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It only seems that the smug look on Glen Sather's face has been there without interruption since his Edmonton Oilers began winning Stanley Cups in 1984. But it did vanish at least once. That was on April 15, 1989, eight months after Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings, when Sather, the Oilers' general manager-coach, stood in line at center ice in the L.A. Forum to congratulate Gretzky after the Kings eliminated the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs.
"The longest line I ever stood in," says Sather. As he accepted Gretzky's hand and wordlessly turned away, the arrogant Sather, the man Sather's friends never see but the public can't see past, had been given his comeuppance. While Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington—whose decision it was to deal Gretzky for cash, younger players and draft choices—was a target of greater animosity than Sather, few people felt sorry for the Oiler G.M. Gretzky, for one, appeared to have little affection for his former boss.
To anyone who was tired of the Oilers' dominance of the NHL—they had won four Stanley Cups in five seasons—or who was outraged that Gretzky could be treated like a depreciating asset, justice had served a cease and desist order on arrogance. Pocklington, who believed the Oilers could win without Gretzky, had gotten it in the end—deliciously, from Gretzky himself. And Sather, who up until that point had made all the right moves in building the Oiler dynasty, had finally been burned.
To those who professed to know the difference between right and wrong, the moral was clear: It was an abuse of power to trade the greatest hockey player who ever lived. To those who understood why professional sports transactions are made, however, there was no right or wrong. There was only smart or not smart. Which explains why, 13 months after that defeat in Los Angeles, Sather, every hair on his blond head soaked with champagne, was in a locker room at Boston Garden being hugged by 34-year-old Oiler defenseman Randy Gregg. Gregg shook Sather as if trying to dislodge his secret. "How do you find these young guys?" he asked.
Without much difficulty, apparently. The Oilers had won their fifth Cup in the last seven years with only seven players remaining from the team that won Edmonton's first. Now only five remain. Still, the Oilers began the season as a favorite to win another Cup, but they now face an uphill fight, having gotten off to an ugly 2-8-2 start. Mark Messier, last season's MVP, is nursing a sprained left knee and is out of the lineup. But Sather knows that it's too early to panic, especially with a team as talented as his Oilers.
It would be oversimplifying to suggest that Sather, now 47, learned how to build and rebuild a team solely from the master, Sam Pollock, whose Montreal Canadiens won nine Stanley Cups while he was general manager from 1964 to '78. Pollock was probably plotting how to win the ninth one at the same time he was winning the first. Sather played for Pollock for a year, but he also played for just about everybody during his seven-team, 11-season career, which ended in 1977. He was on enough good teams to understand what works and on enough bad ones to understand what doesn't, and he came to a simple conclusion: Talent wins. If you have to trade some, make sure you get some back.
Sure, the Oilers, who came into the league in 1979 after the NHL's merger with the World Hockey Association, had the best head start a new team could hope for: Gretzky was already on their roster. But Sather also drafted well during Edmonton's early NHL years, getting Messier, a center, in the second round and dynamic right wing Glenn Anderson in the third in '79 and Jari Kurri, the NHL's No. 1 playoff goal scorer, in the third in 1980. Before Sather astutely pounced, five teams passed on Paul Coffey—who would turn out to be the most prolific scoring defenseman in league history—in the 1980 draft, and a year later seven skipped over Grant Fuhr, a goalie who would backstop Edmonton to four Cups. That nucleus blended into one of history's powerhouses before success began to split its seams. "I remember [player agent] Don Baizley told me a long time ago that I would have to be a wizard to keep this team together because of money," says Sather. "I knew there was no way they would all stick around."
They haven't, and yet the Oilers have continued to win. In 1988 they won without Coffey, who had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins after holding out for two months for a renegotiated contract. Sather dealt Coffey in a package that brought Craig Simpson, a forward who scored 13 goals in 19 games in that season's playoffs. Last spring the Oilers won without Gretzky and Fuhr, who missed the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder and has now been suspended for a year by the NHL after admitting to using cocaine. In '88, Sather traded Andy Moog, Fuhr's backup, to Boston for goalie Bill Ranford, then 21. In last year's finals against the Bruins, Ranford outplayed Moog.
When Jimmy Carson—who went to Edmonton with Martin Gelinas, three No. 1 draft picks and $15 million for Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski—walked out on the Oilers in October '89 after only one season, Sather traded him to the Detroit Red Wings for four players. Three of them—Adam Graves, 22, Joe Murphy, 23, and Petr Klima, 25—played significant roles in the winning of championship No. 5. Thus has Sather confirmed that he has had a lot more to do with the Oilers' success than simply tapping Gretzky on the shoulder.
There may not have been a Gretzky to tap on the shoulder had it not been for Sather. When Nelson Skalbania, owner of the struggling Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association, stood ready to sell the skinny 17-year-old Gretzky to his friend Pocklington in 1978, the latter asked Sather, his recently appointed coach, whether he should make the deal. "Whatever you have to do," said Sather, "get him." For $850,000, which at the time was an astronomical sum, Pocklington acquired Gretzky and, indeed, an appreciation for Sather's instincts. Through their mutual worship of the art of the deal—Sather had invested wisely in real estate during his playing career—Sather's relationship with Pocklington has since grown deeper than that of a boss and a trusted lieutenant. "Glen is my best friend," says Pocklington. He's also pretty good at protecting Pocklington's assets. "I get to like the players, but when the possibility of improving the team comes up, I look at it as asset management," Pocklington says. "Glen is not a 45-day manager. He looks to the long term."