What Coffey misses about the NHL

Paul Coffey is decked out in a crisp suit and dress shoes, and he’s sliding around in a boardroom swivel chair demonstrating how to beat the trap by quick passes and speed down the wings.

The Hall of Fame defenceman is 50 years old, and — as is the case with a lot of baby boomers — his knees, hips and lower back ache from time to time. But his joints don’t seem to be bothering him today.

Which is kind of the point: Coffey is now a businessman, and he’s hitting up media outlets to plug the 12-hour relief he gets from Aleve and the importance of rest, proper diet and exercise in helping Canadians deal with arthritis and joint pain.

Ironically, Coffey is moving about the Sportsnet conference room like a well-oiled machine. He makes it clear that he doesn’t have arthritis himself and that the soreness in his body doesn’t prevent him from doing anything (“I just pop an Aleve and go,” he dismisses, which may or may not be the medicine’s slogan, but it should be.)

The second-highest point-scoring defenceman of all time (to Ray Bourque) stays busy these days running a couple of car dealerships in Bolton, Ont., where he lives with his wife and three children. He plays golf in the summer and enjoys getting on the ice to coach both of his boys’ minor teams, head-coaching his 13-year-old’s team and assisting with his young guy’s squad. He brings his daughter along for today’s interview circuit.

All of that is beside the point, though. Coffey is keen to talk hockey, and his eyebrows raise when asked about his legendary speed.

“Wow, you must be an Oilers fan,” he says. “I’d be lying if I told you I worked harder than everybody else.”

Not that Coffey didn’t practice with intent, but his natural stride was God-given. He can’t remember a moment when he was faster than the rest of the kids. He just… was. Call up Coffey highlights on YouTube, and his steps on the ice appear smooth and effortless. Coffey says he always had a powerful running stride, too.

In order to get that strong push-off, when Coffey entered the NHL, he famously jammed his feet into a pair of skates two sizes too small, like the Grinch’s heart but with better results. With his foot slipping inside his size 8, Coffey’s socks got thinner and his boots shrunk until he was getting the control he needed. A fun anecdote, but Coffey doesn’t recommend it, figuring the size 6s contributed to some of his aches today.

The subject turns to the 2011 NHL, specifically the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap scheme and their game against the Philadelphia Flyers in which Philly’s defencemen refused to play rush the puck up the ice and the Lightning refused to forecheck. Our conversation with Coffey occurs the day after the Toronto Maple Leafs flew into Florida and walloped the Lightning 7-1.

“I don’t know the coach in Tampa,” Coffey says of Guy Boucher, “but there’s no way Toronto should beat that team 7-1. Not with the horses they have. Are you kidding me? The attitude should be, if they score seven, let’s go score eight.”

Coffey says today’s NHL is over-coached, that not enough trust is given to the players to use their own instincts, to let their talent loose.

“Everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s a simple game. The rink has always been this big.” Coffey outlines a rectangle with his fingers. The imaginary rink is not to scale, but his point is clear. If his argument were an end-to-end rush, Coffey is just rounding his own net, puck on the tape, building a head of steam.

“The modern game has too many statistics. They shouldn’t have started keeping track of all this stuff. There’s only a couple stats that matter. No one cares how many blocked shots a guy has, how many hits,” he says. “Your job is to entertain that guy in the stands who paid $100 to be entertained.”

Make no mistake, Coffey still watches the NHL. He just wishes the game were more entertaining. As a resident of the Greater Toronto Area, he roots for the home team (“C’mon, were all Leafs, though, aren’t we?” he says, as if those in Ontario have no choice), still follows Detroit, Pittsburgh and Edmonton. Those were the cities in which Coffey enjoyed his greatest success, before a series of forgettable wind-down stints in Hartford, Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina, and Boston, the longest of which lasted 113 games.

More than teams, though, Coffey says he follows players. He mentions Nashville’s Shea Webber, L.A.’s Drew Doughty as examples of defencemen he likes to watch. Both are defenders with booming shots, both can create offensive opportunities.

It makes sense in retrospect, considering his nose-for-the-net forward speed and corner-picking shot: Coffey wasn’t always a defenceman. He vividly recalls the day his junior coach told him he was getting shifted back to the blue line. Crestfallen, young Coffey complained to his father on the ride home from the arena. He didn’t want to play the game from the back.

“How many forwards are on the ice?” his dad asked him.

“Three,” Coffey answered.

“And how many defencemen,” his dad asked.


“Right. There’s less of them. That means more ice time for you.”

Coffey grew to love the position. “Everything’s in front of you. You see it all. You see everything develop, you see where to go,” he says. And once Coffey was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, he joined Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri on one of the most thrilling young sports teams ever. The give-and-go, Coffey’s bread and butter, was a revelation to him—especially with the NHL’s all-time leading giver setting him up.

Coffey says not once did a coach encourage him to play more stay-at-home. “If anything, it was the opposite,” he says. They wanted him up blasting into the opposition’s zone. “Gretzky would come in across the blue line and do his curl. He would get mad if I wasn’t coming in with speed, looking for the pass.”

Wielding heavy wooden sticks and leather skates, the Oilers of the ’80s caused offensive records to fall and Stanley Cups to rise.

On March 14, 1986, the score-at-will Oilers were playing the Detroit Red Wings. Coffey, having already notched his fourth point of the game with plenty of time remaining on the clock took at seat on the bench next to Gretzky.

“Wayne turned to me and asked, ‘Do you know the record for points in a game by a defenceman?’ I didn’t know, but Wayne knew all the stats, all the records. ‘No,’ I told him,” Coffey remembers. “ ‘It’s eight,’ Wayne said. ‘Let’s go.’ And I went out and got four more. Didn’t beat the record (held by Tom Bladon), but I tied it.”

In 1984-85, Coffey snapped Bobby Orr’s record for most goals by a defenceman with 48. (To put things in perspective, last season, only one forward, Corey Perry, scored that often.) Was it frustrating coming up only two goals shy of a nice, round 50?

“No,” Coffey blurts. “Because it tough enough to get the 48. You have to remember. That year I only had nine goals at Christmas, so getting to 48 was hard.” He pauses. “I guess I could have scored more before Christmas, though.”

Coffey seems confident today in his suit, content, happy to talk about his kids, proud of his car business, that he’s found something different after 21 years in the league. But how does a man adjust from being the fastest guy on the ice to being another dad coaching minor hockey, from drinking out of Stanley Cups and lifting Canada Cups and breaking more than 10 individual points records to selling Toyotas?

“Some guys say stuff like, ‘I miss the guys…’ Nah, I still have friends. What I miss is the emotion. That feeling in the dressing room after you win—nothing comes close to that. You can’t get that in any other career.” Coffey thinks for a second. “Maybe in the stock market back in the ’80s when people were making tons of money, maybe they felt something similar. Maybe. But look at the market now. Nothing gives you that emotion like sports. Nothing. Am I wrong?”

Coffey scans the boardroom, looking at the faces of the journalist and p.r. folks, none of whom will taste Stanley’s champagne or party with Mario Lemieux in victory or win three Norris trophies or one-time a buttery pass from 99 and stretch the twine.

No, Paul Coffey is not wrong.

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