Paul Coffey: teams great because 'our best players were our hardest workers'

John Decoste
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NHL Hall of Famer Paul Coffey was the headline guest for the 17th annual Acadia Hockey Celebrity Dinner June 19 in Wolfville.

Paul Coffey played on a lot of good teams in his 21-year NHL career, but the best of them had one thing in common: “Our best players were also our hardest workers.”

Coffey joined the Edmonton Oilers in the fall of 1980, after being drafted in the first round. By the spring of 1983, they were in the Stanley Cup final.

The Oilers, with Coffey in the lineup on defence, won Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985 and 1987 before he was traded to Pittsburgh. His teammates then won twice more in 1988 and 1990.

“Wayne (Gretzky) had been in Indianapolis and then Edmonton in the WHA. When the Oilers joined the NHL in 1979, Wayne was already there.”

That Oilers team was built through the draft. Kevin Lowe was drafted in the first round in 1979, Mark Messier in the fourth round and Glenn Anderson in the sixth.

In 1980, Coffey was drafted in the first round, Jari Kurri in the third and Andy Moog in the sixth. Grant Fuhr was a first-round pick in 1981. “The core of that team basically came together in three years.”

Many feel there has not been a team since to match the Oilers of that era.

“Everybody was ego-less, and we all had the same goal – to be the best we could and make the team the best it could be,” Coffey said.

“(The Oilers had) a great coach and GM, Glen Sather, who pushed us all to be the best.”

Sather, Coffey said, pushed a modified European style.

“In those days, you were paid for production, and when your best player is also your hardest worker, as Wayne was, it helps everything else fall into place,” Coffey said.

The Oilers, he said, “could have been even better, and won more Cups, if we had been able to stay together. My leaving in 1988 had nothing to do with money. It was a matter of principle. We could see they wouldn’t pay us, and that there were different sets of rules for different guys.”

Lee Fogolin, one of the team’s veteran players, “wanted nothing more than to retire an Oiler.” When he was traded in 1987, which would have been his final year, “it opened my eyes that the owner really didn’t care about the players.”

Coffey moved on to Pittsburgh, where he was part of another Stanley Cup champion team in 1991.  

“(Edmonton) wanted to trade me somewhere where I wouldn’t succeed,” he said. “They told me that. They underestimated the will and talent of ’66’, Mario Lemieux.”

When Coffey arrived in Pittsburgh, “the team had no leadership,” as Lemieux hadn’t quite grown into the role. The 1991 Stanley Cup team “was also built in a relatively short time.” And, as had been the case in Edmonton, “our best player (Lemieux) was also our hardest worker.”

After leaving Pittsburgh – ironically, at mid-season in another Stanley Cup year – Coffey played for Los Angeles, Detroit, Hartford, Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina and finally Boston, before retiring in 2001.

“At the end of my career, my dad said, ‘son, it’s a business. You have to go where the money is.’ I enjoyed everywhere I played, and I took what I could, experience-wise, out of every place I played.”

After he retired, he was tempted to stay involved, but he didn’t want that kind of commitment.

“I decided I’d rather be part of my kids growing up.”

Today, Coffey lives in Toronto, where he is involved in real estate development. He has stayed in the game coaching minor hockey, including his two sons.

He adds that he has no regrets.

“At the end, when you’re being tossed around, you can pout that the game owes you a living,” or you can go in another direction.

“(Hockey) was, and is, a great game. There was a while there I didn’t like what I was seeing, but it’s come back. Hockey is a business, but it has to remain fun. You can always find ways to make money, but your kids are only young once.”

See a slideshow of photos from the Acadia hockey dinner at KingsCountyNews.ca

Organizations: Oilers, NHL, Edmonton Oilers

Geographic location: Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Indianapolis Los Angeles Detroit Hartford Philadelphia Chicago Boston Toronto

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