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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …Grant Fuhr

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Grant Fuhr is a Canadian former ice hockey goaltender in the National Hockey League and former goaltending coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2003, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is best remembered for a decade of stellar play for the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. He won a total of five [Stanley Cup]]s and was a seven time All-Star.

Fuhr was born to one black parent and one white parent but was adopted by parents Betty Wheeler and Robert Fuhr and raised in Spruce Grove, Alberta. He set a number of firsts for black hockey players, including being the first to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In 1979, at the age of seventeen, Fuhr joined the Victoria Cougars of the WHL. After two stellar seasons in Victoria, which included the league championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup in 1981, Fuhr was drafted eighth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft. He played ten seasons for the Oilers, where he teamed up first with Andy Moog, then Bill Ranford to form one of the most formidable goaltending tandems in history, winning the Stanley Cup four times in five seasons (1983-84 through ’87-88). He was also involved with the infamous goal where Steve Smith scored on his own net to cost the Oilers the ’86 playoffs against the Calgary Flames. Fuhr was the team’s starting goaltender on the first four teams, but was injured and did not play in the 1990 playoffs, when the Oilers won for the fifth time. He played in the National Hockey League All-Star Game in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, and 1989. In 1987, he played in goal for the NHL All-Stars in both games of the Rendez-Vous ’87 series against the Soviet National Team. In 1987-88, Fuhr backstopped Canada to a victory at the Canada Cup, playing in all nine games, then played in 75 regular season and 19 playoff games. He won his only Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender that year and finished second in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP, behind Mario Lemieux and ahead of teammate Wayne Gretzky. Grant’s playoff success fed into his reputation as the supreme “money” goalie (or “clutch” goaltender) of his era, the person you would want in net with the season on the line, and there was a period of time from 1987 through at least 1989 where Grant was often called “the best goaltender in the World”. He battled shoulder injuries and substance abuse problems at the tail end of his career with Edmonton, and was suspended by the NHL for 59 games of the 1990–91 season.

In 1991, Fuhr was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a seven-player deal. After a season and a half in Toronto, he was again traded, this time to the Buffalo Sabres.

In Buffalo, he played a role in the Sabres’ dramatic first-round playoff victory over the Boston Bruins, helped instill a winning attitude in the organization, and mentored the young Dominik Hasek. Fuhr then had a successful 1993–94 season with the Sabres, sharing time in goal with Hasek and winning the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals scored against in the league with him. However, when Fuhr went down with multiple injuries, Hasek stepped into the starting role, and played well enough to hold onto the job.

With Hasek now ensconced in the Sabres’ net, Fuhr was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings, again playing with Gretzky. Out of shape and possibly past his prime, his career saw a resurgence when he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues before the 1995–96 campaign. He played 79 games that season, 76 consecutively, both St. Louis franchise records. The 1996 playoff run for Fuhr ended prematurely as Maple Leafs forward Nick Kypreos ran into him in the crease in the first round, causing him to tear several knee ligaments. Jon Casey had to play the rest of the playoffs. They beat Toronto in the first round, but lost to Detroit in the next. Even though over the next three years he became one of the three winningest goaltenders in Blues history (along with Mike Liut and Curtis Joseph), he never fully recovered from injury. After the Blues signed Roman Turek as their new number one goaltender in 1999, Fuhr was traded to the Calgary Flames. He spent one season there being a mentor for Calgary’s young goalies, including Fred Brathwaite, and on October 22, 1999, he earned his 400th career win versus the Florida Panthers. Before the 2000–01 season, he announced his retirement.

In 1990, Fuhr came forward about his drug use after spending two weeks in a counseling center in Florida. He admitted that he used “a substance”—he did not say cocaine—for some seven years, or most of the period that the Oilers rested at the top of the NHL. Details of Fuhr’s drug use were supplied by the player’s ex-wife. The embarrassing details no doubt contributed to the one-year suspension handed down in September 1990 by NHL president John Ziegler, who called Fuhr’s conduct “dishonorable and against the welfare of the league.” Once Fuhr was re-instated, fans of opposing teams taunted him at games with bags of sugar.

In May 1993, while still a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Fuhr was denied membership in the neighbouring Transit Valley Country Club. At the time, rumours floated that the denial was based on race, as several of Fuhr’s white teammates had been granted membership. Club officials denied they rejected Fuhr based on his race; rather, his application contained “incorrect and incomplete” information. Various acts of vandalism at the club occurred after news of Fuhr’s rejection surfaced, including an incident where vandals burned a swastika onto one of the greens. In light of the negative publicity, the club reversed its position and offered Fuhr not only a membership, but an apology as well. Fuhr rejected the membership and joined nearby Lancaster Country Club. The club also temporarily suspended its membership committee and had an anti-bias policy written into its by-laws.

Fuhr was hired to be the Phoenix Coyotes goaltending coach on July 22, 2004. Fuhr held the position until the end of the 2008-09 season, when he was replaced by Sean Burke. He held a similar post with the Calgary Flames in the 2000–2001 and 2001–2002 seasons.

Fuhr was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 2, 2003.

Wayne Gretzky has said on many occasions that he believes Fuhr is the greatest goaltender in NHL history. This is mentioned in an interview with Wayne Gretzky conducted by John Davidson as part of the 2003 DVD “Ultimate Gretzky”.

Fuhr was also inducted in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday spotlights…Grant Fuhr.

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