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If Sather hasn't changed, the game has, and the Oilers are at the very root of it. NHL hockey has always been a sport of follow-the-leader, and now the Campbell Conference teams in the West are following the Oilers' lead by emphasizing high-powered, wide-open offenses, while the Prince of Wales Conference teams in the East are, by and large, sticking with time-tested NHL tactics of checking and disciplined defense.
The irony is that Sather, a plodding, occasionally goonlike forward, would be the first NHL coach to be successful using so-called European tactics. His Oilers emphasize speed, passing and puck control rather than a lot of shots and territorial advantage. At the core of Sather's system is the transition game—five players switching from defense to offense, then back again, as the puck changes hands. The Oilers make those transitions faster than any other team.
Sather, who was named player/coach of the Oilers in 1977, first became intrigued with the European style of play when he saw the great Winnipeg Jets teams of the mid-to-late '70s led by Bobby Hull and a host of Swedes. "The system is no good unless you have players with the skills to pass the puck," he says, and by that Sather means fire it on a string. When the surviving WHA teams were allowed to merge with the NHL in 1979, the Oilers had only one such player, name of Gretzky, an 18-year-old kid who most NHL people—though they deny it now—figured would be eaten alive once he was in the big time. It was Sather's job to build a team around him.
It didn't take long. Despite having the last spot in the 1979 entry draft, the Oilers came up with stars-to-be Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson on their first three picks. The next year Sather selected Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog. In 1981 he added goalie Grant Fuhr. These eight players, with Gretzky, now average but 24 years of age. They have one Stanley Cup in hand and will be the core of the Oilers' dynasty through the '80s. "I think next year's team will be even better," Sather predicts, citing in particular the expected addition of a tough young forward from Finland named Esa Tikkanen.
Sather is standing in the front of the team bus. The Oilers have been drubbed 6-3 by the lowly Vancouver Canucks, their fourth loss in the last seven games, which is a terrible stretch for a team that now stands 46-17-10 on the year. Despite the fact that the Oilers clinched a playoff berth practically on opening night, and the loss is essentially meaningless, the mood is somber and sulky. "Anybody doesn't want to go for some Chinese food?" Sather shouts. "I know a place and I'm buying." No one answers, and Sather waits for a couple of "all rights." "O.K., no moping around in there, eh?"
At the restaurant Sather orders all the food plus as much beer and wine as the players want. After a while they begin to loosen up. The next day, back in Edmonton, Sather chews them out for 20 minutes, then skates them hard for 40 more. Everyone agrees it's a dynamite practice.
As a journeyman player Sather got to see some fine coaches in action, among them Harry Sinden, Francis, Scotty Bowman. "One of the things I learned from Scotty was not to be predictable," he says. "Otherwise the players think they've figured you out and stop reacting to you."
This season Sather has done far less on-ice coaching than he has in years past, handling practices on game days but, with rare exceptions, allowing his assistants, John Muckler and Ted Green, to run the show the rest of the time. The first week in March, in fact, Sather took off to Hawaii for a week's vacation.
"He knows how to relax," says Muckler, who has been widely rumored to be taking over behind the Oiler bench next season, despite the team's 4-5-1 record under his direction this season. "He's the same person during the Stanley Cup finals that he is during the exhibition season," Muckler continues. "Like most people, I doubted his philosophy before I came here. Now I'm firmly convinced it's the best way to get the most out of your players. An athlete cannot function well if he's not relaxed."
The Oilers are the loosest team in the league, and it's that, more than anything, that makes their critics drool at the thought of their losing in the playoffs. Hockey is an uptight game. Suddenly, here come the Oilers with a Ping-Pong table in their dressing room, carrots hanging from the ceiling and rock music blaring from the stereo in the corner half an hour before game time.