Gretzky and Sather have an interesting relationship—mutually respectful to the point of awe. "There's only one star on this team and that's the big fella," says Sather. In his office, revealingly, are three framed photos of the Great One and a print of LeRoy Neiman's painting of the lad. Both Gretzky and Sather were unproven when they joined forces in 1978. Gretzky, still grateful for the confidence Sather showed in him early in his career, knows that had the coach not built a marvelous team around him, he might be looked at today as a skilled but selfish scorer. Sather knows that without Gretzky, the Oilers would be just another contender.
"Around the league, people interpret [Sather's] actions as arrogance," says Gretzky. "But he believes in the best of everything: the best effort, the best refereeing, wearing the best clothes. He expects a lot from people. He had to work hard to stay in this league, and that's what he wants out of everyone."
Sather's wife, Ann, some 150 feet away from her husband at the Detroit game, sits back and smiles at the sound of his voice. A native of Ambler, Pa., she was working in Boston for TWA when she met Glen, then a rookie on the Bruins, in 1967. They married two years later and have two sons, Shannon, 13, and Justin, 10, both of whom are playing in youth-hockey games this night. "We can hear Glen all the time from here," she says, laughing, fully aware of her husband's reputation as a tireless heckler. "You know, he had never even mentioned coaching before we got to Edmonton. We were always going to go to Europe after his career ended. But once we got here, he kind of fell into it. And with ease. That's what was funny. It was not a difficult transition for him to make."
Since Sather had spent most of his playing career on the bench, the move behind it was not such a big step. In his nine NHL seasons he played for Boston, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal and Minnesota, picking up 80 goals, 724 penalty minutes and the nickname Slats, to which he answers today. "Damned if I know how I got it," Sather says. "Somebody said it was because I was always on the bench, and that sounded good, I guess, but I always thought it was because [goalie] Eddie Johnston kept calling me 'Slathers' when I first came up to the Bruins."
For a man with an ego the size of a mountain, Sather is remembered as an awfully unselfish individual throughout his career. He was a role player—killing penalties, filling in for injured players, starting fights against opponents far more valuable to their team than he was to his, working hard in practices without complaint. "He was different than other players," Ann remembers. "He always worked. He could never afford the luxury of a day off. We were always the first couple to leave a party, because he couldn't afford to go to practice with a hangover. He's just very disciplined."
"He'd do anything to win," says Hartford G.M. Emile Francis, Sather's coach in New York. "Baseball fans might say he was like an Eddie Stanky."
When he's of the mind to, Sather is capable of using his mouth as an offensive weapon. One time, when both were coaching in the WHA, Sather goaded Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor, who has only one eye, into a brawl by calling him "Cyclops."
"Brash? Arrogant? No question, he's both those things," says Pocklington. "And a bully in some instances I've seen. Don't get in his way."
Sather's major weakness is that he will not suffer fools. And there are a lot of them out there. When the L.A. Kings came back from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Oilers during a 1982 playoff game, the Kings' public relations director cheered the Oilers on their way to the dressing room. Sather scuffled with him and was taken to task for it in the press. Another time, in December of 1983, a 70-year-old Vancouver fan wearing a Sony Walkman heckled Sather and Sather took the bait. "I called him a stupid old——and knocked his Walkman off," recalls Sather. He refused to write a letter of apology, and for his trouble he was convicted of assault. He was then given an absolute discharge by the judge.
Sather reacts. He becomes involved. "He was a yapping player and now he's a yapping coach and a yapping general manager. Nothing's changed," Torrey remarked during the 1983 playoffs after Sather had called Isles goalie Billy Smith "a maniac" following a slashing incident.