Glen Sather used to terrify me.
But that was OK. Because he terrified pretty much everyone, at first.
“I’ve been interviewed for jobs by him,” Ken Hitchcock said on Thursday, “and was scared to death in the interview.”
At 75 years old, Sather isn’t so intimidating anymore. As he steps away from active duty with the New York Rangers, Sather goes down in National Hockey League history as one of the very few who was ever as successful a coach as he was a general manager — or vice versa, depending on how you look at it.
Harry Sinden and Bob Gainey would be comparables, but arguably nobody ever filled both roles as successfully as Sather.
“I’m not going to the graveyard,” he told the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson on Thursday. “I’m going to be advisor to the owner (Jim Dolan) and be the alternate governor.”
How long has Sather been a fixture in the game?
“I watched Glen at Oil Kings practices, when Glen was an Edmonton Oil King,” Hitchcock recalled. “He played on a line with Max Mestinsek and Butch Paul. He wasn’t a very good player.”
His nickname ‘Slats’ was bestowed upon Sather because of the amount of time he spent on the old wooden benches of the day. But he was a cagey kid from High River, Alta. who was smart enough to devote some of those early pay checks to real estate in Banff, and run hockey schools in the off-season.
He was also wise enough to be the perfect father figure for an Oilers team that required equal parts guidance and free reign, back in the early ‘80s.
“He gave us a lot of rope, so that we could learn on our own, but he also knew when to yank on the rope to reel us back in,” goalie Grant Fuhr told me for my book, The Battle of Alberta. “So he let us grow, thinking it was our idea.”
As a player for six NHL teams, Sather learned the traditions of Original Six clubs in Montreal, Boston and New York. But as an Oilers player/coach in the World Hockey Association, he recognized the Winnipeg Jets, with their European-heavy lineup and style, as the future of North American hockey. He patterned his Oilers after those teams, and built a dynasty.
“I once told Glen,” Wayne Gretzky said in The Battle of Alberta, “for a six-goal scorer, he had tremendous hockey sense.
“He was harder on us than our parents were,” Gretzky continued. “The very first phone call you ever made if something bad happened, or something wasn’t right, if you called Glen he was going to take care of it. So he really became a father to all of us, especially those of us who were here at 18, 19, 20.”
“That’s part of the job,” Sather said. “You have to watch out for them, and at the same time you have to let them grow. Allow them to become young men. They have to make mistakes, to learn to be responsible.”
Sather won four Stanley Cups as a head coach in Edmonton in the ’80s, and was the team’s GM for all five Cups in a seven-year span. After leaving for New York in 2000, Sather would preside over more wins than any other GM in Rangers history during his 14 years at the helm — 556, or an average of 40 per season.
From 2005-06 to 2016-17, the Ranges were one of just four NHL clubs to make the playoffs 11 times in 12 seasons. They reached the Final once, losing the Los Angeles in 2014.
He was a head coach, a GM and President over the years, and didn’t hesitate when asked which role he enjoyed the most.
“Coaching for sure,” Sather said. “You’re living with the players all the time and it’s tedious work (at times). But when you get into management you don’t have the effect on what goes on in the game. You build the team but you sit there and get frustrated. As President, you have the least effect. Coaching’s the most fun.”
Sportsnet’s Brian Burke lamented Sather stepping away from the day-to-day grind of the NHL, speaking on 630 CHED in Edmonton Thursday with Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now.
“If you’re a friend of Glen Sather’s you end up on the positive side of the ledger,” Burke began. “From the knowledge he imparts, from the generosity he demonstrates… He’s one of the best human beings that I know.
“He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s funny,” Burke continued. “I have a great respect and admiration — and affection — for the man. The game of hockey will be worse off without Glen Sather involved.”
Ironically, while Sather frees himself from the daily rigours in New York, his old team is in search of the some top-down guidance. Should the Oilers be barking up Sather’s tree?
“I would hate to think the Edmonton Oilers wouldn’t turn that stone over to see if there is something there,” Burke said. “I would view that as a grave mistake.”