Coffey gets goose bumps over Bruce Springsteen, too, and during the off-season he tore himself away from his ski boat and the golf courses in Muskoka, Ont. long enough to catch the Boss's concerts in Toronto. His estimated $300,000-a-year salary pales next to Gretzky's reported $825,000 a year, and he has yet to land any major endorsement deals, but it's only a matter of time before he gets the full NHL star treatment. It surely helped when the 6-foot bachelor shaved off his mountain-man beard last season and revealed his chiseled good looks.
Coffey came into the NHL without the burden of being touted as "the next" anything. Far from it. Rod Seiling, one of Coffey's junior coaches, once told him he would never make it in the bigs if he didn't improve his skating. Still, Coffey was the sixth player—and fourth defenseman—selected in the 1980 draft, having scored 102 points in 75 games in his final year of junior hockey. The Oilers at the time were one of the worst teams in the NHL, without much to show for themselves but a kid named Gretzky. Coffey stepped right in and played.
Badly. Nearly 20 years old, homesick, and playing for a young and struggling team, Coffey floundered his first year. "People kept saying I was a great skater, great on offense, but that I couldn't play defense," Coffey recalls. "You read that enough times and I don't care how mentally tough you are, it affects you. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to show them I can play defense,' and I got away from what got me where I was."
"He tried to live up to what other people expected of him," says Green. "Once he got past taking to heart everything he read in the papers he became the player he's been the past two years."
Unlike some prodigies—Gretzky comes to mind—Coffey acted like the 19-year-old he was. Oilers broadcaster Rod Phillips's Ford Bronco was banged up after one snowstorm when Coffey smacked into it while doing doughnuts in the team parking lot. Another time Coffey showed up at an Oiler team function at five minutes to seven—an hour and 55 minutes late. Asked for an explanation, he replied that he thought he was being punctual. The time on the blackboard had read 5 TO 7. Often tardy for practice, Coffey was called into Sather's office once and asked, "What's the last thing you do before you leave that locker room?" The correct answer would have been, "I check the blackboard for the time of tomorrow's workout." Coffey's reply? "Say goodby to the guys."
"He had a lot of self-doubts," says Sather. "And he was stubborn, I guess. But he was always determined to be a great player. He just wasn't always as involved in the play as he should have been."
Sather didn't care what they were saying in the papers about Coffey's defensive lapses. Are you kidding? You could always teach a player with Coffey's skills to play defense—the basic requirements being positional play and concentration. "I always told him to do what he does best," says Sather, "and that was to rush the puck."
"It's a blessing that Edmonton was the team I broke in with," says Coffey now. "The worst thing for my game is to go up ice on pins and needles, worrying about getting back. When I see an opening, I'm supposed to go for it. Now every team is looking for a defenseman who can follow up a play like a fourth forward."
The problem then, as now, is with the term "defenseman." It's too closely associated with the word "defense." Approximately half the time a defenseman is on the ice, his team is on the attack—or should be—but hockey pundits have always treated defensemen who attack, Orr included, as some undefinable species of daredevil. If hockey would borrow from the lexicon of basketball and rename its defensemen "guards," maybe people wouldn't get so hung up about it. Offensive defensemen, defensive defensemen—what nonsense!
The NHL, you see, isn't used to defensemen behaving like Magic Johnson on a drive to the hoop. Says Gretzky, "The biggest weak spot in the NHL is that back-checkers forget to pick up the late man." So Gretzky and Coffey devised a play with which they have terrorized the league the last two years. As the Oilers are breaking in three-on-three, Gretzky buttonhooks when he crosses the blue line, drawing a back-checker with him. His two wingers burst for the net, each zeroing in on a defenseman, setting picks. Then suddenly—whooosh!—here comes Coffey out of nowhere, those huge strides churning toward the slot. Gretzky feathers one onto his stick. Snap! Top shelf.