Friday, August 10, 2012

Oilers History: Moving Coffey marked the beginning of the end

There has been a fair amount written, in recent days, regarding the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Edmonton Oilers trading Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9th, 1988. Obviously, it was a monumental moment in this organizations history but there was another move made during the opening months of the 1987-88 campaign, that was very much a precursor of what was to come.

This coming November will mark the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Oilers decision to trade away defenceman Paul Coffey. The future Hall of Famer was the first of the "Big Six" that would, eventually, all find their way out of the City of Champions, leaving both fans and players thinking what might have been. The date was November 24th, 1987 and it was a day that would forever change the history of one the NHL's most storied franchises.

As great as those dynasty years were, the organization had always manged to keep their players from making anywhere near what they were worth...even back than. While Gretzky obviously sat atop the Oilers payroll back in '87, making in the neighbourhood of $1 million, he was not the highest paid player in the game. Leaving the likes of Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr all making far less dough, than some may have thought.

They were all young guys earning a nice pay cheque and having a blast on and off the ice. That being said, they were not thrilled with Peter Pocklington's pay structure and who could blame them. Edmonton had just won their third Stanley Cup in four years and those six players were all widely considered among the very best in the world at their respective positions. As time passes by, people sometimes forget how good certain players were but all you need to do is have a look at the Team Canada roster from that summer's Canada Cup and it tells you everything you need know.

Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr were all major contributors, in what many people still refer to as the greatest hockey ever played. They new they were good and wanted a bigger piece of the pie but almost seemed afraid to try and get it. That is, until Coffey decided to take his chances in the summer of 1987.

Heading into the 1986-87 campaign, Coffey was coming off three of the greatest offensive years ever produced by a blueliner, reaching numbers that only the great Bobby Orr had ever achieved.  However, he came back down to earth during '86-'87, as he battled injuries and some inconsistent play. Thought he still manged to collect 67 points in only fifty-nine games. Not the 120+ point seasons he had the previous three but Edmonton rebounded to win their third Cup and Coffey felt he should have been rewarded with a hefty increase in pay, something the organization said they simply could not and would not do.

Come September, Coffey decided to holdout and was nowhere to be found at the Oilers training camp. He was standing his ground and  wouldn't budge. While he and Sather continually took shots at one another through the media, no one really thought they were going to trade Coffey...and than it happened.

Sather worked out a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which would see Coffey, Dave Hunter and Wayne Van Dorp head to Pittsburgh, in exchange for highly touted youngster Craig Simpson, Dave Hannan, Chris Joseph and Moe Mantha. From an Oilers standpoint, at first glance, it wasn't an awful return. Simpson had many productive seasons in Edmonton, including a 56 goal campaign in 1987-88, and helped them win two more championships. With that being said, when you consider that outside of Orr, Coffey is and still remains the greatest offensive threat, from the backend, that the game of hockey has seen and it doesn't look to good on the Oilers.

More importantly, it was the first step in what became a quick dismantling of one of the greatest teams in hockey history. They still manged to take the Cup in 1988, despite losing Coffey, but Gretzky would be following his good buddy out the door, prior to the 1988 - 89 season.

To their credit, Edmonton would win another Stanley Cup in 1990 and get to the Conference Finals in 1991 but that would be the final chapter of the "Glory Days". Kurri would find his way out of town after the Cup winning season in '90, while all three of Messier, Anderson and Fuhr were moved prior to the 1991-992 season.  Just like that, the powerhouse that hockey fans everywhere hated their team to play but loved to watch, was no more

Oilers History Page 

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