.
"I don't care what the occasion was," says Sather. "I wasn't going to back down. Not after they had beaten us in the finals the year before. Sure, it was motivational. I was trying to show our team we were there to win."
Off the ice, Sather strives to win too. He's a man who likes nice things, such as fast cars and fine clothes. He has 15 or so custom-made suits, 50 to 60 ties and a roomful of outdoor wear in his Edmonton home. His mother worked in the family's clothing store, and his father was a carpenter in the small Alberta towns of Wainwright and Viking. Together, they made a decent living. Sather was dressed warmly as a kid, but not particularly with style.
Still, Sather says it wasn't fortune he craved in his youth, but adventure. "I wanted to be a hockey player," he says, "and I wanted out of town." At the age of 17 he landed a job as a lifeguard in Banff, which is a picture-postcard town 60 miles west of Calgary and in the Canadian Rockies. He fell in love with Banff and began buying chunks of it when he turned pro in 1964. He eventually purchased an off-season house there big enough to entertain Jay Gatsby and all his friends. In 1969, he started and ran a successful hockey school and in 1974 traded half of the school for more Banff real estate and 50% of a gas station. He has since owned a hotel and part of a tavern there (both of which he has sold) and is about to build condo units.
However you want to keep score, Sather is winning at life. You can go by his championship rings, or by his bankbook, or by his friends, who say he will give you the shirt off his back—once he becomes convinced you don't have enough money to buy it.
Still, he says, "I'm not motivated by money. I'm motivated by accomplishments. Hockey gives me the opportunity to enjoy life's experiences." When he skis, he might go via helicopter to take him to mountains most skiers can't reach. When he fishes, he might fly to the Arctic with Pocklington to go after arctic char. This is not a man who has spent his life going 55 mph. In 1979, he and Pocklington were racing Pocklington's jet boat on the Smoky River in Tennessee when it hit an eight-foot-high rapids and catapulted Sather into the water. "With that heavy helmet on, he could have drowned," says Pocklington. Sather suffered whiplash, bruised ribs and cuts on his arms and legs but climbed into the boat when Pocklington circled back. They sped off to a second-place finish. "Slats had to get back in," says Pocklington. "He has an ego. There were people watching."
His sense of adventure notwithstanding, Sather is hardly spontaneous. "I think the only impulsive thing Glen ever did was marry me," says Anne, his wife of 20 years. After Anne's van overturned during a ski trip, Sather, then her neighbor in Boston and only a casual friend, called to ask how she was and insisted on coming over. They started dating, and three months later Anne took her new husband home to meet her parents.
Knowing what she knows now, Anne believes Glen probably called some hockey scout to have her checked out. Anne turned out to be the best educated guess her husband ever made, and Sather believes there are no sure things. "If you are ambitious enough to want the best or try to be the best," he says, "then you have to take some chances."
He handled being a team president, general manager and coach concurrently for 10 years by hiring competent people and letting them attend to business. Chief scout Barry Fraser says he hung up on Sather twice in five minutes several years ago when he didn't like the trade proposal Sather was running by him. "The next day Slats was laughing," Fraser says, "saying 'Boy, did I have you going.' He was testing me to see how strong my feelings were."
Once Sather has polled enough people to get enough information, he makes a decision. This doesn't always occur quickly enough to satisfy Pocklington ("He drives me crazy the way he can procrastinate") or Muckler ("The good thing about Jimmy Carson walking out is that it forced Slats to make the deal"). And even Sather admits that trading deadlines and entry drafts have the effect of smelling salts under his nose.
He loved coaching but felt that 10 years with the same teacher was dulling the students, so he stepped away last year. He says that he missed the day-to-day contact with the players but not the control. "Maybe he was dying inside," says Muckler, "but he seemed to adjust well."
Last season Sather finally had time to scout but didn't see one junior game. He didn't want to get in Fraser's way. Instead, he kept busy with league matters and with Edmonton's marketing operations. When season-ticket holders canceled, Sather called them to ask why. More often than not, they changed their minds.
There is usually a phone at his ear, concentration in his eyes and that smirk on his face. "He works the way he fishes," says Boston's Harry Sinden, Sather's closest friend among NHL general managers. "Not with a tremendous passion, just intensely." It is the way of a man who understands that sooner or later the fish will bite.