Ron Hextall is the best goalie I've ever faced...but I've never played against Grant Fuhr.
The Goalie leads his team onto the ice at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. He is dwarfed by the rest of the Edmonton Oilers, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Towering behind the goalie is his backup, Daryl Reaugh, a 6'4", 200-pound rookie who is out of the same physical mold as the goalie's boyhood hero, Ken Dryden. Then comes Wayne Gretzky, gliding as if on air. There is no adjective to describe Gretzky. The National Hockey League is his domain. Behind Gretzky is Mark Messier, one of the fastest skaters in the NHL. And then Glenn Anderson. And Jari Kurri. And the remaining members of what is probably the premier offensive hockey team in history.
The goalie is at his station, head down and, in his mask, faceless. He shaves the ice in front of the net. This is a ritual, his razor-sharp blades moving back and forth, ridding the ice of small bumps and shallow crevices. His head stays down; he is preoccupied with his housekeeping. Gretzky glides by, spin-stops and speaks into the goalie's ear. The Oilers dutifully follow the Great One, whacking the goalie's pads with their sticks for luck.
Now he is up—rigid, erect, immobile, like a totem pole. The puck is dropped. The goalie watches intently. So this is where the puck stops, with the man behind the mask, the best goalie in the NHL. The best on earth. So this is Grant Fuhr.
"Grant reads the game as well as any goalie that has ever played," Ron Low, coach of the Nova Scotia Oilers, Edmonton's farm team, and formerly Fuhr's roommate on Oilers road trips, has said. "His goals-against average will never be the best. He'll give up the occasional soft goal. But in the big moment, for the big save, he's 95 percent unbeatable. Under pressure, there is none finer. He proved in the Canada Cup that he is the finest goaltender in the world."
The puck is suddenly on the stick of Barry Pederson, a center for the Vancouver Canucks. Pederson is at the end of a breakaway, streaking toward the goal. Fuhr glides out to meet him, giving Pederson less of the net, more on the glove side. Fuhr has not thought about doing this. There was no time for a plan. He moves on instinct and reflex. Six feet away, Pederson slaps a shot that is traveling more than 90 mph when it finds the pocket in the blur that is Fuhr's glove. The crowd in the Coliseum groans in appreciation of the save.
"Bar none, Grant Fuhr is the best goalie in the league," Pederson will say later. "He has the fastest reflexes. Sometimes his concentration might drift during inconsequential games. But in the big-money games Fuhr is the best. He's the Cup goalie. It's sure not by luck."
Gretzky goes further: "You have to understand that I mean no harm to the men who played in the '40s and '50s, but they played without masks. There is no way you could play without a mask today, against us, in this faster league. I've never seen reflexes like Grant's. I think he's the best goaltender in the history of the NHL. In two or three years, Ron Hextall may change that. But for now...."
At the beginning of the third period, Edmonton leads 4-1. For all the Oilers' talent, they do not have a defenseman to take the place of five-time All-Star Paul Coffey, who is holding out in a bitter salary dispute and will later be traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Canucks shoot the puck by Fuhr three times. The game goes to overtime at 4-4. However, 2:51 into the extra period, Edmonton defenseman Charlie Huddy fires a slap shot from just inside the blue line. Vancouver's Kirk McLean, a fine young goal-tender, is screened. He lowers himself to see, and the puck is over his left shoulder. He waves at it. The Oilers win 5-4.
Afterward, in the visitors' locker room, Fuhr is wearing only a towel, some old bruises and a disarming, crooked smile. "Looking for me?" he says to a reporter.