Today feels like an ’88 day.
Grant Fuhr — Hockey Hall of Fame member, scratch golfer, smiling senior — peeks up from the stacks of hundreds of hardcover books baring his images and stops signing them to twirl a chunk of precious metal on his right hand. His 1988 Stanley Cup ring is one of five the adopted kid from Alberta won with the Edmonton Oilers, and he keeps them in steady rotation.
“When I’m home I switch ’em up. I try to wear them all,” says Fuhr, who squeezed in some time between his annual 100 rounds of golf to become an author at age 52. “They’re all special in their own way. You have a different group of guys for each ring, and each season has its own twists and turns.”
If anyone knows twists — plot, body and otherwise — it’s Fuhr. The game’s first black superstar was not only integral to the game’s last great dynasty and still holds multiple individual records, but he also dressed for some horrific teams and got suspended for his habitual cocaine use.
In Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend, co-written with Bruce Dowbiggin, the goaltending icon offers up a refreshing amount of candour.
As he did, between squeaks of his Sharpie, when we sat down with him to discuss bad rules, the new Oilers and Charles Barkley’s swing.
SPORTSNET.CA: I asked Ron MacLean who was his toughest interview ever.
GRANT FUHR: I bet I rank up there.
Yep, number 1. Why would he say that?
Because in past years I never said much, and I think that’s why it shocked everybody when I came out with the book. Throughout my career I gave minimal answers.
When I was young, I wasn’t really comfortable. And I learned early that you give the press the answers very direct. The more you talk, the more they can take [your answer] and move it around.
So why release a book now, 14 years after retiring?
More comfortable with myself and the life I’ve lived. I’m happy where I’m at in life. That’s the biggest difference. I was happy then, but now I’m comfortable with everything – good and bad.
What have been your life lessons?
Some people grow up through school; they’re good students. I did it the opposite way. I was a terrible student, but I can survive on the street. I learned the hard way. The best way of learning is, you try something, you get your finger slapped, and you probably shouldn’t do it again. Or you do it again and you get your finger slapped again. I did things the hard way. When you’re young and you do it that way, you’re more comfortable keeping to yourself. But as you have kids and get older, you don’t want them to have to do it the same way.
What’s the biggest difference between your getting caught with cocaine and a NHLer today?
They have a policy in place for it now. Back when I played there was no policy. The first thought was to punish, whereas now they help players. In that sense, the league has got much better. It’s one of the best things they’ve done: they help players off the ice because they’ve realized it helps the product on the ice. Instead of just punishing. Hockey was probably the last to get a program like that.
Why did hockey lag behind?
All the sports were transitioning at that time. They did more research into it. They did a good job of it.
Was your first instinct to fight against the punishment?
Was I bitter that it was six years [after my use] before I got suspended? Yeah, I was bitter about that. But there’s nothing you can do about it. All you can do is move on and make yourself a better person. That’s what I did. Got lots of gym time in. You can sit and be mad, but the only thing that gets you is more frustrated. Then you accomplish less. You accept it; you don’t have to like it. It probably made me a better person.
The ’84 Oilers reunited last month. With the NHL dynasty becoming increasingly rare, does it feel even more special what you guys were able to accomplish as time goes on?
It does. But we also realize that in a salary-cap era dynasties are going to be hard to build. We were fortunate salaries weren’t that high, so we were able to keep a team together for a long time. As soon as they traded Wayne, we all knew it was coming to a crashing halt. As tough as it was for us, it was good for the game, for the players, because salaries skyrocketed afterward.
Where were you when you heard Wayne was traded?
I was at Bob Cole’s golf tournament in Newfoundland, playing with Marty (McSorley). And we thought someone was playing a joke on Marty, but it turned out not so funny.
What was your initial thought?
Life was going to be different. If they can trade Wayne, we all knew at some point we’d be gone too. That brought reality to everybody. Good things can’t last forever. We were hoping it would last forever, but once that happened, we knew it wouldn’t.
“We were hoping it would last forever, but once that happened, we knew it wouldn’t.”
You still see Wayne every couple of months. Describe your on-ice relationship with him.
He was the quiet leader. Mess was the vocal guy in the room. We knew what we had to do. The team didn’t get credit for being as good defensively as we knew we could be because we played a wide-open style during the season. But if you look at our playoff record, we were pretty good defensively. The guys could play defence if they wanted to. During the year, that wasn’t the style of hockey we were going to play.
And your playoff save percentage is better. Is that because you personally stepped up your game or the team became more responsible?
Both. We got better defensively, and your focus gets better. You want to shine at the right times. I enjoyed the playoffs because it’s win or go home. There’s more pressure.
What do you make of these current Oilers?
They’ve got to learn to want to impress the guy sitting next to them. Impressing your coach in fine; you don’t have to like your coach. But you have to like and get along with everybody in that room, and you have to want to push that guy sitting next to you to get better. And I think they’re still learning that. Because it only takes one guy not to believe in that to ruin a team.
How do you learn that?
Leadership of the older guys has to instill that in the younger guys. When we played it was just a tradition, from Lee Fogolin down through, that’s just how it worked. That’s the way you have to do it. That’s the way we were taught. The veteran guys taught the younger players, and the coaches instilled that message. That’s what has to happen there.
Is the talent in place, or do they need to fill some holes?
I actually like the young kids they have in place. They’ve gotten better on defence, but they’re young. They’ve gotten better in goal, but they’re young. So it’s just gonna have to grow together. They have to learn that there’s going to be ups and downs, but when you’re down, you have to believe in each other. When things aren’t going well, those are the only people you can go to and trust. The fans, when you’re winning, it’s easy. When you’re losing, they’ll be the first ones to be critical. So the guys in the room are your support system.
What do you consider your lowest point as a player?
I had a tough struggle my second year [with an .868 save percentage]. Obviously the first year went well [Fuhr was a Second Team All-Star as a rookie], and you think it’s gonna be easy. The second year I struggled for probably half the year, and it was hard. But at the same time, the guys were always positive, and that was one of the biggest things for me. It made it easier. It would’ve been miserable if I was struggling and they just let me struggle. They’d push you and lean on you a bit, but you always knew they were trying to make you better. For myself, that really helped.
How has the Battle of Alberta changed?
A lot. If you look back in the ’80s, three of the top six teams in the league were us, Calgary and Winnipeg, and you knew somebody was going out in the first round. Fortunately for us we’d get L.A. or Vancouver. Calgary and Winnipeg just beat each other up. We knew if we could get out of our division, we’d have a good chance of winning it all. But the hardest games were in our own division. Every time we played Calgary it would go six or seven games – and they were mean right from the start. Every regular-season game was mean. The exhibition games you knew would be ugly, to set the tone. It was fairly nasty. You’d have busloads of fans from Edmonton go to Calgary and vice versa. Growing up in Edmonton, you knew the rivalry was there because the Eskimos and Stampeders had the same thing. I saw it as a kid. So to actually play in it was fun.
How do we get that back?
Both teams need to be playoff contenders. That’ll bring the nastiness back quick. The games now aren’t as physical, and some of the rule changes have changed that. You couldn’t get away with the hooking, holding, after the whistle punching in the face and all that fun stuff.
Is it better for a team to have a clear Number 1 or a 1A/1B situation?
If I was running a team, I’d rather have a 1A/1B. Yeah, they have goalie coaches now, but your best push is going to come from your partner. You can lean on your partner. You travel together. You’re going to spend more time with him than you are the coach. And you’re going to trust him more than your coach. I like the 1A-1B thing because it makes each of them better. And you tell them at the start of year: “If you play well, you’re going to play. If he plays well, he’s going to play.” So you have a friendly competition.
Is there a personal NHL record you’re most proud of?
Playing 79 games one year [with the St. Louis Blues in 1995-96].
At that point I was supposed to be washed up and done, so it was fun to go out every day and prove to people that, yeah, I’m getting older and I’m a little more broken down, but at the same time I can still play every day. And I actually had one of my better years statistically [30 wins, .903 save percentage, his NHL best].
That record is probably safe.
It’ll last the longest. Well, 14 points [in 1983-84] might last a while too. That’s not much of my doing; that’s the guys. It’s the one that’ll stick around for a while because a lot of goalies get tired mentally and have a hard time playing, while I enjoyed it. I never got tired mentally. Your body might’ve got tired a little bit, but if your mind’s fresh, your body stays fresh. So I enjoyed playing every day.
Now we make a big deal of a goalie playing both ends of a back-to-back. What did you do to recuperate?
We played back-to-back, we travelled. My off days I’d go play golf. It’s four hours where you’re not thinking about hockey, so your mind rests. And if your mind rests, your body’s fresh.
What’s changed, then? Do goalies need more rest now because the game is faster?
The game being faster makes it different for a forward. For a goalie, it’s not that different. You’re still covering the same four or five feet. Things are happening quicker, but it’s the same around the net. The last year I coached in Phoenix, I threw the gear on and practised with the team just so I could have a look at it. And it’s not that much faster of a game around the net; the up and down is faster. The kids shoot the puck better, but things don’t happen faster at the net.
What’s the biggest change in the position?
The equipment. Not that it’s bigger but that it’s lighter. Guys are wearing it bigger because it’s so much lighter. If it was heavier, they’d shrink the equipment. For all the rules they’re trying to put in on equipment measurements? Put a weight limit on it. That’ll shrink it quickly.
Are you envious when you see today’s equipment? Do you think about all the extra pucks you could’ve stopped?
I’d still have the same save percentage. I had fun because all the guys I grew up watching wore the heavy equipment: Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall… those were idols of mine, and I got to wear the same type of equipment. I take pride in that.
“Golf is four hours where you’re not thinking about hockey, so your mind rests. And if your mind rests, your body’s fresh.”
What did you think of the elimination of the spin-o-rama?
My theory on the shootout is it should incorporate the same rules as a penalty shot. And in a penalty shot you can’t twirl around. Goalies have an advantage. The longer you can stand and wait, the more of an advantage you have because the forward has to commit at some point. Shootouts would’ve been fun. It’s the one thing I wish we would’ve had. I enjoyed breakways.
Who would you least like to face in a penalty shot?
There’s no one you don’t want to see, but some guys are harder because they’re faster. Pavel Bure did everything so fast, it was hard to stay patient. Mario [Lemieux] had a big reach, so you had to be really patient with him. The minute you committed, he’d reach around you. Different guys have different attributes, so you had to learn to play them differently. But at the end of the day, they still have to make a move. So you try to stay in position long enough to let them make that first move.
Any desire to get back coaching goalies?
At some point I’d like to. I’ve had a couple years away from it now. A little break. I enjoyed it. I’d really like to do it at the junior level because the kids want to learn. At the NHL level you’re just polishing what they can already do. At junior, you’re teaching – and the teaching is fun.
Which coach would you credit for most helping your technique?
Not a coach. My first partner, Ronnie Low. I didn’t have a goalie coach until I got to Buffalo. Goalie coaches didn’t come in until ’91 or ’92, so it was your partner and whoever else was around that you learned from. So learning from Ronnie Low and Andy – that’s two pretty good goalies you get to see every day.
“Somebody punches you in the face? That’s a steeper price to pay.”
You can change one rule in today’s game. What is it?
The trapezoid and the instigator. The trapezoid is useless. They put that in for the four or five goalies that can actually handle the puck. That means there’s 26 other guys who can’t handle it that well. If you’re trying to create offence, who’s going to give the puck away more, a goalie or a defenceman? You’ve taken an [offence-generating] element away and you’ve set up the defenceman to get killed. If the goalie can’t handle it, the forechecker has a free run at the defenceman. Why punish the goalie for learning his position properly? Not a fan.
And the instigator?
Anytime you take discipline and move it into a boardroom it’s going to be behind. If the players police the players, you don’t have guys running each other from behind. You get respect back. There’s no accountability if you can run someone from behind and the decision comes out of a boardroom. If you run someone from behind and you can’t get to your bench because somebody decided to punch you in the face, you’re not going to do it again.
And your Oilers always had enforcers.
We always had three or four guys who could fix that problem if it happened, but if you look, every team had two or three guys. Nobody got run from behind. Yeah, the game got mean here and there, but everybody respected each other because you had to. It wasn’t a forced respect. If you ran somebody from behind, you knew you’d pay a price. Do it now, you may get fined or suspended. But with the money guys are making now, that’s not really a price. Somebody punches you in the face, that’s a steeper price to pay.
When you watch Sidney Crosby, especially in the playoffs, is he getting pushed around more than Wayne did?
It’s earned in team respect. You might push Wayne around, but the next shift, [Dave] Semenko is knocking on your doorstep or Marty [McSorley] or Kevin McClelland. So you didn’t do it. Now, they push Sidney around, he starts to push back. And Sid’s not as good a player when he’s pushing back. But they don’t have anyone who can step up and do it for him because the rulebook doesn’t allow it. That’s why you see guys take advantage of the superstars now.
“Shootouts would’ve been fun. It’s the one thing I wish we would’ve had.”
Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s colour barrier, still speaks with current black players. Do today’s black players reach out to you at all?
Not so much. I was lucky enough to play in Canada, so you don’t see so much of a black-white issue. Willie had the real hard run, playing in Boston. He went through all that, Tony McKegney went through all that. Mike Marson went through that. It had been done by then, so I got lucky. Especially playing in Edmonton. There was so much going on around our team, you were an afterthought. I got a break when it came to that.
So you didn’t feel any sort of hate based on race?
Nope. And I played behind a mask, so it wasn’t as prevalent.
Is enough being done to encourage black youth to pick up the game?
It’s getting better, but they could still do more. The diversity program the NHL has now does a pretty good job, but I think there’s room for improvement. They’re reaching out to more non-hockey markets, but you can always grow the game more.
“Why punish the goalie for learning his position properly?”
You’ve often golfed with Charles Barkley. What’s your best Charles story?
He’s awesome to play with. So much fun. I remember back when Charles used to be a good player. He was probably an eight or nine handicap at one time. I don’t know where it went sideways. If you watch him on the range, he still hits the ball good. The minute he gets to the first tee, he’s got a few hitches. Most guys have a hitch. I played with him one year at Mario’s event in Pittsburgh. A fan heckled him over missing a putt, and Charles called him out. That was entertaining. He wanted the guy to step out and roll the same putt. And the guy passed. [laughs]
And how did you start golfing with Phil Mickelson?
I played with Phil a bunch when I was playing [hockey]. Easily the most talented golfer I’ve ever seen. The things he can do with a golf ball are amazing — and just a nice, nice guy. To be at the top of his sport and treat you like a king? That was fun. He went to school with a guy I was friends with, and he invited Phil out to play one day in Arizona. Seems every time we’d play, he’d bring out Phil and we’d have some fun. Phil would come watch some games, and when tournaments were in Arizona, I’d walk around and watch Phil play.
Not at all. I enjoyed every minute of it. The good, the bad, the ugly. Because it’s all learning experiences. How many kids get to win five Stanley Cups?