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The thing that annoys NHL folks most about Glen Sather is not that he led the Edmonton Oilers, a World Hockey Association team, from expansion to the Stanley Cup in just five years. Not much. Nor that Sather, once a consummate mucker and brawler as an NHL player, has achieved coaching success by embracing a style of play that was imported from Europe, for heaven's sake, like quiche or Julio Iglesias. Naw. It has nothing to do with the fact that Sather, who wears $500 suits and owns a small fortune in Alberta real estate, was hailed as the savior of Canadian hockey last September when his hand-picked team recaptured the Canada Cup from the Soviets. Uh-uh. Nor even that Sather has "an ego the size of a mountain," according to just about everyone, but in this case attributable to his good friend and fishing partner, Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers, who has crowned Sather with nearly as many Oiler titles (president/general manager/coach) as England has conferred upon the Prince of Wales (Charles, not the conference).
Nope. The thing that most annoys NHL folks about Sather is that he has Wayne Gretzky. And they don't. Somehow that seems reason enough to root for his comeuppance.
"He's a smart, sharp guy. Never underestimate him," says the Islanders' general manager, Bill Torrey, visibly uncomfortable at the very mention of Sather, whose Oilers ended the Isles' drive for a fifth straight Stanley Cup last spring. Torrey then adds, "And he's lucky. No other expansion team came in with Wayne Gretzky in its pocket."
Torrey and Sather have been feuding, more or less, for the last two years, each of which saw the Islanders and Oilers meet in the Stanley Cup finals. "They gave our players lousy complimentary seats, so we gave them lousy seats," Sather says. "They gave us lousy ice time to practice, so we gave them lousy ice time. Being the new guys on the block, we probably should have been more gracious to the champions. But I didn't want to be gracious. I wanted to win." At the Stanley Cup luncheon last year—ordinarily an amicable affair—Torrey and Sather exchanged barbs from the podium. "What Torrey and I were trying to do was intimidate each other in front of our teams," Sather says. "I'll tell you what really upset him was that we knocked him off his perch." Sather smiles with undisguised glee. "I enjoyed that a lot."
That's another thing about Sather. His smile. It's crooked and is always being referred to as a smirk. A puck hit Sather in the chops years ago, scarring him in such a way that one side of his mouth smirks while the other side smiles impishly. For this, and other reasons, Sather is constantly being referred to as "brash" and "arrogant," though the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler has it right when he suggests that the word for Sather is "saucy." He is also shrewd, patient, innovative and vastly underrated as a coach.
"He hasn't had nearly the acclaim he deserves," says North Stars general manager Lou Nanne. "Many people look at a team that's got a lot of talent and think all you have to do is open and close the door to coach it. That's not the way it works. You still have to deal with people."
Even archrival Torrey gives Sather his due, though he tempers his praise. "His team was as well prepared last year as any we faced in the playoffs," he says, then adds: "They should have been. They had nine days to get ready for us. But the fact remains that they were."
The sound you hear in the background is the grinding of Torrey's teeth.
Across the ice of the Northlands Coliseum comes another sound, a single voice, faint but clear, ringing above the murmur of 17,000 Edmontonians at a game against the Red Wings one night recently. "Force him! Force him!" Sather hollers, at a forechecker. It is a stubborn voice, insistent, devoid of doubt.
"He doesn't 'coach' on the bench," says Gretzky. "He's yelling and talking almost like he's another player."