Back to the Bench Once a mastermind in Edmonton, Glen Sather has had no success in New York as G.M. of the Rangers. So now he'll try to coach them

February 10, 2003

The smartest guy in the room, the guy with the perpetual gleam
in his eye that announces to the rest of the world that he
knows something no one else knows, keeps glancing at the
organizational chart on the wall of his 14th-floor office above
Madison Square Garden. New York Rangers general manager Glen
Sather still sees things the rest of the world misses. The neat
rows of defensive pairs and lines and minor leaguers and
draftees might look like a mismatched collection of aging
big-name talent and middling young prospects, but Sather,
folded into the corner of a leather couch on this mid-January
afternoon, sees the embryo of a team he thinks eventually will
play for a Stanley Cup. "This year," Sather says, "we've come
leaps and bounds."

As he speaks on this frigid afternoon, the Rangers, with a
league-high $70 million payroll, are four games below .500 and
are being coached by the opaque and overmatched Bryan Trottier,
of whom Sather says, "I think he's doing a good job." Eight days
later, after three straight losses had left the Rangers in 11th
place in the Eastern Conference, Sather decided that Trottier
wasn't doing such a good job after all. Sather fired him and
stuck his own neck on the chopping block by stepping behind an
NHL bench for the first time since 1994 to coach a team that's in
danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year on
his watch (and a franchise record sixth straight, dating back to
1997--98).

Sather arrived in New York in June 2000 from a small-market
redoubt in Edmonton with a gilt-edged reputation for spotting and
blending talent. The smartest guy going to the richest team.
Perfect marriage. Under Sather, who is the NHL's longest-tenured
G.M., at 23-plus years, the Rangers were supposed to be the
phoenix rising, but after a little more than 2 1/2 years they are
more or less the Phoenix Coyotes, a mid-level team scrambling to
reach .500--except that Phoenix has more promising young players
and a payroll that is $25 million less than New York's.

Sather, 59 was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997 as a
builder--the architect and coach of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.
Those teams, which won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and '90,
were the most aesthetically pleasing team in NHL history. But the
sepia-tinted memories of those fabulous Oilers are fading along
with Sather's fortunes. Over the past 10 seasons his teams have
had only one winning record (box, opposite), a performance that
ranks among the poorest by any general manager ever. "Glen," one
NHL executive says, "is running on fumes."

In his stuttering effort to build a winner in New York, Sather
has 1) traded for marquee (but injury-prone) veteran forwards
Eric Lindros, now 29, and Pavel Bure, 31, who were practically
islands on their former teams; 2) dealt for point-producing but
defensively suspect blueliner Tom Poti last season even though
the Rangers ranked 30th and 29th in the NHL in goals allowed in
2000--01 and '01--02, respectively; 3) spent not wisely but too
well on free agents, signing busts such as defensemen Darius
Kasparaitis and the now departed Igor Ulanov; 4) hired coach Ron
Low in '00--01 and fired him two years later--the same Ron Low he
had hired and fired as bench boss in Edmonton; and 5) brought in
Trottier last spring rather than Ken Hitchcock, who led the
Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999 and whose strengths are
instilling discipline and defining his players' roles, two things
the Rangers desperately need.

New York has been decimated by injuries and critical absences
during the past two seasons--wing Theo Fleury was lost to
substance-abuse rehabilitation last year, and this season Bure,
goalie Mike Richter, 36, and defenseman Brian Leetch, 34, have
all missed considerable time because of various ailments--but no
team is immune to such problems, especially one whose average age
(29.1) makes it the fifth oldest in the NHL. Unlike in Sather's
last decade in Edmonton, when the small-market Oilers were
fighting simply to survive, he has few financial worries in New
York. In fact Sather can have almost anything he wants, which
translated last summer into over-the-top contracts for free
agents Kasparaitis (six years, $25.5 million) and Bobby Holik
(five years, $45 million). "Glen's a hunter-gatherer, a guy who's
at his best using his wiles like he did in Edmonton," says
another NHL executive. "Now he doesn't have to hunt or gather.
He's sitting at the biggest smorgasbord in hockey and he didn't
even have to kill the meat."

The benefits of last summer's moves seemed twofold--the Rangers
were adding players known for their toughness and were keeping
them from signing with conference rivals--but Kasparaitis has
turned out to be a one-dimensional hitter who makes dubious
decisions with the puck, and Holik, a unique center whose forte
is shutting down opposing centers, reported to training camp with
an alarming 14% body fat and wound up missing 18 games early in
the season with an injured hip flexor. "Deep down I think he's
disillusioned at what he's spent," says Wayne Gretzky, the
Coyotes' managing partner, who was Sather's crown jewel on the
Oilers. "I think it's killing him."

Sather's lament is that it's easier to build a team than to fix
one. His approach to free agents has been similar to ones used by
the Stars and the Detroit Red Wings, big-budget competitors, but
he has had much larger holes to patch. "The successful teams have
all filled in with free agents," Sather says. "Look at Detroit,
filling from the outside around a strong nucleus. We've had to
create that nucleus with free agents and fill in with young
players [acquired in] deals and on waivers. At some point, when
you have the right nucleus, the formula changes. Money is only
part of it, one of the resources you need along with youth and
depth. You can't spend money to get youth and draft choices."

He scored in the first two rounds of the 2001 draft when he
selected goalie Dan Blackburn, who was with New York last season
as an 18-year-old, and defenseman Fedor Tjutin, a highly regarded
prospect who was superb for the gold-medal-winning Russian team
in the recent world junior championships. But since the mid-1980s
Sather's overall record with first-rounders has been shockingly
poor. Edmonton turned up two good ones, forwards Jason Arnott
(seventh overall pick in 1993) and Ryan Smyth (sixth in '94), but
those choices were scattered among flops such as forwards Joe
Hulbig (13th in '92), Jason Bonsignore (fourth in '94) and Michel
Riesen (the so-called Swiss Miss, 14th in '97). In '95 the Oilers
chose center Steve Kelly with the sixth pick, passing over wing
Shane Doan, an Albertan playing in the Western Hockey League who
was taken seventh, and wing Jarome Iginla, an Edmontonian who
went at No. 11. Kelly became a journeyman, while Doan is a
blossoming star with Phoenix and Iginla was the NHL's MVP
runner-up last season with the Calgary Flames.

Sather's trading record is also spotty, marred by deals such as
the 1997 one in which he sent future All-Star wing Miroslav Satan
to the Buffalo Sabres for two players who appeared in a combined
16 NHL games following the trade. His high-profile deals in New
York for Bure, Lindros and Poti have yet to impress. When Sather
took the New York job, Gretzky, who retired from the Rangers in
1999, told him that the organization was in such disarray that it
would take three or four years to turn it around. "Five," replied
Sather.

The Rangers are a work in progress, and Sather says that even
before he took over the coaching reins, he was working harder
than ever. He is renowned for dropping in during the season at
the homes he owns in Banff in the Canadian Rockies and Palm
Springs, Calif., the latter dubbed the Western White House when
he was with the Oilers. This season, however, he says he has
taken time off only to attend his sister's funeral in Calgary in
December and to go to Banff for two days over Christmas. Sather
finds it "hilarious" in the age of satellite TV, cellphones and
e-mail that his whereabouts would be an issue, as some of his
detractors have said. "[Sather] is the league's most efficient
guy on the telephone," says Minnesota Wild general manager Doug
Risebrough. "With Slats (Sather's nickname), I know by his voice
whether I have 30 seconds, five minutes or 30 minutes of his
time."

Says Gretzky, "He doesn't do anything different than he did 20
years ago. He used to give us time off and take time himself. He
loves to hunt. He'd take off and go hunting for a couple of days.
He has a work ethic but also has a passion for his family and for
hunting and fishing. He never has put that aside."

Without Sather, Edmonton has toddled along, pinching pennies but
still likely to make the playoffs for the second time in the last
three seasons. "A lot of people thought when Glen left, the sky
would fall," says Cal Nichols, who fronts the Oilers' 38member
ownership group, with which Sather, also the team's president,
occasionally clashed. "Our organization is working very well
since he left. We have split the positions of G.M. [Kevin Lowe]
and president [Pat LaForge] and have a leader who works long
hours at marketing and administrating, which we weren't getting
before."

There are three TVs in Sather's office, an unhung painting of
Gretzky by LeRoy Neiman, a humidor, pictures of the Stanley Cup
and a small replica of the $5,000 sidewalk stone he bought that
is embedded at the Seventh Avenue entrance to the Garden. That
stone reads there is no elevator to success. slats. Even the
second-smartest guy in the room knows that.

COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS LAST RESORT Eight days after saying Trottier was doing a good job, Sather (above) fired him and became coach. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA DOWN AND OUT? Despite solid play from Petr Nedved, New York may miss the playoffs once again.

COLD, HARD FACTS

Here's how Glen Sather's teams fared in the 10 seasons prior to
the current one. At week's end the 2002--03 Rangers were 212662
and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

SEASON TEAM RECORD POSTSEASON

1992--93 Oilers 26-50-8 Missed playoffs
1993--94 Oilers 25-45-14 Missed playoffs
1994--95* Oilers 17-27-4 Missed playoffs
1995--96 Oilers 30-44-8 Missed playoffs
1996--97 Oilers 36-37-9 Lost in Round 2
1997--98 Oilers 35-37-10 Lost in Round 2
1998--99 Oilers 33-37-12 Lost in Round 1
1999--2000 Oilers 32-26-16-8 Lost in Round 1
2000--01 Rangers 33-43-5-1 Missed playoffs
2001--02 Rangers 36-38-4-4 Missed playoffs

*Season shortened by lockout

The earlier works of a man of genius are always preferred to the
newer ones, in order to prove he is going down instead of
up. --VICTOR HUGO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)