EDMONTON — On a team full of high-end Heinekens, Kevin Lowe was an ice-cold Canadian. Honest, dependable, and when you really needed him, he was awfully good.
“With Kevin,” began Wayne Gretzky, “it was, ‘Tell me what you want me to do to contribute to the hockey club, and that’s what I’m going to do.’ And he never swayed from that.”
A week before Lowe is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and as the Oilers raise his No. 4 to the rafters before Friday’s game against the New York Rangers (7:55 p.m. ET / 5:55 p.m. MT on Sportsnet West), we’d ask the question: Who was this stay-at-home defender, a strong-boned product of Lowe’s dairy in Lachute, Quebec, and the conscience of a firewagon group that dearly needed someone to stay at home once in a while?
Well, you could get a pretty good picture of how well many of the superstars on those Edmonton teams had played just by perusing a score sheet after the game. With Lowe, however, they just didn’t track all the things he brought to the table.
Still don’t, really.
“You know, it was all about winning,” said Lowe, happy with the above description. “So what did I do to help the team win? Kill penalties. Shut some lines down once in a while. Play the last part of the game, ends of the periods. Make a big hit when needed. Even though I didn’t score much, I’d jump up in the play, just to try and change things up.
“Whatever the game needed, and whether I could do it or not, I would be thinking about it. And when the ship was in cruise, you kept everything in balance. Take care of the guys who were up from the minors, get out in the community and do good things for the organization. Everything to keep things as good around here as possible.”
Lowe knew a thing or two about winning, to be sure, collecting five Stanley Cups in Edmonton and another with the Rangers. As his No. 4 joins the pantheon of incredible players whose banners already hang in Edmonton, Lowe’s role on those dynasty Oilers clubs is crystalized.
They didn’t need more scoring, with Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson. They had Grant Fuhr, who so spectacularly kept pucks out of the Oilers nets, and Dave Semenko, the toughest fighter in the NHL for much of that time.
So, Lowe became everything else.
“He did all the dirty jobs,” said current Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, who played against Lowe and those Oilers teams. “There are players who had to kill penalties, players who had to be good defenders, and to me Kevin was the ultimate team player in that group.
“I asked an old GM years ago, why he had paid a checker that much money,” Tippett recalled. “And the GM, he said to me, ‘Because guys like that, they make you win.’ You’ve got to have good players, but you’ve got to have players who play in the trenches, who allow you to win.
“Kevin was a player who made teams win.”
If you were trailing 3-2 late in a game, perhaps you could find a defencemen to play ahead of Lowe.
If you were leading, no one played ahead of No. 4.
And durable? In the 134-season span that Lowe played for the Oilers — from 1979-92 — only two defencemen who played more than Lowe’s 966 games: Gordie Roberts (973) and Brad McCrimmon (969).
“I remember one game,” Craig MacTavish told me a few years back for my book, The Battle of Alberta. “We’d lost in Calgary, and then we came back here the next night and we had a brawl as soon as the puck hit the ice. Thirty seconds into the game, Kevin and I were sitting there in the dressing room, kicked out of the game after getting into a couple of secondary altercations. I remember Kevin saying, ‘Boy, were you and I ever on the same wave length.’ Thirty seconds in, and we were done.”
On that night, a fight was required. On another, something else.
“Yeah, you’re good,” he once said of his Oilers. “But you don’t win just because you’re good. You’ve got to really want to win, and to make the effort. Because it hurts.”
There were Stanley Cups, and there was 1986, when the Calgary Flames interrupted the dynasty with a seventh game win at Northlands Coliseum.
“We got sloppy. We were a little more selfish in our play, and less committed to the overall team game. That was the difference,” Lowe said. “Their tenacity was getting to us, and we weren’t as disciplined in reacting to it. We weren’t able to play with the lead enough to really get our swagger going.
“They had closed the gap and we needed to be even more disciplined than we ever had been, and we weren’t in that series. We buckled down in ’87 and ’88 again.”
Lowe’s induction and jersey retirement are all in honour of his time as a player. And even though he GM’ed the last Oilers team to make a Stanley Cup Final in 2006, some young Oilers fans think of Lowe as the architect of the Decade of Darkness, a 10-year span in which the Oilers never made the postseason.
Lowe isn’t going in as a builder, but rather as a player upon whom stability was built. His presence allowed the Gretzkys and Coffeys to entertain us to the degree they did, knowing that when things got real and it was time to hunker down and win a period, a shift, or kill a penalty, there was a guy on the team that you could lean on.
“Kids grow up, and you have this vision of the Crosbys, Lemieuxs, Messiers and Gordie Howes. But those are few and far between,” Gretzky said. “But when people who weren’t super overly talented get in there because of winning and hard work, it motivates young kids to say that they want to play in the NHL someday, and make the Hall of Fame too.
“It’s not just a Hall of Fame for guys who get a lot of points. The Hall of Fame is about winning, and that’s what makes it special. That kids can say, ‘I’m no Bobby Orr. But maybe I can be that Kevin Lowe, and compete and contribute.'”
As for Lowe, he still can’t believe they’re going to let him into the Hall without buying a ticket, or that he’ll look up until his last Oilers game and see his name and number up there next to so many truly great players.
“I was blessed to be cast in this situation,” he admitted. “How many days into our first training camp was it when Gretz skated up and said, ‘Hey, how about you and I get an apartment together?’
“And that stuff never ended. It just never ended.”