The infant in the tiny Edmonton Oilers jersey stared blankly at the cameras last Thursday night as his father, defenseman Randy Gregg, propped him into a sitting position behind the microphones. "His name is Jamie, he's two months old and he can't skate backwards," Gregg said by way of introduction, adding wryly, "He's a month behind Gretz already." Wayne Gretzky, of course, had his first pair of skates on before he left the delivery room. Asked what his son had thought of the Oilers' resounding 8-3 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers earlier that night—which clinched Edmonton's second straight Stanley Cup championship—Gregg replied, "Someday I hope he has a chance to watch the videotapes of the game so he can see exactly what the Oilers had in 1984-85." With that, Dad tipped Jamie's tiny head backward, hoisted a bottle of bubbly and, over his wife Kathy's strident objections, gave the little fuzzbonnet a champagne shampoo. Time to celebrate, little fella.
What the Oilers had in 1984-85 was the same thing they had last season and that they may very well have through the remainder of the decade: the best team in the NHL. The Oilers boast an awesome lineup that combines flamboyant firepower and, when called for, ferocious defense and goaltending, all of which they flaunted against the injury-fettered Flyers, winning the last four games of the best-of-seven series after dropping the opener in Philadelphia.
Thursday's romp—the date was May 30, ending the longest season in NHL history—was a vintage Oiler performance, featuring a dazzling array of goals by Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri, each seemingly prettier than the last. There was Kurri opening the scoring with a behind-the-back feed from Gretzky for his 19th goal of the playoffs—tying a record set in 1976 by Philadelphia's Reggie Leach. There was the Great One flummoxing Philadelphia defenseman Miroslav Doormat—er, Dvorak—with a neat move toward the middle of the ice, followed by another behind-the-back pass, this one finding Coffey, who was streaking up from his defense position to score the first of his two goals of the night. (Coffey's 12 goals during the playoffs was a new record for defensemen, breaking the old mark of nine shared by Bobby Orr and Brad Park.) There was Messier, whose proficiency at face-offs (he won 36 of 50 in Game 2) had helped swing the series in the Oilers' favor, bulling in alone on beleaguered Flyers goalie Bob Froese and scoring on two unassisted breakaways to complete the Oilers' barrage. But it wasn't just on offense that Edmonton glittered. There, for good measure, was goalie Grant Fuhr—whom Oiler G.M. coach Glen Sather called "the best goalie I've ever seen"—stopping a third-period penalty shot by Flyers captain Dave Poulin, the second penalty shot Fuhr had turned back in as many games, yet another Stanley Cup record.
In all, the Oilers set or tied 25 records during the playoffs. "There isn't a whole lot you can do to stop them when they're at the top of their game," Poulin said afterward. "Particularly Gretzky and Coffey. They killed us. Those two guys are talking to each other without words. You have to be careful that you just don't stand around and watch them."
June 9, 1985
This was Coffey's series as much as anyone's. Everyone knew what Gretzky could do, and with seven goals and four assists in the last four games against Philly, he did it. But Coffey emerged from the Flyers' series as a bona fide superstar. Despite being hampered by a sore right foot, a strained back and a bruised right hip that had to be numbed with painkillers before the last four games, Coffey played at a level unrivaled by any defenseman since Orr. Coffey's three goals and eight assists against Philadelphia gave him 37 total points in 18 playoff games, 12 more than Denis Potvin's previous record. Just as important, Coffey proved he could also play solid defense against strong forechecking. He constantly passed or carried the puck out of the Oilers' zone to start the team's attack, and he used his raw speed to break up the Flyers' counterstrikes. Said Gretzky after being awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, "From my heart I wish I could put Paul's name on it beside mine."
The series was a reversal of form in games between Philadelphia and Edmonton. Going back to November 1982, the Flyers had dominated the Oilers in the regular season, 7-0-1. Why the sudden turnaround in these finals? The Flyers' many injuries, for one thing. Brad McCrimmon, named the team's top defenseman this year, was on the sidelines with a separated shoulder, and 54-goal-scorer Tim Kerr joined him there midway through Game 3 with strained ligaments in his right knee. Poulin (injured ribs) and Ilkka Sinisalo (shoulder) were playing at considerably less than 100%, and goalie Pelle Lindbergh was trying to perform with a partially torn tendon in his right knee. "It would be a little more interesting if we were healthy," Flyers coach Mike Keenan said before the final game. But even had the Flyers been physically sound, they would have been overmatched. The Oilers in the playoffs are a very different team than the Oilers in the regular season, when they pretty much wheel and deal nonstop and leave the defensive chores to Fuhr. "We're playing better in the playoffs than we did during the season," said Flyers G.M. Bob Clarke. "But they're playing a lot better."
Sather, whose Oilers also overcame a jinx last season when they dethroned the Islanders after having lost 10 straight games to the four-time champs, said, "I guess we like a challenge, I don't know." Then he gave the real answer to the mystery. "It doesn't really matter what happens in the regular season."
Still, the Flyers were very much in the series until Game 4 on Tuesday, when Fuhr turned aside Ron Sutter's penalty shot—the single biggest play of the finals. The Oilers, who had a two-games-to-one lead and desperately wanted to finish off the Flyers in Edmonton to avoid a return to the sloppy ice of Philadelphia's Spectrum—which is where Games 6 and 7 would have been played—were trailing 2-1 when referee Kerry Fraser called a penalty shot against Messier for hauling Sutter down on a breakaway. Sutter, who had beaten Fuhr one-on-one in the opening game of the series—a 4-1 Flyers win—skated in hard and fired a low shot to Fuhr's glove side, which Fuhr easily blocked with his pad. After the Oilers had battled back to tie, 3-3, Fuhr frustrated the Flyers again by making a brilliant save on a breakaway by Rick Tocchet. "Grant's the most underrated goalie in the league," said Gretzky, who took over from there, scoring two power play goals to salt away the Oilers third win, 5-3. The Philadelphia defensemen, worn down by the relentless pace of the Oilers forwards, looked as if they were skating in syrup by the third period.
On Thursday, the Flyers received another blow when they learned that Lindbergh's knee, which he'd originally hurt in the semifinals against Quebec, had been reinjured and that he would be out the remainder of the series. Bob ("I feel fresh") Froese, who had not started in the playoffs and had played only 17 games all year, took Lindbergh's place in the Philadelphia goal.
The Oilers approached Game 5 like kids on the eve of summer vacation. Defenseman Lee Fogolin compared it to waking up Christmas morning. Eight of the Oilers had been playing hockey without a break since the Canada Cup training camp opened last Aug. 6, and all would have preferred a dip in boiling oil to another plane trip back to the City of Brotherly Love. Putting on a show for the home crowd, the Oilers rushed to a 7-1 lead after two periods, at times literally skating rings around the Flyers.
"They've got some of the greatest players in the world," said Flyers defenseman Brad Marsh. "When you don't have the scorers that they do, it takes such an all-out effort to beat them. It's not physically tiring—it's mentally tiring."
It takes character to repeat as champions, and character is the one quality that the Oilers were thought to have lacked. "We didn't want to win just one," said Gretzky a few minutes after skating around the Northlands Coliseum ice with the Cup held aloft. "We've got the reputation of being an arrogant team, a flash-in-the-pan team, and we wanted to show people that while we're fancy and flashy, we also work as hard as anyone in the league."
Gretzky is 24 years old. So are Messier and Coffey. Kurri is 25. Fuhr is 22. Now that the heart of the Edmonton Oilers has proved to be the heart of a champion, is there an NHL team in sight that can beat them? Summed up Sather: "There's a lot of pride in this house." And, just maybe, a lot more Cups on the doorstep.