Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Edmonton Oilers - 1983-90
One on One Turning Point

Edmonton Oilers - 1983-90

2 JULY 2014
Paul Coffey was the first pick and sixth overall selection of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980 Entry Draft. (O-Pee-Chee/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Hockey fans are quick to point out dynasties, and can list them off like items on a shopping list: Ottawa Senators of the early-1920s, Toronto Maple Leafs of the late-1940s, Detroit Red Wings of the early-1950s, Montreal Canadiens of the late-1950s, Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1960s, Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s, New York Islanders of the early-1980s and the Edmonton Oilers of the late-1980s. So, what did these franchises have in common? Potent offence, solid defence, stellar goaltending, bench strength and solid management.

Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers celebrating with the Stanley Cup following the 1985 Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
It is impossible to ignore the extraordinary exploits of the Edmonton Oilers. While no fewer than seven members of the dynastic Oilers are Honoured Members of the Hockey Hall of Fame (Glen Sather as a Builder (1997) and players Wayne Gretzky (1999), Jari Kurri (2001), Grant Fuhr (2003), Paul Coffey (2004), Mark Messier (2007) and Glenn Anderson (2008), the team was much deeper than these stars. And neither was it a slam dunk. It took strategy and synergy to evolve into the powerhouse it became.

The Edmonton Oilers were born in the World Hockey Association, a professional league that made every attempt to rival the National Hockey League. But by 1978-79, the WHA had exhausted its lifespan and four teams were folded into the NHL: the New England (Hartford) Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and, of course, the Oilers.

The 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup engraving.
(Dave Sandford/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The NHL held a draft to re-distribute players who had toiled in the WHA. Each of the four franchises was allowed to protect two goaltenders and two skaters. Fortunately, a kid named Wayne Gretzky had signed a 21-year personal services contract with franchise owner, Peter Pocklington, and was exempt from the draft, keeping the forward as the cornerstone of the team. "Within five years, Edmonton will have the Stanley Cup," predicted Pocklington to much derision.

The Oilers' early years in the NHL were far from outstanding, although they did make the playoffs. In fact, 16 of the NHL's 21 teams made the playoffs at the time. Gaining experience in the playoffs served the young players well, and because they had finished in the bottom two-thirds of the league during the regular season, they earned very favourable draft positions, and over the next several years, selected Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Andy Moog.

Grant Fuhr led the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cup championships between 1984 and 1990. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
By 1981-82, Gretzky had firmly established himself as the best hockey player in the NHL, and the team finished first in their division, although were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs. The next season, Gretzky won the scoring championship for a third straight season and, riding a record-breaking output of 424 goals, the Oilers again finished first in the Smythe Division. They reached the Stanley Cup final, but were swept by the New York Islanders, enjoying the last celebration of their own dynasty.

You have to lose to learn how to win, and the Oilers took their lessons to heart. In 1983-84, the team broke its own record, collecting 446 goals, including 87 from Gretzky, and again finished first. The team had three players - Gretzky, Kurri and Anderson - who collected 50 or more goals. In a scenario that could have been sketched in Hollywood, Edmonton faced the four-time Stanley Cup champion Islanders in the final; a repeat of the previous spring. This time, it was the Oilers who came away with the Stanley Cup, winning in five games.

Edmonton's Mark Messier would capture the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1984 as the Oilers captured their first ever Stanley Cup with a series win over the New York Islanders. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Oilers again finished first in 1984-85, and proceeded to win the Cup again, this time, dumping the Philadelphia Flyers in five. Paul Coffey stated, "I think we could be the start of a dynasty. If we continue to be dedicated with the players and organization we have, there's no reason why we can't be a dynasty."

Gretzky led the league with a staggering 215 points in 1985-86, Jari Kurri won the goal-scoring title with 68, with Gretzky and Anderson again adding 50 or more each, and Paul Coffey set a record for goals by an NHL defenceman, collecting 48, leading the Oilers to a fifth straight division title. In the division title, facing the Calgary Flames, Steve Smith unfortunately bounced a pass from behind the net off the skate of goaltender Fuhr and the goal cost Edmonton the opportunity to defend its Stanley Cup championship.

Mask worn by Grant Fuhr as a member of the Edmonton Oilers from 1983 to 1985. (Matthew Manor/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Intent on revenge, the Oilers stormed through the regular season in 1986-87, finishing first overall. Gretzky, Kurri and Messier finished the scoring race in first, second and fourth place. Edmonton proceeded to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games to reclaim the Stanley Cup.

1987-88 saw the Oilers without two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman, Paul Coffey, who was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Andy Moog tired of serving as Fuhr's back-up and left the team. The team finished second to the Flames in their Smythe Division, but in the Cup final, spanked the Boston Bruins in four games to claim the Stanley Cup for a fourth time in five seasons.

During the 1985 Stanley Cup playoffs Jari Kurri recorded 19 goals tying the playoff goal scoring record set by Reggie Leach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The impossible took place during the summer of 1988. Wayne Gretzky, NHL's most dominant player and the Oilers' captain and lynchpin, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The team struggled without its star, slipping to third place in the division. And then, in another quirk of the NHL schedule, Gretzky's Kings faced the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. It was L.A. that emerged to pursue, leaving the Oilers to fume and re-invent.

Glen Sather, who had served as coach and general manager, replaced himself behind the bench with John Muckler in 1989-90. The team bounced back, finishing second, and then proved to themselves and the hockey world that they could win without Gretzky, claiming the Stanley Cup for the fifth time in seven seasons.

Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and Jari Kurri celebrating the Edmonton Oilers celebrating with the Stanley Cup after a series win over the Boston Bruins in 1990. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Edmonton Oilers are remembered for their stars. Wayne Gretzky was the NHL's scoring leader in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987, was a First Team All-Star in each of those seasons, as well as a Second Team All-Star in 1988, won the Hart Trophy in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 and the Pearson in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Additionally, we won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1985 and 1988. Mark Messier was a Second Team All-Star in 1984 and was named to the First Team in 1990. He won both the Hart and the Pearson in 1990 and took home the Smythe in 1984. Paul Coffey was the NHL's best defenceman, winning the Norris Trophy in 1985 and 1986 and was twice a First Team All-Star (1985 and 1986) as well as a Second Team All-Star in 1984. Jari Kurri was selected to the First All-Star Team in 1985 and 1987, and to the Second Team in 1984, 1986 and 1989. Grant Fuhr was the First Team All-Star in 1988 and won the Vezina Trophy that same year. His successor, Bill Ranford, won the Conn Smythe in 1990.

But the team employed a roster of exceedingly valuable supporters to their All-Stars. Glenn Anderson, Craig Simpson and Adam Graves were just three of the players who added great production to the team. Kevin Lowe and Charlie Huddy were outstanding, steady defencemen. Andy Moog was a very reliable partner to Fuhr during the mid-1980s. Craig MacTavish and Esa Tikkanen were extremely effective in checking roles, and Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley added muscle, especially in a role to protect Gretzky.

Eventually, owner Peter Pocklington's financial situation ended the dynasty, as those circumstances forced the team to sell off or trade its most valuable assets.

The Edmonton Oilers, not only extremely potent but entertaining, grew together, learning valuable lessons along the way, to become one of the great dynasties in the National Hockey League's glorious history. And their legacy lies in their name engraved on the Stanley Cup a remarkable five times in seven seasons during the 1980s.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.