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A stanley cup that had been marked down for easy sale was rescued from the bargain basement last Thursday night by the Edmonton Oilers. This season of parity in the NHL had portended a cheap championship, but in the end a richly deserving team won the Cup.
The strong arms of the Oilers—those of goalie Bill Ranford and left wing Esa Tikkanen, in particular—served as grand pedestals for the big silver trophy as it was passed around after Edmonton's 4-1 victory over the Bruins in Game 5 at Boston Garden, which wrapped up the best-of-seven series. A fifth championship in seven years, accomplished just 21 months after the sale/trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, spoke especially for the pride and skill of the core players who remain from the Gretzky years.
Regaining the Cup after last year's first-round loss to the Great One and the Kings also provided powerful testament to the shrewdness of Oiler president and general manager Glen Sather. Thanks to several spin-offs of the Gretzky deal, Sather acquired fine young players who starred in the playoffs—and he still has two extra No. 1 draft choices coming to him from Los Angeles.
"I asked [former Montreal Canadien great] Henri Richard at the All-Star Game how many Stanley Cups he had won, and he said 11," Edmonton defense-man Kevin Lowe said on Thursday night. "That's my goal now." And a lofty goal it is, because even though the Oilers certainly have made a brilliant recovery, whether they will resume winning championships with the regularity of the Gretzky era is another matter altogether.
The real world, which revolves around money, has twice intruded into what was once a Northlands Camelot. Expect it to do so again. In November 1987, Paul Coffey, a defenseman with unique offensive ability, was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins because Oiler owner Peter Pocklington refused to pay Coffey the $500,000 a year that Coffey felt he was worth. Then in August 1988, the Gretzky deal, from which Pocklington pocketed $15 million, was consummated—reportedly to offset cash-flow problems in Pocklington's other business holdings. Now, star right wing Jari Kurri wants $1 million a year and may play in Europe next season so he can come back to the NHL in 1991-92 as an unfettered free agent.
The Oilers eventually must find worthy successors to their core group—29-year-old center Mark Messier, Edmonton's brilliant and brawny captain; 29-year-old winger Glenn Anderson; the 30-year-old Kurri; and the 31-year-old Lowe. Players acquired in the Gretzky and Coffey deals have given Edmonton a good start. And a potential deal involving Grant Fuhr, 27, the star goalie who missed most of the season with an ailing shoulder and appears expendable following the playoff MVP performance by the 23-year-old Ranford, will give Sather an opportunity to cash in another valuable commodity.
Despite the 1986 and '89 interruptions in the Oilers' string of championships, it is reasonable to compare their run of titles with those of the Montreal teams that won five (1956-60) and four (1976-79) in a row, the New York Islander clubs that won four straight (1980-83), and the Toronto Maple Leafs that won five in seven years (1945-51). It is too early to precisely define the Oilers' place in NHL history, but the 1989-90 team regained a high standard in a league that has come to expect one from its champions.
Since 1973, four teams—the Philadelphia Flyers, the Canadiens, the Islanders and the Oilers—have won 17 of the 18 Stanley Cups. Lucky teams do not often win the Cup. Even a talented club must mature over a number of years to earn one. And successfully defending a championship requires more pride than winning a first one. As champions age gracefully, they can be hard to bring down.
In this regular season, there wasn't an exceptional team in the NHL. For the second time since 1967—when the league doubled in size to 12 teams—only one club, Boston, surpassed the 100-point barrier. Four teams finished with 90 to 99 points and another seven clubs had 80 to 89, so there was every reason to forecast a wide-open battle for the Cup. All of which may sound good, but parity is not desirable if it is a euphemism for mediocrity.
As far back as November—when Sather unloaded sulking center Jimmy Carson, the prime acquisition in the Gretzky trade, for four young players from the Detroit Red Wings—hockey cognoscenti were whispering that Edmonton might be the team to beat. But the Oilers' regular season (38-28-14, 90 points) didn't scare anybody, particularly first-round opponent Winnipeg, which in Game 5 had Edmonton down 3-1 in games and 3-1 on the scoreboard. The Jets lost in seven games.