Why the Oilers-Flyers ’87 Cup Final ranks among the best in NHL history

Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers team captain holds up the Stanley Cup trophy following the Oilers 3-1 victory in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 1987. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Sportsnet is turning back the clock to relive Canada’s most unforgettable best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series with NHL Classics: Best of Seven Series. Game 1 of 1987’s iconic showdown between the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers airs tonight, April 21, starting at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT. The full broadcast schedule can be found here.

EDMONTON — It’s not unanimous, but the people who spent the most time around the Edmonton Oilers — players, coaches, media — decidedly concur that the 1986-87 roster was the best one ever iced by Edmonton.

Defection and the Gretzky sales had not yet occurred. Six Hall of Famers — Wayne Gretzky, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson — still skated here, with a seventh behind the bench in Glen Sather. And now superstar forward Kent Nilsson had arrived from Minnesota, “The Magic Man” installed on a line with Messier and Anderson.

Edmonton had famously lost to the Calgary Flames the previous spring, so a core group that had won two Stanley Cups had been slapped to attention. They could not have been more prepared for the spring of 1987, and it showed as the Oilers lost only two playoff games in the first three rounds: Game 1 of Round 1 to Los Angeles on April 8, and Game 1 of Round 3 vs. Detroit on May 5.

They were 12-2 in the post-season when the Philadelphia Flyers arrived for Game 1 at Northlands Coliseum, their captain Dave Poulin playing with cracked ribs and leading scorer Tim Kerr lost for the remainder of the playoffs. The Flyers had played two six-game series and a seven-gamer against Montreal, a series that featured the legendary pregame brawl that stands as the NHL’s last, true bench-clearing melee.

There was a lot of history, and plenty going on in the present as well.

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“Some guys had lost to the Oilers two years before in the ’85 Cup, but I was a rookie and just happy to be there,” said former Flyers forward Scott Mellanby. “Sometimes youth is bliss.”

Edmonton was the regular season champion with 50 wins and 106 points, and Philadelphia was second with 46 wins and 100 points. Unlike the 1985 final, this series would go the distance–the first time since 1971.

“We felt like they were the beast you were trying to slay,” said Mellanby. “They’d won in ’84, won in ’85… Calgary was trying to beat them for the whole decade, and we viewed them as the King of the League. But we knew we had a chance – especially the way Ronny Hextall was playing.”

Hextall was a rookie netminder, but a tenacious one. He wielded a mean stick, and was by some accounts the toughest player on the Flyers roster, give or take a Dave Brown or a Rick Tocchet. He had turned 23 years old between Rounds 2 and 3, and would oppose Fuhr, a right in-his-prime goalie on his fourth Stanley Cup team, mere months away from starring for Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup.


“We knew they had a deep lineup, and a handful of stars players,” said Philadelphia’s Ron Sutter. “Starting with Wayne, down to Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Anderson, and a back end with Coff… We couldn’t match their star power — we knew that. We had to play a smart game.”

Alas, a smart game in 1987 wasn’t quite the same as it is in 2020.

The ’87 Final was where ’80s finesse and toughness met the speed and skill of the 2000s, at least where Edmonton was concerned. They were a team with six Hall of Fame players, all in their prime.

They’d been upset early on, in the Miracle on Manchester by Daryl Evans and the Los Angeles Kings in ’82. They’d lost the ’83 Stanley Cup Final, swept by the Islanders, a series that showed them that there had to be another level to the one they thought was the top. That there was more. There always had to be more.

And after winning two Cups, the Oilers had failed to adjust against the Calgary Flames in Round 2 of the 1986 playoffs, losing out at a time when many wondered if the Oilers could challenge the Montreal Canadiens record of five straight Cups.

“(Flames coach) Bob Johnson had revamped their whole system to play against us. How to beat Coffey, how to beat Gretzky, how to beat Kurri,” remembered Anderson in the book, The Battle of Alberta. “There was one game we lost late in the season, we lost 9-3 in Calgary. Not only should we have learned from that game, we should have countered out attack and revamped our own system against that team.”

Wiser from defeat, the ’87 Oilers had endured more than enough heartbreak to hone their edge. By the time the Flyers arrived for the 1987 Final, Edmonton’s dressing room was full of players who could see what was wrong before the coaches even clipped the video. And they knew how to fix it.

“We had learned what the formula was, especially after the Islanders loss in ’83 and then after we won our first Cup in ’84,” said defenceman Kevin Lowe. “We knew what the perfect formula was for success. An iron clad, systematic approach to our game play and our systems. Any time we waivered — for a period or a game — we could see it. Then it would be there (the next day on video) in living colour, and very clear to us: ‘OK, we can’t do THAT again.’ Or, ‘We have to do more of THAT. And if we do, we will win.’”

Ironically, the 1986-87 campaign marked the first time in six seasons that the Oilers failed to score 400 goals, dropping 51 goals from the previous season to 372. But there was one problem in all of that for Philly.

“Edmonton was a lot better defensive club than people gave them credit for,” Sutter said. “Sure, you had Grant in net, but you look at their back end. Outside of Coff and Kevin Lowe, they had some unheralded guys — big, strong guys — who were hard to play against. Randy Gregg, Charlie Huddy, Steve Smith… These were tough, big strong guys.”

Edmonton had better forwards than the Flyers, plus a deeper, more mobile and bigger defence. In goal it was an NHL rookie vs a Team Canada goalie.

You’d think the Oilers might have been complacent, wouldn’t you?

“When you go that far in the playoffs, and we had experienced the fall out in ’82 against the Kings, and been swept by the Islanders in ’83, we were never overconfident in any series,” Lowe corrected. “We had a good formula: if we played within our system, we felt we could win a series. But it’s not like you looked at a team like the Flyers, who were pretty young and kind of beat up for that series, and say, ‘This one’s in the bag.’

“It was never that way.”

And so they began, with Game 1 slated for Northlands Coliseum. It was Sunday, May 17, 1987.

What happened next?

Said Sutter: “It was probably the best playoff series I have ever played in, in all my years.”

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