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For the Oilers, it's delightful to be so loathsome again. Time, the great healer, has worked wonders on players who resented the Gretzky trade. And general manager Glen Sather, the old sharpie, has worked plunders. Sather, who coached the Oilers in each of their glory years, hasn't made the team as good as it once was, but he has brought in young and talented new bodies. Equally important are those old bodies who now have new heads.
When owner Peter Pocklington traded Gretzky in August 1988, a number of veteran Oilers, including center Mark Messier, right wing Jari Kurri, defenseman Kevin Lowe, Fuhr and right wing Glenn Anderson felt a deep sense of betrayal. All had passed up free agency to stay with a team that had a chance to be the greatest of all time, provided that Gretzky remained the heart of it. "It took the whole season [to get over the trade]," says Muckler, Sather's assistant at the time. "We had to see Wayne's happiness after the seventh game of the playoffs and realize he was happy because he had beaten us. Only then could we really start to look forward again. It's interesting. Wayne got a huge ovation when he broke Gordie Howe's record [to become the NHL's alltime leading scorer on Oct. 15] here in Edmonton, and he should have. But he hasn't been cheered since then in Edmonton. We never hear his name anymore."
Center Jimmy Carson, the core of the two-player, three-draft-choice and cash-rich package the Oilers got for Gretzky, no longer plays for Edmonton. His being traded to the Detroit Red Wings last November probably was best for both him and the Oilers, considering the sense of inadequacy Carson says he felt trying to fill the Great One's shoes.
When Carson forced Edmonton to trade him by walking out on the team on Oct. 14, he did the Oilers a favor. Sather's four-for-two deal, which brought left wings Adam Graves and Petr Klima, center Joe Murphy and defenseman Jeff Sharpies to Edmonton for Carson and right wing Kevin McClelland, added depth and speed. Sather gambled on Murphy, who had performed poorly since the Red Wings made him the first choice in the 1986 NHL draft, and Klima, who has three drunken-driving convictions. "We filled three positions [Sharpies went to the minors] and upgraded our speed by 25 to 30 percent," says Muckler. "And not one player was over 25 years old."
Klima, benched for four games by Muckler in January because of uninspired play, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is starting to score. Murphy, who never had the scoring ability to justify his selection as the league's No. 1 draft pick, seems to be responding to more realistic expectations in Edmonton. Both players, labeled as lazy in Detroit, are getting with the Oilers' program, which features discipline, hard checking and practices conducted at game tempo.
This revved-up style is exemplified by Messier, who has had an outstanding season at center and has emerged from the shadow of his good friend Gretzky. "It's like when Wayne was here, you knew that if he was on that night, you'd win," says center Craig MacTavish. "That's how it is with Mess this year."
When Messier, 29, was only the greatest second-best player a team could have, he would answer questions about his status stoically. "I thought there wasn't an award that I could win," he says. "Gretz would always get the MVP or the scoring championship. I wasn't exactly qualified for the Lady Byng [most gentlemanly player]. I thought I got all the recognition I could ever hope for by winning four Stanley Cups."
Now, however, Messier is one of two leading candidates—the other is Boston defenseman Ray Bourque—to win the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. The sight of Messier, 210 pounds of raw speed and power, gathering himself in his own end, flying into the opposition zone and firing a bullet toward the far corner of the net might be the most compelling sight in hockey.
On the other hand, the Oilers have not come close to replacing the unparalleled offensive talents of defenseman Paul Coffey, whom they traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in November 1987 after a contract dispute. Edmonton's power play is only average. One missing star who may soon return, though, is Fuhr, the best goalie in the game. He has resumed workouts after undergoing shoulder surgery on Dec. 27. If he can't scrape off the rust in time for the playoffs, Ranford, who has carried the team grandly in Fuhr's absence, might be good enough to give the Oilers a chance to win it all when he comes back from a sprained ankle.
Winning it all, of course, means beating the other team from Alberta. Who else is there? "There are people here who stop you on the street and say, 'As long as you beat the Oilers...,' " says Macoun. "I played at Ohio State. Facing Michigan was in jest compared to this."