The Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”
(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)
Once, when it was still Northlands Coliseum, the Edmonton Oilers that called the rink home won five Stanley Cups in seven years. The rink has another name now, Rexall Place, and the Oilers that have skated there recently haven’t reached the playoffs let alone gone all the way, but the old rink still has its history if not much future. Tonight, as the team plays its last game in the old barn, which opened in November of 1974, 150 erstwhile Oilers, players and staff, will be on hand to see their underachieving successors host the Vancouver Canucks. The guest list features Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Ryan Smyth, and Dave Semenko, along with several members of the WHA old guard, including Al Hamilton and Eddie Mio and Ron Chipperfield. The Oilers will open next season at their new $480-million home, Rogers Place.
(Photo, from 2012, courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt, whose work you’ll find on flickr)
The Edmonton Oilers are honouring erstwhile captain, coach, GM and president Glen Sather tonight, ahead of their game against the New York Rangers, for whom he left them. Now 72, the pride of High River, Alberta, oversaw five Oiler Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, with teams of Gretzkys and Messiers, Kurris and Coffeys, Lowes and Fuhrs, and now a banner bearing his name will hang with theirs in the rafters of Rexall Place.
With Sather stories trending today all around the Alberta capital, you’re advised to take in a few choice offerings from veteran Oiler-watchers like Jim Matheson at The Edmonton Journal and Terry Jones at The Edmonton Sun. The Oilers, too, are savouring Sather at their website.
Peter Gzowski got to know Sather when he spent the 1980-81 season embedded with the young, rising Oilers. His first impressions, from the inimitable book that followed, The Game of Our Lives (1981):
He has light hair and a pale complexion that rouges when he is emotional. When he was a player, his nickname, Slats, which is still used by those who are or would be his friends, occasionally gave way to Tomato. There are blushes on his cheeks tonight.
“I played my first game as a pro in this rink,” he says. “No, wait, I played my first game as a defenceman here.”
Sather sometimes has difficulty remembering the details of his career. He was a prototypical journeyman, a scrapper. In nine seasons, he played for six teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal, and Minnesota. He racked up an impressive number of penalty minutes, 724, but a paltry number of goals, 80. Wherever he went, he impressed both his coaches and his teammates with his competitive zeal. “You can tell it’s getting close to the playoffs,” Vic Hadfield, then the captain of the New York rangers, wrote in a diary he kept for the season of 1972-73. “Slats is getting bitchy.” Hadfield, the thirty-second highest goal-scorer in NHL history, sits down the pressbox from Sather tonight, smoking a cheroot. In the off-season, he is a successful golf professional, and the owner of substantial golfing real estate. But in hockey he is a part-time scout for the Oilers and Sather is his boss.
“I thought you were a defensive forward,” someone says to Sather.
“Yeah, sure,” he replies. “But sometimes they put me back on defence.” His mind seems to be somewhere else for a moment. “Jeez, I liked playing,” he says. “I always liked playing.”
(1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA card image courtesy of Hockey Media)
The Edmonton Oilers published a cookbook during the 1980-81 season as fundraiser for the Evelyn Unger School for Language and Learning Development. I don’t know what they were selling it for, but I can report that the cerlox-bound, 62-page epic includes everything you need to know to whip up Jari Kurri’s Karelian Ragout, Glenn Anderson’s Cherry Cheese Cake, and/or a Kevin Lowe Tourtiere. Not to mention:
If you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.
Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”
Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.
The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”
The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.
This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of another one that he did eventually write.
It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada. Continue reading
Steve Smith spent 45 minutes with me on the phone a while ago, re-living the worst moment of his life, when he banked that clearing pass off of [Grant] Fuhr’s leg and into the Oilers goal, the Game 7 winner for Calgary in 1986. “At the time it was devastating.” But today? Today Steve Smith is a kinder person for what he went through. “From that day forward I always had a sense of cheering for everyone. I never wanted anyone to have the day that I had that day.”
• Sportsnet writer Mark Spector writing last week about the book he’s working on, a history of the Albertan rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.