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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Grant Fuhr: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Goalie helped Oilers win five Stanley Cup championships, was first black player inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame

by John MacKinnon / Special to NHL.com

Grant Fuhr never seemed to let the extreme pressure of stopping pucks affect his demeanor. The goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers glory teams of the 1980s, whose resume also includes stellar work for the Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames, stood out by being easygoing and laid back.

"I've always been kind of a relaxed guy," Fuhr said. "I grew up that way and played sports that way my whole life. For me, it's a good temperament to have as a goalie.

 

Video: Grant Fuhr was first black player in Hall of Fame

 

"It's easy to get excited when things are going good, but it's also easy to fall into a rut when things are going bad."

On the ice, Fuhr tried to keep his emotions on a "nice, flat line."

For many a goalie, that flat line would spike wildly in an eyeblink when dealing with an Al MacInnis slap shot, or fending off some opposing forward crashing the net, or a cluster of overeager youngsters ripping too many high, hard ones at your head in practice.

 

GRANT FUHR CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 868 | Wins: 403 | Losses: 295 | Ties: 114 | GAA: 3.38

 

But Fuhr's personality, like his playing style, was a hybrid. His was a relaxed intensity, his "sure, no problem" affability masking a fierce competitive fire.

"One, I am ultra-competitive," said the native of the Edmonton suburb of Spruce Grove, Alberta, where he grew up watching the Oilers in the World Hockey Association. "I think that worked to my benefit.

"Two, I enjoyed the game, enjoyed being at the rink every day. Which is part of what makes you good, you have to like what you're doing. I loved being there every day, loved competing every day."

That attitude was not merely a good fit, it was a necessity with the run-and-gun '80s Oilers, who learned to play sound team defense but deployed those skills economically, and mostly in the playoffs, at that.

"Obviously, at that time, we played a little different style than everybody else," Fuhr said. "We were a bit similar to the Montreal teams of the mid-1970s. They played that run-and-gun, they had that talent.

"We could check when we had to, but that's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to be able to play a run-and-gun, be offensive and score goals."

Fuhr, selected No. 8 by the Oilers in the 1981 NHL Draft, had played for a high-scoring Victoria Cougars major junior team in the Western Hockey League. It proved to be appropriate training for his time with the Oilers.

The mandate he and his goaltending partners received from Oilers coach Glen Sather was to make the necessary saves to help the team win, not necessarily to make all the saves.

"That's what Glen taught us, you do what you do best," Fuhr said. "We knew we were going to give up some chances, you knew you were going to get work every night.

"You weren't going to stand around and get 15, 16, 18 shots on net. You knew you were going to get 35 every night, and that was OK."

Fuhr joined the Oilers for 1981-82, turning 19 years old just before the season opener. He was a precocious talent with lightning reflexes and an otherworldly gloved right hand. And that relaxed intensity.

"I had good hands and good reflexes and I could rely on that my first year because nobody knew me," Fuhr said. "I didn't know them [either], so basically it was reflex against reflex.

"In that sense, I got away with a lot my first year just based on reflexes. As my career progressed, I got better at learning the game, reading it, being able to see different situations which, with the reflexes I had, gave me a big advantage."

Fuhr, like his gifted teammates, grew up with the Oilers, his game maturing along the way.

"I was lucky, I had Ronnie Low as a partner my first year," Fuhr said. "One of the biggest things that he taught me was you have to add something to your game every year, that's what keeps you in the League.

"The little bit you can add every year, makes you a different goalie every year. My first year felt pretty easy. My second year, I struggled.

"And I figured out that you've got to keep adding and adding and adding to get better every year. You learn as you get older, too."

In 10 seasons with the Oilers, Fuhr helped them win five Stanley Cup championships and established himself as an elite NHL goalie -- as good as it got in his era, really. In perhaps his best season, 1987-88, Fuhr started 75 regular-season games, played 4,304 minutes, made 2,061 saves and posted 40 victories -- all of those totals led the NHL -- on the way to winning the Vezina Trophy as the League's top goaltender for the only time in his career. 

He had a career-high four shutouts that season. Fuhr's career total of 25 regular-season shutouts is a modest one, and his goals-against average of 3.38 and his .887 save percentage also were middling by current standards. But as part of one of the most prolific teams in NHL history, Fuhr had 14 points (all on assists) in 1983-84, the most by any goalie in a single season. With 46 points, he is third all-time behind Tom Barrasso (48) and Martin Brodeur (47).

In the high-scoring '80s, Fuhr still was the gold standard among puck stoppers, his hybrid style a mix of components he deployed to suit the situation. 

"[With the hybrid] you can do a little of everything," Fuhr said. "You're not confined to one style. The butterfly [style] guys are confined to going down.

"But players are smart, they see video. Come playoff time, everybody knows if you can put somebody, put a body in front of [the goaltender], every shot's going high. With the hybrid, you're not really sure what a guy's going to do: be aggressive, be a bit more passive. He may stand up, he may go down.

"It just gives you more options to play the game."

It's a style that proved to be portable, as well as durable.

As the Oilers dynasty broke apart in the '90s with teammates seeking bigger contracts elsewhere, Fuhr played for Toronto for a season-and-a-half, then spent two-plus seasons with Buffalo, where he backed up an in-his-prime Dominik Hasek and shared the William Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals against in 1994-95.

After a brief stint with the Los Angeles Kings, Fuhr, then 32, signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues, where he spent four seasons. In 1995-96 he played 79 games for the Blues, including a stretch of 76 consecutive straight, both of which remain single-season NHL records for goaltenders.

Also on the Blues that season were former Oilers teammates Wayne Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Charlie Huddy and Craig MacTavish, not to mention MacInnis and Brett Hull. But Fuhr's stretch of excellence that season was halted by a serious knee injury in Game 2 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, an awkward collision with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nick Kypreos ending his season.

Fuhr recovered and had three more solid seasons for the Blues before finishing his career with the Flames in 1999-2000.

He earned his 400th NHL victory as a Flame, only the sixth goalie in League history to achieve that at the time. He wound up with 403 victories, 10th most entering this season.

When Fuhr was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, he was the first black player to be so honored. True to his easygoing nature, he did not make much of that fact.

"To be honest with you, I've never thought much about it," Fuhr said at the time. "I grew up in a small town in Alberta and it wasn't about anything but how you played the game.

"I think it's different in some places, but it's not a big thing here [in Canada], and it's certainly not a big thing in the game."

Fuhr, on the other hand, was a mighty big deal during his 20-year NHL career, in his own understated fashion.

 

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