Time to come up with a new knock on the Edmonton Oilers, if that's possible. Team Imbalance has achieved equilibrium. Sure, Edmonton has half a dozen all-world skaters. In recent seasons, however, all the Oilers seemed to care about was offense. Even the club's defensemen—a.k.a. Gamblers Anonymous—hogged in on the action. As a result, Edmonton games were right out of Shootout City, with scores that looked like tennis tiebreakers.
But in Sunday night's 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Oilers pleased their hometown fans by playing both ends of the ice at the Northlands Coliseum. Gretzky and company outchecked Philadelphia's all-world checkers. More important, the Oiler defensemen, who never knew how to spell the word defense, stayed home like so many henpecked husbands and made life easy for goaltender Grant Fuhr.
"Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey—they're all you hear about," says Edmonton president, G.M. and coach Glen Sather. "I think Randy Gregg is one of the most interesting guys in hockey. He just does things...differently.
In the NHL, Gregg, 31, stands out as the only player with a medical degree. Among the Oilers, he stands out by failing to stand out. That is, unlike his more illustrious teammates, the 6'4", 215-pound Gregg never looks like a threat to break any scoring standards. Nonetheless, when the Oilers got off to a disappointing start last fall and were ailing at the blue line, they called on Gregg, who had been retired for all of five weeks.
"When he wasn't there, the team wasn't the same," says Sather. "I thought we could fill the hole with some young guys, but the hole was too big. Guys like Randy who come out of college are usually better disciplined. Some guys get programmed to playing one way, but Randy can adapt right away when we make technical changes—probably because he is such a student. That's his game, and I think he takes a lot of pride in it."
Gregg is a thinking man's defense-man, sifting options and calculating angles, as unobtrusive on the ice as a wallflower at a cocktail party. No movement is superfluous. No winger gets around him. "You don't notice him out there, because he's doing his job correctly," said Detroit assistant coach Don MacAdam after Gregg helped run the Red Wings out of the Campbell Conference finals. "He anticipates so well he can stop a play before it has even started."
"He is almost elegant for a man his size," says Kevin Lowe, Gregg's partner at the blue line during most of the playoffs. "He's calm and composed, and he plays very well under pressure."
Gregg, Edmonton born and bred, did not have a hockey career in mind when he enrolled in the University of Alberta's premed program at age 16. "In Canada, by the time you are 16 your hockey skills are pretty highly developed," says Gregg, whose skills weren't. "The guys who are going to play hockey are invited to the prestigious camps. I was going to university to go to university, not to play hockey."
So, while achieving honors in his courses, Gregg played two seasons in a community league. "Just for exercise," he says. At 19, the same year he was accepted by Alberta's med school, where he would complete the final four years of his medical studies, Gregg decided to play varsity. "He was like a newborn colt, so skinny and clumsy," recalls Clare Drake, Alberta's legendary coach.