Oilers greats bid fond farewells to legendary John Muckler

Gene Principe chats with Mark Spector about John Muckler and his contributions to the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty of the past. Muckler passed away at the age of 86.

EDMONTON — It may have been Day 3 of training camp Tuesday, but in the Edmonton Oilers' world, it was Day 1 without former head coach John Muckler, who died Monday at age 86.

“Just a really special, unique man,” said a solemn Wayne Gretzky, on 630 CHED radio.

Muckler was Glen Sather’s assistant coach on the 1984 and 1985 Stanley Cup winning teams, and was elevated to co-coach on the 1987 and 1988 Cup winners. On the post-Gretzky, 1990 Stanley Cup champion team, Muckler was the head coach.

That 1990 team was perhaps Muckler’s finest work, after being hired by Sather to coach in Wichita of the Central League in 1982.

“John ran a strict, smart team that played the same kind of style that I wanted to use in Edmonton,” Sather said in a conference call on Tuesday. “He was (nine years), older than me, a little more mature, and sometimes a little more patient than me.

“But he had one focus in mind, and that was to do it the way we wanted the players to play. The players respected that, and it made my job a lot easier.”

While Sather was the psychologist and pusher of buttons on those dynasty Oilers teams, Muckler — along with fellow staff member Ted Green, who died in October of 2019 — brought a technical aspect to the Oilers game plan. Together, the three had all the ground covered when it came to maximizing a roster that had perhaps more pure talent than any ever to lace up skates in the NHL.

“John Muckler and Teddy Green’s contributions were as important as any of the great players on those teams. I can attest to it. I lived it,” said former Oiler Kevin Lowe, one of seven players from that dynasty to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“The misunderstanding was, we don’t win all those championships without being such a superbly technical team,” Lowe continued. “In those days, sure, you could get away with winning (regular season) games without being as technical. But after 1983, we became a video-trained, highly technical hockey team. We won Cups because we had talent, but you don’t win without having more than that.”

An example: The Oilers simply could not win at the tight-cornered band box that was the old Boston Garden, even when they were winning their first two Cups. But in the ’88 and ’90 Stanley Cup Finals, Edmonton won four of five games in Boston, with the fifth one being ruled a tie when the lights went out and the score was 3-3.

Muckler’s brilliant coaching is credited with providing the game plan that could beat the Bruins in their own quirky arena.

“There was never a day when I went to the rink and I didn’t leave without the confidence that we didn’t have the right game plan to win the next game,” said Lowe. Even after a bad loss, “You’d go to practice, and you’d leave there going, ‘We’re going to be all right.’”

Pom Poms Out

In their post-practice, media Zoom calls, Caleb Jones and Kailer Yamamoto appeared wearing Team USA jerseys while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse donned the red and white of Team Canada. All four represented their country at the U-20 tournament.

“We were able to beat Canada in a shootout in Montreal (in 2017),” Jones recalled. “It’s probably the most memorable game I’ll have in my career.”

Jones’ career has reached the point where a full-time job in the NHL awaits. Seth’s little brother has been knocking on the door in Edmonton for a couple of seasons now, and with Oscar Klefbom — another left-handed defenceman — out for the season with arthritis in his shoulder, there’s a job waiting for Jones.

A year ago, Ethan Bear whizzed past him on the depth chart. It sounds like he won’t let that happen again.

“I didn’t come in camp last year with the start I wanted, and I ended up getting sent down real quick,” said Jones, who is 24 with 60 NHL games played. “This year … I knew there was some opportunity. I wanted to come in, impress people, and show that I’m ready to take more.”

As a young player you’re just trying not to make too many mistakes. Now, it’s time to simply play the game that got him here.

“I’m not worried about making mistakes,” Jones said. “I just want to make plays and have a good impact on the game.”

He’s been paired with the stay-at-home Adam Larsson early in camp. Of course, Larsson traditionally pairs with Klefbom.

Pairs, Not Three of a Kind

Head coach Dave Tippett says that his lines won’t be so fluid because training camp is so short this year.

“You’re looking at pairs,” he said, listing off the pairs he’d like to see work up front. That’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid; Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto; Kyle Turris and Jesse Puljujarvi.

“I like Puljujarvi and Turris so far,” Tippett confirmed. “We’ll tinker, through one more full day of practice and two full scrimmages. I would say with a short camp you’re trying to find some continuity, but the reality is you probably won’t know until you’re a few days into the season where all the parts fit best.”

Puljujarvi is getting some early love from his new head coach, who spoke with him about leaving Finland and giving the NHL another try.

“I think there’s a good hockey player there,” Tippett said. “He was a young player, probably thrown into some situations a little bit early, and he struggled with it. He talked very openly. He put it on himself that he didn’t handle (his first NHL stint) very well. His expectations were higher than they should have been.

“He’s matured a lot. His English is a lot better. He’s a good player who should be playing in our league.”

Nugent-Hopkins was asked if Puljujarvi had to clear the air in the dressing room, after walking out on the Oilers when he fled to Finland and Oulu Karpat.

“I don’t really think it needs to be touched on,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s out here, working hard. He’s put in the time and worked on his English a lot. He’s speaking a lot better now. His attitude is, he wants to be part of this group and we’re excited to have him.

“He’s a big kid with all the talent in the world. We’re excited to help him figure it all out.”

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