In a league in which the regular season is little more than an 80-game fight for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, Sather has preached a return to fundamentals and has prodded his players with occasional public criticism. Not even Gretzky and Coffey are sacrosanct. "It's for motivation," says Gretzky. "The more we win, the more necessary it becomes."
Sather's objective, of course, is to have his team peak for the playoffs. The Oilers struggled through February and March last season and were fortunate to beat L.A. in the first round before reasserting their dominance in the Stanley Cup finals. "Things you'd do at the beginning of the year, maybe you wouldn't do after Christmas," Sather says. "You might let something slide, let them relax, then jump on them again, and away you go."
One way Sather keeps things from sliding too far is to closely monitor his players' off-ice activities. He urges them to curtail commitments when their play gets sloppy. And club policy prohibits all off-ice appearances after March 1, no small matter in a city of about 600,000 that makes considerable demands on the Oilers' time.
But there are no such restrictions now. And two weeks ago an estimated 10,000 people showed up for the Oilers' open practice/Christmas party at Northlands. Gretzky played goal against some Pee Wees, enforcer Dave Semenko got into mock fights with the youngsters and players balanced sticks on their noses. Trouble in Saskatchewan River City? What trouble?