Plenty of colourful characters in last 40 years
First published April 16, 2013.
When I was asked to compile a history of the Edmonton Oilers, from the first days of the World Hockey Association more than 40 years ago through the early National Hockey League days to the present, it was a meandering trip down memory lane.
I would like to say I just flipped a switch and those memories flooded out.
But I had to do a little bit of research. The Oilers coaches in the World Hockey Association ran the gamut from Ray Kinasewich, who also started the Stork Diaper Service in Edmonton, to the estimable Clare Drake, the dean of all college coaches. There was also Brian Shaw, who never met a pastel shirt or a pair of white shoes he didn't like, and Bep Guidolin, who was seldom seen in anything but a brightly coloured sweater. You can't forget Glen Sather, who became the head coach only because Guidolin didn't want to be behind the bench and forced it on his then captain.
Pretty much all of these coaches during the Oilers WHA days, except for Sather, were tied to general manager Bill Hunter. Wild Bill was the King of Bombast, who upon leaving his job locked the doors of a downtown hotel so reporters couldn't leave until he was finished haranguing them for whatever they had written or said about the team.
I remember a news conference to announce the signing of former NHL centre Jimmy Harrison, with Harrison wheeling in a shopping cart full of bills as a photo op. It was Hunter's idea, as I recall.
It was the same Hunter who once sent out a member of the training staff to a grocery store to get food for his players after they arrived late to a city for a game because of bad weather or flight connections.
"Get them chocolate bars. Make them big bars," Hunter would yell to the member of the training staff.
When the Oilers become an NHL expansion team, Sather handed off the head coaching job to Bugsy Watson, who lasted about a month. Then the Oilers named John Muckler, the technical genius, bench boss after Wayne Gretzky was traded to the L.A. Kings.
Muckler then turned the job over to Ted Green, the toughest man who ever played the game. One more burp in the team's coaching history was the hiring of George Burnett, who was not a leader among men as former president Gerald Ford said after one meeting. Then the job went to Ron Low, who presided over one of the greatest playoff victories, the seven-game series with the Dallas Stars.
And on and on it has gone: Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney and now Ralph Krueger.
Hunter then begat Guidolin as Oilers GM. I still remember Guidolin calling me at home one cold, wintry morning. "Got a chance to get these two guys in a trade. They any good?" he asked.
Guidolin left and the late Larry Gordon, a fun guy, became GM. He shepherded the Oilers into the NHL, looking after their protected list and expansion picks, along with Sather, the head coach at the time. Sather stayed as GM until 2000 when he departed for the New York Rangers, unhappy with some of members of the Edmonton Investors' Group. Then it was Kevin Lowe's turn as GM, then Steve Tambellini and now MacTavish.
The owners ran the gamut from the blustery Hunter, who really didn't have much of his own money, but was good at getting other people to invest, to Nelson Skalbania, one of the great wheeler-dealers, who signed Wayne Gretzky for his WHA Indianapolis Racers.
"If it doesn't turn out with Wayne on the ice, he can be a deckhand on my boat," Skal-bania had said after signing the 17-year-old Gretzky.
Skalbania then lost a game of backgammon to Edmonton businessman Peter Pockling-ton and forked over Gretzky to the Oilers.
Pocklington promised fans the Oilers would win a Stanley Cup in five years when they joined the NHL in 1979 and he was bang-on - five years exactly. When he had a case of the shorts, he sold the team to Cal Nichols' EIG, and they sold it to the reclusive Daryl Katz.
Through it all, the Oilers won five Stanley Cups and produced seven Hall of Famers - Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Sather as a builder.
It has been a good ride, bumpy certainly since the early 1990s except for the Cup ride in 2006. But it has been fun.
Just how well do you know your Edmonton Oilers? Test out your knowledge with our interactive trivia contest to test your skills - you'll be able to win one of seven $100 gift cards for Oilers merchandise or the grand prize of a $2,000 travel voucher. From April 16-27, go to edmontonjour-nal.com/oilerstrivia to check out the infographic and enter to win the contest. For trivia clues daily, check @edmontonjournal on Twitter or go to Facebook.com/ edmontonjournal
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