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100 Greatest Players

Jari Kurri: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Understated end-to-end player was Wayne Gretzky's wingman during Oilers dynasty

by John MacKinnon / Special to NHL.com

Hockey people didn't use the term "200-foot game" years ago, but when Jari Kurri arrived in the NHL from Finland as a 20-year-old in 1980, his game was more complete, more detailed, end to end than those of his talented teammates.

Which is saying something, given the elite company he kept through 10 sublime seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, a crucial component in five Stanley Cup championship teams.

 

Video: Jari Kurri Gretzky's wingman during Oilers' dynasty

 

"We've got some outstanding people, eh? All-Stars, right?" Oilers chief scout Barry Fraser said back then. "But Kurri is by far our most complete player."

A fourth-round pick (No. 69) in the 1980 NHL Draft, Kurri had polished his all-around skills playing three seasons for Jokerit, the renowned team in his native Helsinki.

Somehow, for a player who would spend so much of his career playing with Wayne Gretzky, Kurri had a two-way game that managed to be understated, a triumph of lethal efficiency over flash and dash. His young Oilers teammates swiftly recognized the quality he brought. They certainly valued it.

 

JARI KURRI CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,251 | Goals: 601 | Assists: 797 | Points: 1,398

 

"No question," Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr said. "Jari did a lot of the defensive work which freed Wayne up to be as great as he was offensively.

"A lot of our guys got credit for the offensive side but not the defensive side. Wayne was great defensively, Mess [Mark Messier] was great defensively. Jari played from net to net, which is a hard way to play the game. But he did it."

So well-honed was his puck sense, so cunning his play away from the puck, that Kurri made his all-around game look deceptively easy -- which may have been why his contributions rarely provoked the hoopla that surrounded teammates like Gretzky, Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey.

Many say Kurri's best all-around performance was his curtain call of sorts with the Oilers, a five-point masterpiece (three goals, two assists) that propelled Edmonton to a 7-2 road victory against the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the 1990 Stanley Cup Final.

Playing on his 30th birthday, Kurri had his record-tying seventh playoff hat trick, giving him 92 playoff goals for his career -- the most ever at the time, and three more goals than Gretzky -- and 200 postseason points. He also scored the game-winning goal to help the Oilers head home with a 2-0 series lead. The Oilers won the series in five games, clinching their fifth Stanley Cup championship at Boston Garden.

The way Kurri dominated the game was breathtaking, even to his teammates. It was the first five-point performance in a Stanley Cup Final game since Montreal's Toe Blake did it in 1944. Kurri's complete game was also on full display, end to end, start to finish.

"It's probably the best single performance I've ever seen," Messier said. "I mean, he was absolutely unbelievable. He forechecked, he backchecked, he set up the goals, he scored the goals."

Oilers coach John Muckler would say the next day that Kurri was "a one-man guy," affectionately deploying a malapropism he remembered from his minor league days playing in Muskegon under colorful coach Morris "Moose" Lallo.

Obviously the '80s Oilers were no one-man team, but Kurri contributed massively to the cause, and not just that magical night in Boston. In his decade in Edmonton, Kurri scored 474 of the 601 regular-season goals he would get in his 17-year NHL career, his longevity in the League matching his jersey number. 

He led the NHL with 68 goals in 1985-86. One season earlier he won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and scored 50 goals in his first 50 games, finishing with 71, setting an NHL record for a right wing, but Gretzky scored 73 goals to lead the League. 

Being overshadowed by The Great One came with Kurri's job description.

But so, possibly, did being mischaracterized as a largely one-way player. That might explain why Kurri never won the Selke Trophy as the League's top defensive forward despite scoring 39 shorthanded goals in his career, the sixth-best total all-time entering this season.

The otherworldly symbiosis between Kurri and Gretzky leaps off the page on the scoresheet. Gretzky assisted on 364 of Kurri's NHL goals; Kurri assisted 196 of Gretzky's. They are regarded by many as the top 1-2 offensive tandem in the history of the game. They were deadly in all kinds of situations, but especially 2-on-1, when they were almost unstoppable.

"We figured we could score nine out of 10 times," Gretzky said years later. "No matter where I put the puck, on Jari's stick, in his feet ... he'd snap it."

Indeed, Kurri had one of the hardest and most accurate one-timers ever, which was a product of simple, repetitive, hard work.

Who wouldn't want to leverage his association with Gretzky to the limit, on and off the ice? Gretzky became godfather to Kurri's twin sons, Ville and Joonas.

Two great players, inseparable in the mind's eye of many Oilers fans even now.

But it didn't start out that way. Kurri traveled to North America figuring he'd play one or two years in the NHL and then return home to Finland. Give it a try? Sure. Forge a career? That wasn't the plan.

"I didn't expect to be here a long time," Kurri said during an April 2016 visit to Edmonton for the Oilers' final game at Rexall Place. "I thought I was too young, not experienced enough.

"But just being around those guys [it] began to feel like home. The game was so fun to play, we had so much talent and so many great players to play with."

Kurri was one of six Finland-born players in the NHL during the 1980-81 season. Luckily for him, two of the others -- Risto Siltanen and Matti Hagman -- were his Oilers teammates. They were a crucial source of support for a young player who spoke little to no English when he got to Alberta.

"My first training camp was in Jasper, with 70 guys in training camp, hacking and whacking each other," Kurri said. "I was wondering, 'What the heck is going on? Are these (guys) going to be my teammates, or what?'"

Kurri said Hagman and Siltanen were a big help.

"They explained that this was part of the game in training camp, just be ready to expect some dirty [play]," he said. "Just go back (on them), do the same things. They also helped me out with the language. Once I got past the first training camp, making the team, then I started to feel comfortable, the players kind of [accepted me] as just one of the players, one of their teammates.

"That was very important for me."

His roommate at the time, a 19-year-old Coffey, had a TV, which also proved to be an important device for Kurri's socialization.

"He learned the language watching 'Happy Days'," Gretzky said in 2001, when Kurri was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. "Inside Jari's head were 24-hour reruns of Richie Cunningham down at Arnold's."

The expected one- or two-year gig stretched to 10 spectacular seasons with the Oilers, after which Kurri, a free agent, signed with HC Devils Milano in Italy for the 1990-91 season. He dominated there with 27 goals and 48 assists in a 30-game season.

In 1991 he was reunited with Gretzky with the Los Angeles Kings, though he was not always Gretzky's linemate. Kurri's role evolved as he lost a bit of speed.

He would play four-plus seasons in Los Angeles, and he and Gretzky had one last hurrah in the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 when the Kings played Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens.

"It's a dream to face the Canadiens," Kurri said at the time. "When I was a child in Finland, I dreamed of playing in the [Montreal] Forum in the finals."

The dream died in Patrick Roy's trapper that spring, the goalie famously winking theatrically at Kings wing Tomas Sandstrom after one particularly deft bit of thievery. The Kings lost in five games to the Canadiens, but Kurri, true to form, was at his best in the playoffs, scoring 17 points in 24 games.

When Kurri retired in 1998 after brief stints with the New York Rangers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Colorado Avalanche, he was the most prolific European goal-scorer, assist man and point-getter in NHL history: He finished with 601 goals, 797 assists and 1,398 points.

He has since been surpassed in all categories by Jaromir Jagr, by countryman Teemu Selanne in goals and points and Nicklas Lidstrom in assists. Kurri remains third all-time in both playoff goals (106) and points (233), trailing Gretzky (122, 382) and Messier (109, 295) in each category.

In retirement Kurri has risen to the top of the hockey brain trust in Finland, serving for years as the general manager of the men's national team. He is the GM of his former club, Jokerit, now in the Kontinental Hockey League.

It's an impressive coda to a glittering hockey career that included a role as Gretzky's sidekick one of the greatest teams in NHL history.

"People said we were cocky," Kurri said. "But I don't think it was a cocky [attitude], it was just that we wanted to win so much and do so well.

"Playing your best games in the playoffs, that was a big thing personally for me. ... We loved [big games]. I don't think we saw it as pressure or being nervous. It was more that we enjoyed it. This is what it's all about."

 

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