There’s nothing like a few punches to the face among pals.
Such was the “friendly hatred” that fueled hockey’s Battle of Alberta during its peak in the 1980s, says Hall-of-Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr, who made a name for himself with the Edmonton Oilers before finishing his playing career with the Calgary Flames.
“We both realized that we had the best two teams at that time and it was going to be one of the two teams that was going to come out of the West and have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We respected what they had, they respected what we had and, if you want to put it a certain way, it’s a friendly hatred,” said Fuhr, who won five Stanley Cups with the Oilers between 1984 and 1990.
“The hatred part of it was a fun hatred. It’s not really hatred, it’s a lot of respect.”
That hate and respect led to countless riveting donnybrooks between the provincial rivals, during which time the participants’ faces were either red with blood or red with anger.
And while Fuhr did his most effective battling with his play, rather than his fists, he said the Flames always brought out the best in him.
“The Battle of Alberta was always a fun one to be a part of. That and any playoff game. Between playing against Calgary and playing in any playoff game, those were the two times that you were most excited about playing,” said the native of Spruce Grove, Alberta.
Fuhr is in Calgary this weekend for the Calgary International Film Festival, where the documentary about his life, Making Coco: The Grant Fuhr Story, will screen part of the event’s closing gala on Saturday, Sept. 29.
Directed by Oilers Entertainment Group VP and senior advisor Don Metz, the 68-minute film features interviews with former coaches and teammates of Fuhr, as well as Flames opponents Theo Fleury, Jarome Iginla, Al MacInnis and Jim Peplinski.
The former Victoria Cougar was praised throughout the documentary for allowing the Oilers to play a run-and-gun style that was crucial to the team’s success. The offensively-gifted talents of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey could comfortably skate up ice knowing Fuhr was protecting their own net.
“The only time Grant ever saw his defence or his teammates was in the dressing room,” quipped Peplinski, who played his entire 11-year National Hockey League (NHL) career with the Flames.
While the documentary devotes screen time to highlight-reel saves and accolades for Fuhr, it does not gloss over difficult periods in the all-star goalie’s life, including the 59-game suspension he served during the 1990-91 season.
The season-long ban from NHL president John Ziegler – which was later reduced – followed an Edmonton Journal article detailing cocaine use by Fuhr between 1983 and 1989. Fuhr had sought help and was admitted to a Florida drug treatment centre in the summer of 1989 and in the year leading up to the suspension, Oiler General Manager Glen Sather said Fuhr tested negative for cocaine use on three separate occasions.
The suspension was one of the longest in NHL history and it was heavily criticized at the time.
“At that point, the league didn’t care. If you made bad choices they were going to punish you, they didn’t want to help you. They basically didn’t want anything to do with you,” said Fuhr.
“I think my suspension helped open the league’s eyes that maybe they should help the players, instead of punishing the players.”
The NHL, in conjunction with the NHL Players’ Association, implemented a substance abuse program in 1996 with a greater focus on aiding players with alcohol and drug addictions.
PLAYING FOR THE FLAMES
After spending a decade with the Oilers and following that up with stops in Toronto, Buffalo, Los Angeles and St. Louis, Fuhr played his last season in Calgary under Flames head coach Brian Sutter.
“Unfortunately, by the time I got to Calgary, Edmonton wasn’t as good as they were and neither was Calgary,” said Fuhr, who was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie in 1988.
“For me to wear the Flames jersey, my mom was from Calgary, so I didn’t mind wearing a Flames jersey. It was a great way to finish my career.”
Fuhr’s last NHL game on April 8, 2000 against the Oilers was somewhat controversial, in that Sutter chose not to start him, opting instead to put him between the pipes in the third period. But the 56-year-old is not one to hold grudges (he ultimately forgave Nick Kypreos, who accidentally/on purpose fell on him during the 1995-96 playoffs, tearing Fuhr’s ACL and MCL and taking him out of the Blues lineup for the remainder of the postseason).
“Brian was the coach at the time and that was his decision,” said Fuhr, who had both knees and both shoulders reconstructed by that stage of his career.
“You’re a goalie and a player, you don’t get to make those decisions. Yeah, it would’ve been nice to play, but at the same time you have to respect his decision, so that’s just part of the game.”
Fuhr, who served as a goalie coach with the Phoenix Coyotes for four seasons following his playing career, has more recently found work at Desert Dunes Golf Club in Desert Hot Springs, California. It’s a familiar and comfortable setting for the goalie, who played 54 holes of golf the day before a victorious Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals versus the Philadelphia Flyers.
FORE THE LOVE OF THE GAME
“I enjoyed golf because it was four hours of peace and quiet,” said Fuhr.
“When you’re in the middle of a playoff run, the one thing you want to do is get away from the media and get away from hockey, hockey, hockey 24/7. That four hours on the golf course gave me the chance to refresh the mind a little bit.”
In the documentary, Fuhr refers to the rink as his sanctuary, but since he’s retired he considers the golf course his new place of refuge.
“In hockey, that was my place where I was happiest was on the ice. I controlled what happened, what I did and there were no outside factors that I had to worry about. I just had to worry about me, whereas golf now is exactly the same thing. You worry about you and the golf course,” said the 1987 Canada Cup netminder.
With the documentary complete – and having worked on the 2014 book Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend by Bruce Dowbiggin – Fuhr has spent plenty of time reflecting on his life in recent years.
“I guess the best thing I’ve learned about myself is life’s been pretty good. Yeah, there’s been some ups and downs, bumps in the road and that’s part of learning life. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of positives in life and a lot of fun and there’s still lots of fun to be had and lots of good that I’m able to do,” said Fuhr, who remains interested in getting back into coaching in the NHL.
“I’m comfortable with where I’m at. I’m comfortable with where life’s at, where it’s gone and where it’s headed.”
That sounds a lot better than a punch to the face.
Making Coco: The Grant Fuhr Story screens Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Eau Claire Cinema 5 as part of the Calgary International Film Festival. A second screening has been added at 9:50 p.m. in the same theatre and on the same night, but the encore screening does not include access to the after-party or the closing gala. For tickets go to calgaryfilm.com.
Ian Wilson grew up in Medicine Hat watching the Tigers of the Western Hockey League at The Arena and the Battle of Alberta on Hockey Night in Canada. Seduced by the dynasty years of the Oilers, he has been a loyal fan of the team since the early ’80s. He is also an avid baseball enthusiast and is the co-founder of Alberta Dugout Stories, a website and social media presence devoted to celebrating baseball in the province.