Oilers History: The Fall and Rise of Grant Fuhr - The Staged Retirement
By Rob Soria
After backstopping the Edmonton Oilers to 4 Stanley Cup Championships in 5 years, most considered Grant Fuhr to be the best goalie on the planet. Despite being in the prime of his career, Fuhr stunned the hockey world in the summer of 1989, announcing his retirement at the age of 26. While no real reason was given for the decision, it ultimately came down to money and a Pepsi logo.
Edmonton - July 27, 2013 - From the moment he made his NHL debut against the Winnipeg Jets on October 14, 1981, to the Edmonton Oilers elimination in the first round of the 1989 Playoffs at the hands of Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, no goaltender had accomplished more during that same period of time than Grant Fuhr.
While his first eight years in the National Hockey League featured many ups and downs, few had ever put together such a run from the start of their career as the former Victoria Cougars puck stopper.
Fuhr not only backstopped the Oilers to four Stanley Cup Championships in five years but was widely recognized as being the best netminder in the business, despite having won just one Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.
His presence in goal during international tournaments, be it for the NHL or Team Canada, and his ability to raise his level of play come crunch time, aka: the playoffs, spoke volumes about the kid from Spruce Grove.
Despite falling to Gretzky and the Kings during the opening round of the post-season, the former eighth overall pick was still considered the king of crease by most experts. Making what occurred during the summer of 1989, all the more baffling. Seemingly out of nowhere, the all-star netminder threatened to walk away from the game hockey at the age of twenty-six, thanks to an apparent dispute with general manager Glen Sather and some bad advice from agent Ritch Winter.
After completing a round of golf on the afternoon of June 8th, Fuhr stunned the Edmonton media with news of his decision to call it a career. To make matters worse, the news conference was held on the golf course, from the All-Star's golf cart...with his agent by his side. While no specifics were given as to what the "issues" were, he did add this little nugget, to help fuel the fire.
"If you can't play this game and have fun and get the respect you deserve, then there's not much reason for going on. This has been a long time coming, a long time building up."
Oddly enough, this was the first time anyone had hard anything about the so-called "long time building" problem between Fuhr and the organization. That being said, the Winter vs Sather battles were well known, including the two engaging in a shoving match, while trying to hammer out a new deal for the star goalie back in 1987.
Publicly, the dispute was over Fuhr not being respected but in reality, it was about money and the Oilers underpaying their star players...a common practice during the Peter Pocklington era. Back than, there was no holding out for the big contract. The team almost always held the hammer and they generally used it to their advantage.
With the player salaries being what they were, Winter did what any good agent should do, look for another potential money making endeavours for both himself and his client. To his credit, he was able to secure Fuhr a five-year contract with the Pepsi-Cola, that would see the future Hall of Famer wear the Pepsi logo on his goal pads, starting in the upcoming 1989-90 season. Great idea but there was one major hurdle standing in their way...the NHL prohibited all players from selling advertising space on their equipment.
In Winter's mind, he felt the Oilers should have signed a special waiver allowing his client to wear the logo on his equipment. Unfortunately it wasn't quite that simple. The National Hockey League had a rule in place, which required all manufacturers to pay the league a set sum before any sort of advertisement could be worn by players. Seems pretty cut and dry but Winter was telling Fuhr it was the Oilers who were holding things up.
With both sides seemingly at a standstill, no one knew what would come next. While the star netminder did give the club his retirement papers back in early June, Sather never did file them with the league. Having said that, he was, one again, starting to lose his patience with Winter, who was supposedly trying to force a trade that would have seen the Oilers #31 being sent packing to the Detroit Red Wings, who would have happily given his client a significant bump on his yearly salary of roughly $400,000.
That was Sather's tipping point. He cut off all communication with Winter and with training camp fast approaching, put the ball back into Fuhr's court. With his season and possible career hanging in the balance, the now veteran goaltender agreed to meet with his general manager in a one-on-one setting. After the two sides cleared the air and Fuhr came to the realization that it was in fact the NHL and not Edmonton that were prohibiting him from putting the Pepsi logo on his pads, his stance softened.
On August 24th, 1989, it was made official...Grant Fuhr was remaining a member of the Edmonton Oilers. While Ritch Winter was simply trying to do what he felt was best for his guy, keeping him somewhat in the dark, wasn't the wisest of ways to go about. However, the fact that the situation turned into the fiasco it ultimately did, falls on the player's shoulders.
It was a poor decision and one that triggered a sequence of events which would see the former playoff hero go through as tough an eighteen month stretch, both on and off the ice, as any player had in recent NHL history. Things were about to go from bad to worse for Fuhr...and it all would happen in a blink of an eye.
Rob Soria is the Edmonton Oilers' correspondent for OurHometown.ca. Rob was born and raised in Edmonton and is the author of the Edmonton Oilers blog - OilDrop.ca. He has been a dedicated follower of the game and its history for years but his focus remains on his hometown Edmonton Oilers. If you have questions or wish to contact Rob, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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