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ALUMNI: Minor hockey in Spruce Grove helped shape Fuhr's legendary career

Oilers alumni Grant Fuhr reflects on his storied NHL career and learning the game in his hometown prior to induction into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame

by Jamie Umbach / EdmontonOilers.com

EDMONTON, AB - Before the Edmonton Oilers made their transition to the National Hockey League from the World Hockey Association in 1979, a young Grant Fuhr from Spruce Grove, AB strapped on the pads for the first time.

"There wasn't a whole lot of people that wanted to try it, and I thought the equipment looked kind of cool," Fuhr said to EdmontonOilers.com. "I tried it out the first day and liked it, and I've stuck with it ever since."

Little did he know at the time that a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, four Stanley Cups, a Vezina Trophy and his name on a rink in his hometown were waiting for him following a storied Oilers career of 10 seasons, 534 games and 300 wins.

That's not even counting the other 11 seasons.

Just short of 15 years since his call to the Hall, Fuhr will earn a place among Alberta's hockey greats when he's inducted into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 22 at the AHHF Awards Gala in Canmore.

"It's a great honour," Fuhr added of his induction. "To earn that sort of praise in the province I grew up in alongside names like Mike Vernon, Ron MacLean and Wally Kozak is a great feeling.

"Mike and I have a history going back a long time playing against each other in junior and Ron has been around Hockey Night in Canada forever, so we've got to know him a lot better through broadcasts. Wally had a great career as a player."

So how was a kid from Spruce Grove like Fuhr able to work his way up the ranks to NHL stardom? He used his ability as a goalie and the town (now a full-fledged city of over 35,000 people) to his advantage to climb the age groups early in minor hockey.

"When I grew up there it only had about 700 residents, but we had good kids that played," Fuhr said. "In that sense it was a perfect place for me because I got to play on two or three different teams. I played against kids in my own age group but I also got to play with the older guys, so I had the opportunity to get more ice time than a lot of the other kids did at the time."

He also, in true central Albertan fashion, had to brave the elements.

"You had to like being outdoors," Fuhr continued. "Enoch and Stony Plain were the only indoor rinks unless we played a city team. Warburg had a shell, Onoway had a shell - they were basically just outdoor rinks with a roof over top like most of the rinks were at the time."

Fuhr's attraction to the goaltender position and a love for the game of hockey paid dividends in his teenage years, earning him high praise in Spruce Grove for his play on the ice before finding his way to the Western Hockey League and the Victoria Cougars as a 17-year-old.

During the 1980-81 regular season he registered 48 wins in 59 games and surrendered a league low 217 goals, 49 fewer than the next-best team, before winning the WHL title in seven games over fellow AHHF inductee Mike Vernon and the Calgary Wranglers.

It was only a matter of time before his chance in the big leagues presented itself, and it came in the form of the Edmonton Oilers and Glen Sather when Fuhr was selected eighth overall during the 1981 NHL Draft.

"Draft day is a cool day for a kid," he said. "Every player dreams of playing in the NHL. The fact that your agent tells you that you might want to go to the draft and there's a chance you could be picked is pretty cool, but to be drafted near home is really special because it's a huge bonus."

Making his NHL debut in 1981 behind the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, and Jarri Kurri - all under the age of 21 - set the stage for Fuhr to play a crucial role in one of the league's greatest dynasties.

"I think I had the dream job," Fuhr commented of his teammates. "I got to watch the best players in the game every single day from the best seat in the house. You can't ask for anything better than that. They were some of the best players in the game you'll ever see and I got to watch them up close and personal, so you can't help but learn from them and make yourself better."

An Oilers team with that much firepower up front needed a capable netminder, and the run-and-gun style of the Oilers during the 1980's played into Fuhr's hands as a goalie who played better by taking more shots.

"That was just the style we played and I didn't mind that," he said. "We played the same style in Victoria with the Cougars where there was a lot of offence, and it was an enjoyable way to play.

"I liked to be busy facing a lot of shots, so with that style I got to see a lot of they but you also knew you had some room to make a mistake or two. For every goal I let in, they were going to score three or four."

Fuhr saw a lot of 6-5 scorelines with the Oilers, and in 1987 backstopped three of them against the Soviet Union at the Canada Cup to begin a record season that included his fourth Stanley Cup and first Vezina Trophy.

Just as Fuhr liked to face plenty of shots, he also liked to play as many games as possible.

On four separate occasions during his career would he play more than 65 games in the regular season, setting the record for most games by a goalie in one season with 79 in 1995-96 with the Blues before a knee injury ended his playoff run and eventually his playing days at the age of 36 four seasons later.

"For us the Canada Cup happened to fall in late August and early September, so then you finished then rolled right into the regular season," Fuhr said of his career year. "I always liked to play in the exhibition games, then I rolled right into playing 75 regular season games plus all the playoffs. It helped make for a pretty good year."

The Spruce Grove product's competitive nature continued into retirement as an Oilers alumni and avid golfer, returning for another Syncrude Oil Country Championship, July 30 to August 5, as Honorary Tournament Chair.

"It's a lot of fun for me," he commented. "For one I enjoy the golf and the kids that play on the tour. I've become friends with a few of them over the last few years so it's a chance to catch up with them and see how their careers are going. Secondly, it's a chance to compete a little bit.

"It's out of my category now as I'm old, but at the same time I still like to compete."

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