Edmonton - July 29, 2013 - On the morning of August 31st, 1990, the Edmonton Journal ran a story which fans of the Edmonton Oilers wanted no part of hearing or at least reading.
The piece was put together by a trio of writers, Tom Barrett, Cam Cole and David Staples, and focused on the long time substance abuse of one of the team's most notable players. That player, was none other than Grant Fuhr.
After struggling through what was a disastrous 1989-90 campaign, at least on a personal level, the former eighth overall pick of the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, was about to see his career hit a new all-time low.
Prior to making the news of his struggles public, the Journal gave him the opportunity to come clean and readily admit to abusing a controlled substance over the last seven years.
With his "secret" on the verge of coming out and his ex-wife playing a key role in helping break the news, Fuhr decided to come clean and admit to his addiction. He first started using cocaine back in 1983, typically going on so-called "binges" once every three or four weeks, and continued doing so until checking himself into the Straight Center in St. Petersburg, Florida in the summer of 1989, after testing positive in a test for former agent Ritch Winter.
Fuhr admitted to repeatedly denying he had a problem over the last number of years, despite being confronted on the matter by general manager Glen Sather on numerous occasions. Obviously, the organization and those close to the former Vezina Trophy winner new there was an issue but with no one willing to corroborate their suspicions, their hands were tied. Luckily, that all changed the moment Corrine Fuhr decided to put the future well-being of her ex-husband, ahead of the potential damage it could do to his reputation.
While both the player and organization were hopeful the league would show some leniency when it came time to hand out his punishment, they were fully expecting some sort of suspension. Nearly four weeks after the Edmonton Journal ran the story and the day before Fuhr's twenty-eighth birthday, the five-time Stanley Cup winner was handed a one year suspension from the National Hockey League. So much for leniency.
In a prepared statement, NHL President John Ziegler had much to say, including the following about the league's decision to suspend the Oilers netminder for the entire 1990-91 campaign:
"I have given consideration to the fact that he has been drug-free for 12 months, I have given weight to the fact that he has come forward and is facing this matter head on. Having said that, Mr. Fuhr's actions were intentional and were in defiance of (NHL) policy and he must suffer the consequences."
Obviously both Fuhr and the Oilers were devastated by the news, especially since he had been tested three times over the last calendar year and all three came back negative. As bad as the news was, Ziegler did leave the door open for the Spruce Grove native to possibly be reinstated as early as next February, should he meet certain conduct requirements. Edmonton had the option of appealing the decision but decided against it.
The punishment may have been harsh and perhaps even a little unfair but at the end of the day, Grant had no one but himself to blame. To his credit, he took full responsibility for his actions and was focused on trying to gain early reinstatement.
On February 4th, 1991, Ziegler would do exactly that, allowing Fuhr to once again pull on an Oilers jersey as an active NHL player. He had been forced to miss the club's first fifty-nine games of the season but come February 18th against the New Jersey Devils, he would be ready for Game #60.
In the two weeks leading up to his return to the lineup, the former Victoria Cougars standout would make four appearances for the Cape Breton Oilers in the American Hockey League. While his play was uneven at best during his brief stint in the AHL, all that truly mattered was that Monday evening tilt against the Devils and what a return it was.
With the game being nationally televised on TSN, the buzz throughout the hockey world was all about the return of Grant Fuhr and no one really knew what to expect. After all, it had been almost two full seasons since anyone had seen a truly healthy #31 play goal for the Edmonton Oilers and with such a long layoff since his last NHL start, there was nothing but question marks surrounding his return.
He took to his crease minus his usual colourful equipment and mask, instead deciding to go with an all white attire. This was supposed to be a fresh start and with Bill Ranford coming off a Conn Smythe winning performance in the 1990 Stanley Cup Playoffs and in the midst of another solid campaign in Oilers silks, no one really knew how long Fuhr would remain an Oiler.
Edmonton came into New Jersey, having lost six of their last seven games and badly in need of spark, which is exactly what their veteran netminder provided them. Fuhr was simply outstanding in his debut, turning aside one Devils opportunity after another, while playing his usual electrifying style of game. Oddly enough, he looked even more relaxed than usual, which is hard to believe for anyone who watched him play with any sort of regularity over the previous nine years of his career.
His presence rejuvenated what had been a rather lacklustre group, as players were diving in front of shots to help their teammate out, on top of putting a handful of pucks behind Devils starter Chris Terreri. At the final buzzer, the Oilers earned a crucial two points on the road and Fuhr returned in style, blanking New Jersey 4-0 and instantly quieting fans and critics alike, who thought his best days were indeed behind him.
Over the following six weeks, Fuhr would continue to impress getting stronger with each and every outing. Having never been one to report to camp in the best of shape, the fact he returned to the game in arguably the best physical condition of his career, was clearly working in his favour. He wasn't in mid-season form but rather playoff form.
By season's end, Fuhr had posted a 6-4-3 record, starting thirteen of Edmonton's final twenty-one games, having wrestled back his spot as the club's #1 goalie heading into the playoffs. Some were miffed at John Muckler's decision to go with Fuhr over Ranford but to Muckler's credit, he went with the guy that he felt gave them the best shot to win.
After almost single-handedly stealing the opening game of their first round series with the Calgary Flames, those questioning the coach's decision were quickly silenced. In what turned out to be one of the finest playoff series ever played, Edmonton outlasted the Flames in a seven game classic. It was hockey at its finest and Fuhr's performance was simply astonishing. In all honesty, he had never looked better at any point in his career and seemed poised to possibly lead the Oilers all the way back to another Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Unfortunately for Edmonton, it was not meant to be. The punishing style of play they were forced to play against both the Flames and Los Angeles Kings, ultimately took its toll in the Western Conference Final. The injuries were piling up, including one to captain Mark Messier, and they simply had nothing left in the tank, falling to the Minnesota North Stars in just five games.
In three short months, Grant Fuhr went from being a question mark, to once again becoming one of the best in the business. He not only returned to form but showed to be more than capable of overcoming as a tough a circumstance as one good possibly imagine. He rose to the challenge and frankly, watching him play drug-free and at full capacity, left one wondering just how good he could have been, had he dealt with his addiction earlier in his career.
Oilers History: The Fall and Rise of Grant Fuhr - The Staged Retirement
Oilers History: The Fall and Rise of Grant Fuhr - More Shoulder Problems