He is also smart enough to understand that the most talented team usually wins. In 1982, the Oilers, who had scored what was then a record 417 goals in the regular season, were upset by Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. A year later they were swept by the New York Islanders in the finals, causing theorists to question whether an offensively oriented team, no matter how powerful, could win in the traditionally defensive playoffs. Instead, Sather saw his players as immature but inevitable champions, and viewed each setback as a learning experience. He preached defensive responsibility without frustrating creativity, and little by little the message took hold.
"Glen Sather is my role model," says Keenan. "He doesn't operate out of the fear of making a decision but out of a sense of confidence that feeds through the entire organization. That confidence has sometimes been labeled as arrogance, but I have a great deal of respect for it."
Sather's arrogance can be confrontational. "If a guy tells you 'Get lost,' you can smack him in the mouth, which is the sensible thing, or you can walk away," Sather says. "I like to do the sensible thing."
Sather, the quintessential role player, lasted twice as long in the NHL as men with twice his talent by accepting his limitations and by getting on people's nerves before they got on his. "I was smart enough to know what to do," he says, "and how to get out of it."
He took that aggressive attitude with him behind the bench. After the first period of a game in Vancouver in 1983, Sather thwacked the earphones off the head of a 70-year-old Canucks fan who was giving him a hard time as Sather was on his way to the locker room. "He's giving it to me and I can't give it back because he's listening to the broadcast on the radio," Sather says. "So I took his earphones off, that's all." Sather was found guilty of assault, but was given an absolute discharge by a provincial court judge.
After Islander G.M. Bill Torrey, speaking at an NHL luncheon during the 1984 finals, dropped a half-kidding remark about the too-early-in-the-morning practice times assigned to his team in Edmonton, Sather wasn't kidding at all when he took his turn at the podium. He criticized New York fans, New York weather and the Oilers' practice times in New York. He then predicted that the Islanders, who were then trailing 2-1 in the series, wouldn't win another game. They didn't.
"I don't care what the occasion was," says Sather. "I wasn't going to back down. Not after they had beaten us in the finals the year before. Sure, it was motivational. I was trying to show our team we were there to win."
Off the ice, Sather strives to win too. He's a man who likes nice things, such as fast cars and fine clothes. He has 15 or so custom-made suits, 50 to 60 ties and a roomful of outdoor wear in his Edmonton home. His mother worked in the family's clothing store, and his father was a carpenter in the small Alberta towns of Wainwright and Viking. Together, they made a decent living. Sather was dressed warmly as a kid, but not particularly with style.
Still, Sather says it wasn't fortune he craved in his youth, but adventure. "I wanted to be a hockey player," he says, "and I wanted out of town." At the age of 17 he landed a job as a lifeguard in Banff, which is a picture-postcard town 60 miles west of Calgary and in the Canadian Rockies. He fell in love with Banff and began buying chunks of it when he turned pro in 1964. He eventually purchased an off-season house there big enough to entertain Jay Gatsby and all his friends. In 1969, he started and ran a successful hockey school and in 1974 traded half of the school for more Banff real estate and 50% of a gas station. He has since owned a hotel and part of a tavern there (both of which he has sold) and is about to build condo units.
However you want to keep score, Sather is winning at life. You can go by his championship rings, or by his bankbook, or by his friends, who say he will give you the shirt off his back—once he becomes convinced you don't have enough money to buy it.