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IN DEPTH: The Architect

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

As the Rexall Place crowd hung to every word Glen Sather spoke, he concluded his speech with a heartfelt hope for all those in attendance.

“My sincere wish is every one of you in this building experience something, anything in your life, that makes you feel like I do right now: the luckiest person on earth.”

On December 11, 2015, the Oilers lifted a banner high above the ice to honour one of their greats. Sather’s name was immortalized alongside several of the players that joined him in a wealth of success, and helped Edmonton become the home base for hockey’s last great dynasty.



Nearly 15 years after he left the Oilers organization, joining the New York Rangers, Sather’s name has been raised to its rightful place in the arena rafters. The player, the coach, the manager, the father figure, the friend, the watchful guardian, the architect of five Stanley Cup championships, has come home.

THE DESTINY

Born in High River, AB in 1943, Sather has and always will be an Alberta boy.

His name has been etched into the folklore of the province for decades and will continue to be for generations to come.

A young Sather helped the Edmonton Oil Kings capture the Memorial Cup in 1963. He toiled away for 10 years in the National Hockey League as a player. He was described as an honest player, and a hard worker, which are traits he displayed throughout his career in coaching and management as well.

Sather played 658 NHL games in his career for Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, St. Louis, Montreal and Minnesota, scoring 80 goals and adding 112 assists. In 1976, he returned home to Alberta to play for a young WHA franchise, just five years into its existence.

Sather always had a passion for coaching. His high school volleyball coach saw a young Sather’s ability and willingness to direct others and declared he was the coach moving forward. It all came natural to Glen.

He ran the hockey school in Banff for 10 years as well. His love for teaching and guiding continued to grow leading up to his arrival in the WHA.

“I don’t know really how (then Oilers coach) Bep Guidolin really knew anything about me when he told me that I was going to be the captain and I was going to run the practices. That was a shock,” said Sather.

As a player-coach, Sather had 53 points in 81 games in 1976-77. In the spring of 1977, Sather assumed coaching duties of the club.

Sather roomed with long-time Oilers play-by-play man Rod Phillips in Phillips’ townhouse on the west end for a time, as the young coach began his journey behind the bench.

“Young, no different than any of us,” Phillips said of Sather back then. “He was just getting into the coaching business and so that was a big challenge for him. He knew what kind of team he wanted and, as time went on, he built the team that was a dynasty team. It was a lot of fun being around him and being around the team and watching all of it (from the beginning).”

Beginning in 1977, the Oilers would make the WHL or NHL playoffs 15 straight times under Sather’s guidance. The championships were coming too; it was just a matter of moulding a team of young superstars into perennial winners.

“Things just seemed to evolve,” said Sather. “I guess it was lucky (I got into coaching), because it seems to be the destiny.”

BUILDING A DYNASTY

Leading up to the banner ceremony, many interviews were conducted regarding the man they call Slats.

A common theme that continued to resurface in nearly every conversation was Sather’s ability to tame and nurture the growth of superstars. One might think it’s easy to coach a team loaded with talent like the Oilers of the 80s.

“I think it’s harder, because you have to be very delicate with basically a bunch of superstars. We didn’t realize how good we were going to be, but we knew we had a lot of talent,” said Glenn Anderson, a hall of famer whose name is also hanging in the Rexall Place rafters.

Edmonton was a young, talented team that needed a leader of men. Sather was the right person for the job.

“Slats was kind of the straw that stirred the drink that got us all together and on the same path,” said Anderson. “That’s what was so special about him. He knew how to treat each individual differently if he needed to. He’d yell or scream or do whatever he had to do in the dressing room.”

The coach knew the club had the talent to succeed, but didn’t realize how special their run would be until that group of players started to accept his philosophies, but also enjoy the game more.

Glen Sather patrols the Oilers bench. Photo by Getty Images.

“When they started to have fun on the ice and they bought into the notion that I was trying to get them to do and switch sides and move and play at full speed,” said Sather.

Sather believed in a different game than what was the norm in that era of NHL hockey.

“He was really ahead of his time,” said former Calgary Flames GM Cliff Fletcher. “When we got into the 80s, we were still having the hangover from the 70s and (Philadelphia’s) Broad Street Bullies and how you could intimidate your way to a Stanley Cup. The way Glen believed in skill and speed, his teams, you couldn’t catch them to get a piece of them. He really changed the game, how the game started to develop to be played.”

That newfangled style of play fit the strengths of his hockey club. When Wayne Gretzky came aboard, the team really started to tip the talent scales and transition to more and more wins. Sather helped purchase the contract of the 17-year-old eventual superstar.

“I like to say the moment happened when we got Wayne from Indianapolis,” said Sather. “That was really the start because, at that time, the foundation was there and we just had to surround him with other people that could complement him and he’d make them into better players.”

Once Edmonton joined the NHL, Sather balanced the roles of coach and GM with the best of them. He not only led on the ice, but he helped build the team off it. When it came to drafting Mark Messier, Sather trusted his own instincts on a player who slipped to the third round in 1979.

“I said, ‘this guy is going to be a real good, competitive player some day,’” said Sather. “Then we got into the draft and, of course, (Director of Scouting) Barry Fraser and I had our regular argument of who we were going to draft. Mark slipped to the third round and I said, ‘we’re taking him.’ He said, ‘no we aren’t.’ I said, ‘we are.’ And we took him. So that was it. I won that argument. It worked pretty good actually.”

That is an understatement.

This isn’t a history lesson. The hockey books are written and Sather’s Oilers are a rather large chapter. Sather would win four Cups as a head coach, and a fifth as general manager. The club would break and set many NHL records. Even without Gretzky, Sather tinkered with the team and found ways to win. He built through the draft and he built through trades.

Again, it was Sather’s meshing of those talents that made the team so successful. He knew when to step on the gas and when to tap the brakes.

“He had to handle everybody differently,” said former Oilers forward Dave Semenko. “You just don’t go in and treat everybody the same. It’s not the military. He knew which guys he could get on and fire up. He knew which guys needed a pat on the back to get going. It was just dealing with different personalities. You’ve got 20 of them and 20 different egos. That was a gift that he was able to do and put that team together. We had a lot of talent. But having a lot of talent doesn’t guarantee success. It was just a matter of him and how he orchestrated the whole thing. That was a key to the success of this group.”

His tactics, his approach and his achievements remain an example of how to build a successful run even in today’s NHL.

“Glen is definitely a legendary hockey man and one of the greatest coaches and general managers this league has ever had,” said Fletcher.

Sather’s presence in the locker room was nothing short of the legend he is today.

“He was so calm, cool and collected,” said former Oiler Ryan Smyth. “He wasn’t a guy that jammed down your throat, but when something needed to be said he’d say it. He’d walk through the room and say ‘we’re going to have a team meeting.’ He’d pace around the room and He’d tell guys what they needed to hear or be told. I think it’s important to have a leader like that, especially for myself and my career to have a guy of his calibre representing the Oilers organization and us as professional athletes.”

Often times, legends of sport can become solely known for the accomplishments rather than their personality and mark on society. There is a human element to the success Sather had.

Sather’s caring nature is something the players responded to and recall fondly today.

“Glen cared very deeply about the players,” said former Oilers captain Craig MacTavish. “We always knew that he cared about us. Glen had a little bit of a rule that we all tried to abide by in that if you ever got into any situation at all, any questionable situation, make sure he was the first guy you called. And if you did that, you had an ally and if you didn’t do that and he found out about something, then you had a real enemy. He was very loyal to the players.”

Glen frequently invited players over to his home, or joined them for drinks at a local establishment.

“Glen was part of the guys,” said another former Oilers captain, Kelly Buchberger. “Any time we’d go out early in my career, we’d be going out for drinks and Glen would be there with the coaching staff. He was always being part of the team. He wanted everybody and it doesn’t matter who, I think I was on the fifth line then, to be part of the team. He always made us welcome and always made us want to be part of the team. He always gave you some rope to play with but when the time came to play he always wanted you to be there and be accountable for your play.”

When Anderson was dealing with an injury and the team went on a road trip out east, Sather recognized the struggle. He reached out to Anderson.

“I remember the first year I got hurt, he tells me to go over his house and have dinner,” said Anderson. “I went over there. The kids were playing in the background and (Sather’s wife) Annie cooked up a great meal. We watched the game, I think they were playing on the east coast. I remember that like it was yesterday because that’s how he cared about you. He goes, ‘make sure you go over there, have a good meal and get into therapy the next day. We need you back in the lineup as soon as possible.’”

Anderson added, “I think that’s him just being him wearing his heart on his sleeve and really caring about the individual and about the team.”

Away from the rink, Sather was constantly doing different things and growing hobbies. Sather would hunt or fish, he’d read GQ and keep up to date on the latest in men’s fashion. He would fix things or read books. He encouraged the players to do things other than play hockey as well.

“I enjoyed being around them,” said Sather. “I wanted to let them experience some other things than playing hockey and being a celebrity. In order to do that, they had to have some other activities in their life that would give them some purpose other than hanging around a bar. There’s lots of bars to hang around in Edmonton and I knew that’d be part of it. But to introduce them to fishing, we went target shooting. Alberta is a great place for the outdoors and a lot of these kids had never really experienced it. And I enjoyed doing it too.”




Sather’s home in Banff became a common meeting place for activities away from the rink. Players were welcome and it helped build chemistry and friendships that last to this day.

“The most fun we had was some of the summers I went down to Banff,” said former Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr. “I’d go down to the hockey school down there and got to spend some time away from the rink. I got to spend some time over his house. You see what a good person he really is.”

MacTavish said, “a thing I really remember about Glen, that I certainly admired, is his passion for life outside the game of hockey. As a player, most of us, myself included, we would go hunting with Glen, I’d golf with Glen, we’d go snowmobiling at times with Glen.”

As some of the great Oilers players of past years gathered in Edmonton ahead of the banner ceremony, they smiled widely as they remembered those days and how Sather made them a family.

He was always there for the players and the players knew that.

“I used to say to them that I knew there was going to be some problems at some point in time,” said Sather. “We had a pack of young guys. I said, ‘call me before you call your agent because I can help you a lot more than he can,’ and that’s the way it turned out. I liked helping them. I enjoyed that part of it. I like helping people. I like to be a problem solver.”

Sather has left his caring legacy behind in Edmonton in other ways as well. The Sports Medicine Clinic at the University of Alberta is named in his honour as Sather championed preventative sports medicine and innovative connections at the school.

Sather always had best interests at heart. Even in the often-times cutthroat business side of sports, Sather was as honest as he was when he was a player.
 
“I really didn’t lie to anybody about a deal I was gonna make, because I think that a lot of times I’ve been lied to. I’d like to think the deals I’ve made were straight up and honest,” said Sather.

FINAL BANNER

Rexall Place is an old barn with a lot of character and possibly more history.

The Oilers old rink will be retired at the end of this season. The franchise will move downtown to the shiny new Rogers Place, which will be one of the best and most technologically advanced buildings in the world, let alone the NHL.

Glen Sather watches his banner being raised into the Rexall Place Rafters. Photo by Marko Ditkun / Edmonton Oilers.

Like Sather was as a coach and GM, Rogers Place will be ahead of its time in many ways. It’s fitting, however, that Sather’s name be raised in the old building, rather than christening the new one.

“Glen has his fingerprints all over this building and the great moments that happened here. It’s quite fitting that Glen will be the last one being honoured here,” said Messier.

“It’s something that’s obviously a long time coming,” Semenko echoed. “The importance he had on all of our careers and shaping this team and the work he put into it, to have him honoured and his banner be the last to go up is truly fitting. I’m glad they’ve done it. He’s been a great man and a great friend. Nobody deserves it more.”

Sather was greeted by family, friends, fans, staff, colleagues and players when he returned to Edmonton ahead of the ceremony. The memories came flooding back to him as he walked through the stands, down from the press box and on his way to the ice.

“In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to do this. I didn’t have any idea it was going to happen,” said Sather. “The banner hanging, putting the names of the players in the rafters, I can understand that. But to have mine there, that was pretty shocking when they called me this summer and asked me if I would do it.”

“I spent most of my life in Edmonton,” he added. “It really all started here. When you start to think about the memories you had when you were here for the 25 years, plus the years I went to school and played hockey here, that’s a long time. There’s a lot of memories. What do you remember the most? I think I remember the relationships with the friends that I have the most and even some of the fights I had with the media. Hockey was the big part of what exposed me to the friendship with the people here. I think those are the memories I have best of the city.”

Sather will be the first to tell you he’s not concerned with his own legacy.

“I don’t think about it at all,” he said. “I think about the next game, I think about the players’ welfare. I don’t think about any of those other personal things at all. I’m quite content with my own skin.”

Regardless of whether or not Sather thinks of it, others have and will consider him in the same breath as some of the greatest to lead in this sport.
Hamilton. Gretzky. Kurri. Fuhr. Coffey. Messier. Anderson. Phillips.

These are the names of some of the most memorable and impactful people in Oilers history.

Sather. The architect of five Stanley Cups and the straw that stirred the drink of the last great dynasty.

And now, Sather’s name is where it belongs.

“As the generations pass and the memories disappear, it changes,” said Sather. “People aren’t going to remember everything, but I suppose when they look at those names in the rafters in the next building, it passes the heritage down.”

By Chris Wescott/edmontonoilers.com

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