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The Joyless End Of A Joyride

Until their ouster from the NHL playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers were flying high—off the ice as well as on

All dressed up with nowhere to go. That's the way the Edmonton Oilers looked last Friday afternoon as they straggled out of their dressing room in ones and twos for the annual team picture. Warm up your smiles, fellas. Cheeeese. As workmen dismantled the boards in Northlands Coliseum, a dozen or so teenyboppers milled about as the players listlessly stepped on the ice. Few of the Oilers acknowledged their presence.

Don Jackson and Esa Tikkanen, the first two players out of the dressing room, lay down on their backs on the bleachers and stared blankly at the ceiling, their thoughts—where?—perhaps just two days away, back to Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to the hard-working Calgary Flames in the seventh game of the Smythe Division finals. Back to a game-winning goal so bizarre, so shocking, so unforgettably inept that it seemed fated: a casual third-period pass from Edmonton's rookie defenseman Steve Smith that deflected into the Oilers' net off the back of goaltender Grant Fuhr's leg. It took the heart out of the team—the Oilers had trailed 2-zip before mounting a comeback to tie the game—and gave renewed impetus to the Flames, who saw to it that their gift goal held up. End of game, end of season, end of the incipient Edmonton dynasty, which most everyone had predicted would last for years to come. After a two-year joyride at the top of the NHL, the Oilers were outside the playoffs, looking inside themselves.

There were two significant no-shows for this year's Oilers team picture. Owner Peter Pocklington chose not to attend. And that silvery object he had cradled each of the last two years—the Stanley Cup—was missing, too. O.K. now, fellas, wipe off those game faces. Too late for that. Say cheeeese. (Click!)

"The last thing I said to these guys today," coach Glen Sather would later relate, "was, 'If you get in trouble, phone me. Here's my number.' I gave them all a card saying where I'll be this summer...where I'm going to be all the time. If there's a problem, I want to know about it. 'Get hold of me first.' "

That was a curious parting shot for a coach to give his team. Tough season, troops. Give me a call if you get in a jam. But then, given the team in question, maybe it's not.

The Edmonton Oilers hockey club has been in a lot of jams—with the police, with personal finances, with all sorts of escapades. The Oilers got into some of the worst of this trouble even while winning two straight Stanley Cups, a triumph of hockey excellence over off-ice contretemps that may only further indicate what superb talent the team has. Whether this year's stunning playoff ouster was in any way caused by the Oilers' non-hockey troubles is a matter for conjecture, but it can be fairly asked whether a general lack of discipline and too much life in the fast lane finally caught up with them. Was this or that mental lapse against the Flames related to the team's many distractions? Why did the Oilers sometimes have trouble following Sather's instructions in the playoffs? Why couldn't they come through in the crunch?

To put the matter directly, the Oilers' life-style and character are open to considerable question. One who brings the situation into particularly sharp focus is Max Offenberger, a Boston-based educational psychologist who was hired by Sather in 1981 and served as a consultant on alcohol and drug abuse to the Oilers until the end of the 1983-84 season. "The club came too far, too young, too fast," Offenberger says. "They had too much money and too much freedom. They did what they wanted to do. It was 'we want it and we want it now.' "

Whether because of too much freedom or for other reasons, the personal lives of quite a few Oilers have been in turmoil. Last fall All-Star forward Mark Messier was fined $250 in provincial court for leaving the scene of an accident after losing control of his black Turbo Porsche and hitting three parked cars. Left wing Dave Hunter was convicted three times in less than two years—most recently last Sept. 10—for driving while impaired. Wing Dave Semenko lost his driver's license for six months after pleading guilty in December 1982 to a driving-while-impaired charge.

Other legal and financial troubles involving the Oilers abound. Messier was recently sued by an automotive firm for allegedly failing to pay $2,900 for services, and in 1985 he reached an out-of-court settlement with former agent Gus Badali, who had sued him over unpaid fees. According to court documents acquired by SI, Semenko had his wages garnisheed in 1984 for failure to pay off a $15,134 loan from the Toronto Dominion Bank. Other records indicate that All-Star goaltender Grant Fuhr has a long and sorry history of garnishments against him for claims of unpaid debts. Even Wayne Gretzky has become embroiled in a legal action; last June he filed suit charging negligent advice against four defendants, including a sports management firm headed by Badali, to recover $400,000 he said he invested in 1982 in a Calgary apartment complex.

On top of everything else, the Oilers have been the subject of rampant drug-use rumors. One former Oiler insider told SI that at least five team members have had "substantial" cocaine problems. Three sources told SI they have seen Oiler players use cocaine or marijuana at parties in Edmonton and other NHL cities. One agent quoted an Edmonton player he represents as having told him, "Every time we go into New York City, it's a real blizzard, and I'm not talking about the weather." One of SI's sources, a player for another NHL team, told of having used cocaine with three members of the Oilers during the '85-86 season. Edmonton and Canadian law enforcement officials say they have received unsubstantiated reports of drug use among team members. "We've had information passed on to us," says staff sergeant Hal Johnson, head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Edmonton drug squad. "We do not have evidence to lay charges, but we have information that there are users on the club."

What is perhaps most noteworthy about all this is the way the Oilers' missteps and misdeeds have been winked at by the communities in which they operate—both the hockey community and the city of Edmonton. To be sure, NHL president John Ziegler talks tough about drugs, saying he will immediately suspend any player caught using them. And in fact, he suspended former New York Ranger Don Murdoch for 40 games in 1978-79 following his conviction for possession of cocaine and Montreal defense-man Ric Nattress for 30 games in 1983 following his conviction for possession of marijuana. Unlike the NFL, NBA or major league baseball, the NHL has never had a league-wide policy providing for rehabilitation for drug abusers. Nor does it push for drug testing the way the other leagues do. "Use it and you're gone," warns Ziegler, who says he knows of only two players who have ever used drugs: Murdoch and Nattress.

Ziegler must not want to know about others too badly. Former New York Ranger Mark Heaslip has admitted since his departure from the NHL in 1979 that he had a cocaine problem as a player; his former wife, Barbara, told SI that, to her knowledge, at least seven Rangers were cocaine users when her ex-husband was with the team.

While the NHL looks the other way, the Oilers may, in a sense, come under too much attention in Edmonton. Boston Bruins center Ken Linseman, who was a member of the Oilers for two seasons, including 1983-84, when they won their first Stanley Cup, says the atmosphere for hockey players in Edmonton is stifling. "They live and die hockey there," he says. "They have nothing else to be proud of. In the States people cheer for athletes, but in Canada many people grow up playing hockey. They all despise you [for your success]. I suffocated in Edmonton. I couldn't breathe. The city was so small, you couldn't get anywhere without people talking about hockey." Sather is another who claims that some people in Edmonton resent the Oilers' success. He charges that some police officers harass his players and suggests that this could account for the fact that Hunter has received the three impaired-driving convictions.

But the Oilers also bathe in great adulation in Edmonton, and some citizens apparently go out of their way to protect the players. One relative of an Oiler mainstay told SI that before the 1984 Christmas holidays, a list somehow found its way to players showing where and when the Edmonton police department planned to set up road checkpoints to catch drunk drivers. Edmonton police say the list was available to no more than 20 people within the department and say they have no idea how it could have wound up circulating among the Oilers.

In the alternately confining and permissive atmosphere in which they find themselves, some Oilers seem to have a hard time learning from their mistakes. For someone supposedly harassed by the police, Hunter, for example, seems all too willing to thumb his nose at the law. While serving a 13-day jail sentence last March following his third driving-while-impaired conviction. Hunter was required to attend a class monitored by a volunteer organization called People Against Impaired Drivers. Two people who attended the class told SI they were shocked to hear Hunter tell the group that his repeated arrests "won't stop me from drinking and driving. I'm more concerned about my reputation—the bad publicity."

Others within the Oiler organization appear primarily concerned about the same thing. Sather was sufficiently worried about possible drug and alcohol abuse among his players to have hired Offenberger, and he says he has recommended that Ziegler employ Offenberger as a consultant to the league. But Sather denies that the Oilers have a drug problem—or for that matter a serious disciplinary problem. In a statement about drug use that is either grimly realistic or shockingly lax—take your pick—Sather said in an interview after the team's elimination by Calgary, "I'm not so naive to think that no one on this hockey club has been exposed to something they shouldn't have. Any kind of drugs you want to find I'm sure has been exposed to this team at one time or another. If a guy goes to a party, gets drunk, or sniffs a line of cocaine, or smokes a joint, that doesn't make him a compulsive user or dealer or anything. That makes him a guy who went to a party and had a good time. If it becomes a habit, if he gets caught, then you've got a problem. But until it's a problem I can't do anything with it."

As for his players' financial and legal difficulties, Sather says, "Anybody in the league can have these same problems." But it's unlikely that anybody has any worse problems than Fuhr. "He threw money around like it was playing paper," says a former acquaintance. "He bought whatever he saw: videos, stereos, clothes...." Sather himself recalls an outstanding bill at a local bar for about $3,500. "He was running a tab and everybody in town was using it. He didn't know what he was getting into," Sather says. "Grant's not exactly a wizard when it comes to finances."

Nor, apparently, when it comes to negotiating contracts. Bill Watters, Fuhr's agent, whose offices are in Toronto, says that in January 1984 he got a call from Oilers assistant general manager Bruce MacGregor, saying that the club would no longer be able to forward Fuhr's paychecks to Toronto since a series of garnishments had been filed against the goalie. At the time, Fuhr, who was entering his option year, was making roughly $70,000 (Canadian). As an All-Star goalie, Fuhr presumably was due for a big raise. Watters says that when he saw Fuhr at the 1984 All-Star game in February, he told him not to sign anything.

That spring the Oilers knocked off the Islanders to win their first Cup, and Fuhr sparkled in goal throughout the playoffs. After the playoffs, Watters called Sather to talk contract. "Didn't Grant call you?" Watters quotes Sather as having told him. "Grant signed a new contract."

The deal Fuhr signed, Sather indicated, was for three years and $300,000—which translates to $72,000 a year in U.S. dollars. It is an extraordinarily poor contract for a player of Fuhr's caliber; Hartford's Mike Liut, who is the only goal-tender even mentioned in the same breath as Fuhr, makes about $400,000 (U.S.) a year. "Grant was paying Watters seven or eight percent," Sather says in his own defense, explaining that by dealing directly with him, Fuhr didn't have to pay his agent seven percent of $300,000. (Watters says his fee actually was 5%.)

Sather is now Fuhr's unofficial financial manager. Sather says that when he learned that Fuhr was paying some $1,200 a month in rent, he suggested that the Oilers buy the house for him and arrange mortgaging so Fuhr could both build equity and lower his monthly payments. In December 1984, the Oilers advanced Fuhr $91,890 toward the purchase and now hold a lien against the house. They also directly handle Fuhr's monthly mortgage and utility payments for him. "He's had his utilities shut off because he never pays them," says Sather. "So what I have done is watch his money. I tell him what he can and cannot do. I also charge him $100 a month for accounting. And interest [on the house loan]. Why do we manage his money? Why do we have to have a lien against him? Because he can't take care of his money. The problems Grant's got come from a kid that is dumb."

Still, there is evidence that Fuhr's financial difficulties continued even after Sather stepped in. On Sept. 11, 1985 a local collection agency settled a $468.69 debt that Fuhr owed a video store.

For the past few years there has been an aura of invincibility surrounding the Oilers. But the Oilers were never invincible off the ice—far from it—and now the aura has been shattered on it. As their conquerors, the Calgary Flames, moved into the Stanley Cup semifinals—they were tied one game apiece with the St. Louis Blues as of Sunday (Montreal led the Rangers 2-0 in the other semis)—Sather let drop an opinion after the Oilers were rudely eliminated by the Flames that seemed all too achingly true. "There's still some growing up to be done on this team," Sather said.



Losing on a fluke goal—from Smith (5) to Fuhr's leg to their own net—left the Oilers in no mood to smile for a photographer.



[See caption above.]



Owner Pocklington (left) and Sather had a lot more to be happy about a year ago.



Offenberger says there was an excess of money and freedom but a paucity of maturity.



Oilers in the fast lane: Fuhr (above left) has had his salary garnisheed; Messier (above right), Semenko (below left) and Hunter (right) have had driving-related legal troubles.



Although Calgary lost Game 1 of the next series on Mark Hunter's goal for St. Louis...



...Flames fans were not through gloating over their team's big win over the Oilers.