EDMONTON — The line was 20 years long for Kevin Lowe, winding through six Hockey Hall of Fame teammates and a HHOF builder in Glen Sather.
By the time Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr had been feted it seemed the Hall’s doors had closed on old Edmonton Oilers, just as Lowe had reached the front of the line.
“I never saw myself as a Hall of Famer,” Lowe admitted on Wednesday, just a couple of hours after taking the induction call from HHOF Chairman Lanny McDonald after 20 years of eligibility. “For me, the Hall of Fame was Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier.
“Although I know there are players of my ilk in the Hall of Fame…I understood you had to put up more points, win awards. My dream was always to win Stanley Cups — the Hall of Fame was something I never dreamed about. Today, when I saw it was Lanny McDonald phoning me, I thought to myself, ‘Surely he’s not calling to tell me I didn’t get in.
“It’s all surreal for me.”
Kevin Hugh Lowe, of Lachute, Que., was the ultimate old-school defenceman. He played 1,254 games between 1979 and 1998, and will no doubt finally have his No. 4 retired in Edmonton, for whom he was the Oilers’ first ever draft pick and the scorer of the franchise’s first NHL goal.
He played hurt in a way today’s player is actively dissuaded from doing, through the fog of concussion and bloodied appendages the likes of the one that stopped a game in St. Louis one night when Bernie Federko looked down and asked, “Who’s bleeding?”
It seems Lowe’s skate had filled with blood, and was now overflowing.
He once told me this, near the end of a career when that invisible foe vertigo was holding him down: “You used to say you saw stars. Now it’s a concussion,” he said. “I’ve had lots. Lots.”
That quote makes you cringe today. But inside those dressing rooms, in the days before we know what we know now about concussions, it was a player like Lowe who forged culture.
“The Edmonton Oilers are not what they became without Kevin Lowe. He was the adult in the room,” Mark Messier emailed on Wednesday. “One of the most competitive players I have every played with and demanded players give more through his own sheer determination.
“This is a great day for all Oiler fans and the organization. What a teammate. What a winner. What an unbelievable ambassador for the organization.”
Lowe was the measuring stick against which teammates gauged their willingness to play through pain; the guy who wasn’t always on the ice when the Oilers scored their five goals a night, but who was routinely deployed on a late penalty kill, or when the opponent had an empty net, in those final moments when ’80s hockey became particularly dangerous.
“Paul Bunyan Rules,” it what Lowe called those final 45 seconds in a game, when a trailing team didn’t care about taking a penalty, and the referee had swallowed his whistle anyhow. That was Lowe’s time, as important a window in sealing the victory as it had been for the glamour boys who had scored off those silky two-on-ones earlier in the night.
“Sure, there are going to be people out there who’d rather see Paul Coffey out there, lugging it up the ice,” Lowe, now 61, told me years ago. “But maybe not. Maybe, when there’s a minute left in the game, they’d rather see me out there.”
He didn’t make a lot of highlight reels, the man who married Canadian Olympic skier Karen Percy. But the Oilers had enough of those players.
“One of the most reliable defencemen you could possibly imagine,” said McDonald, a long-time Calgary Flame. “But more importantly we all knew that he was the leader of the pack. Yes, they had Gretzky, they had Kurri, they had Messier, they had Anderson, they had Grant Fuhr. But every time something happened…Kevin Lowe was in the thick of it. They were like a wolf pack, and that wolf out front was doing a hell of a job. When something had to be said, or something had to be done on the ice, we knew he was going to start it.
“It’s why in 19 years he only missed the playoffs once, and won six Stanley Cups.”
Lowe’s star took a hit when he returned from the New York Rangers to shepherd the Oilers through their Decade of Darkness, and the mostly younger fans who didn’t have history with him rightfully questioned the whole “Old Boys Club” routine. They rented road signs to ask for his ouster, and funnelled their passion into denigrating the man, as much as the executive. It was a regrettable time.
Through it all, of all those great Oilers, Lowe is the only one who stayed. Whose primary home, after all these years, is still in snowy Edmonton.
He took on that role. Because Lowe was never afraid of the dirty work.
“The goal was always just about winning,” he said. “As the pieces fell into place, Gretz, Jari, Mess and Andy did the bulk of the scoring. But we as players did our part to try to get to the win. If the night wasn’t going well for them and they weren’t putting up the points, then someone like us needed to step up.”
Smart, relentless and accountable, when it came to the Boys on the Bus, Lowe was indeed the adult in the room.
“I quickly realized that I had to find my place within that team,” he said. “I had offensive DNA when I came to pro…but all I wanted to do was find a place on the team — and win.
“We figured out the formula pretty well.”