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The Joyless End Of A Joyride
Armen Keteyian
May 12, 1986
Until their ouster from the NHL playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers were flying high—off the ice as well as on
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May 12, 1986

The Joyless End Of A Joyride

Until their ouster from the NHL playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers were flying high—off the ice as well as on

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All dressed up with nowhere to go. That's the way the Edmonton Oilers looked last Friday afternoon as they straggled out of their dressing room in ones and twos for the annual team picture. Warm up your smiles, fellas. Cheeeese. As workmen dismantled the boards in Northlands Coliseum, a dozen or so teenyboppers milled about as the players listlessly stepped on the ice. Few of the Oilers acknowledged their presence.

Don Jackson and Esa Tikkanen, the first two players out of the dressing room, lay down on their backs on the bleachers and stared blankly at the ceiling, their thoughts—where?—perhaps just two days away, back to Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to the hard-working Calgary Flames in the seventh game of the Smythe Division finals. Back to a game-winning goal so bizarre, so shocking, so unforgettably inept that it seemed fated: a casual third-period pass from Edmonton's rookie defenseman Steve Smith that deflected into the Oilers' net off the back of goaltender Grant Fuhr's leg. It took the heart out of the team—the Oilers had trailed 2-zip before mounting a comeback to tie the game—and gave renewed impetus to the Flames, who saw to it that their gift goal held up. End of game, end of season, end of the incipient Edmonton dynasty, which most everyone had predicted would last for years to come. After a two-year joyride at the top of the NHL, the Oilers were outside the playoffs, looking inside themselves.

There were two significant no-shows for this year's Oilers team picture. Owner Peter Pocklington chose not to attend. And that silvery object he had cradled each of the last two years—the Stanley Cup—was missing, too. O.K. now, fellas, wipe off those game faces. Too late for that. Say cheeeese. (Click!)

"The last thing I said to these guys today," coach Glen Sather would later relate, "was, 'If you get in trouble, phone me. Here's my number.' I gave them all a card saying where I'll be this summer...where I'm going to be all the time. If there's a problem, I want to know about it. 'Get hold of me first.' "

That was a curious parting shot for a coach to give his team. Tough season, troops. Give me a call if you get in a jam. But then, given the team in question, maybe it's not.

The Edmonton Oilers hockey club has been in a lot of jams—with the police, with personal finances, with all sorts of escapades. The Oilers got into some of the worst of this trouble even while winning two straight Stanley Cups, a triumph of hockey excellence over off-ice contretemps that may only further indicate what superb talent the team has. Whether this year's stunning playoff ouster was in any way caused by the Oilers' non-hockey troubles is a matter for conjecture, but it can be fairly asked whether a general lack of discipline and too much life in the fast lane finally caught up with them. Was this or that mental lapse against the Flames related to the team's many distractions? Why did the Oilers sometimes have trouble following Sather's instructions in the playoffs? Why couldn't they come through in the crunch?

To put the matter directly, the Oilers' life-style and character are open to considerable question. One who brings the situation into particularly sharp focus is Max Offenberger, a Boston-based educational psychologist who was hired by Sather in 1981 and served as a consultant on alcohol and drug abuse to the Oilers until the end of the 1983-84 season. "The club came too far, too young, too fast," Offenberger says. "They had too much money and too much freedom. They did what they wanted to do. It was 'we want it and we want it now.' "

Whether because of too much freedom or for other reasons, the personal lives of quite a few Oilers have been in turmoil. Last fall All-Star forward Mark Messier was fined $250 in provincial court for leaving the scene of an accident after losing control of his black Turbo Porsche and hitting three parked cars. Left wing Dave Hunter was convicted three times in less than two years—most recently last Sept. 10—for driving while impaired. Wing Dave Semenko lost his driver's license for six months after pleading guilty in December 1982 to a driving-while-impaired charge.

Other legal and financial troubles involving the Oilers abound. Messier was recently sued by an automotive firm for allegedly failing to pay $2,900 for services, and in 1985 he reached an out-of-court settlement with former agent Gus Badali, who had sued him over unpaid fees. According to court documents acquired by SI, Semenko had his wages garnisheed in 1984 for failure to pay off a $15,134 loan from the Toronto Dominion Bank. Other records indicate that All-Star goaltender Grant Fuhr has a long and sorry history of garnishments against him for claims of unpaid debts. Even Wayne Gretzky has become embroiled in a legal action; last June he filed suit charging negligent advice against four defendants, including a sports management firm headed by Badali, to recover $400,000 he said he invested in 1982 in a Calgary apartment complex.

On top of everything else, the Oilers have been the subject of rampant drug-use rumors. One former Oiler insider told SI that at least five team members have had "substantial" cocaine problems. Three sources told SI they have seen Oiler players use cocaine or marijuana at parties in Edmonton and other NHL cities. One agent quoted an Edmonton player he represents as having told him, "Every time we go into New York City, it's a real blizzard, and I'm not talking about the weather." One of SI's sources, a player for another NHL team, told of having used cocaine with three members of the Oilers during the '85-86 season. Edmonton and Canadian law enforcement officials say they have received unsubstantiated reports of drug use among team members. "We've had information passed on to us," says staff sergeant Hal Johnson, head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Edmonton drug squad. "We do not have evidence to lay charges, but we have information that there are users on the club."

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