It’s a dark, frigid morning during an uncharacteristically cruel Toronto winter in 2014. Anyone awake is catatonic, unable or unwilling to string two sentences together. Except a Hall of Fame goalie named Grant Fuhr, who saunters into the Westin Harbour Castle hotel lobby, fashionably late, with the cheerful Zen of a monk. Maybe it’s his surgically replaced knee, forged of titanium, that keeps him from hurrying anywhere. “He sets off all the alarms at the airport,” said Lisa, then his fiancee and now his wife. Or maybe Fuhr glides along with such tranquility because he simply has life all figured out.
What he’s about to do is daunting in theory. After years out of the public eye, he’s resurfacing to make about a dozen major media appearances in a row. Breakfast Television, TSN radio and so on. He’s promoting Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend, his autobiography. It’s a tell-all, meaning he’ll chronicle his best days backstopping the Edmonton Oilers dynasty and his adventures in golf, but he’ll also face the harder parts of his life head-on. That includes his past cocaine use, which led to a lengthy suspension during his playing career.
Some people would be jittery returning to the spotlight, but not Fuhr. He’s one of the sport’s all-time best money goalies, remember. He has five Stanley Cup rings and a Canada Cup. And when the camera or microphone is in his face, Fuhr, now 56, laps up the pressure, no problem. “This is fun,” he said. “I haven’t done this for years.”
Maybe Fuhr is so comfortable with the attention because he attracted so much of it during his career. He was a highly coveted goaltender coming out of junior, drafted eighth overall by the Oilers in 1981. An athletic netminder who modelled himself after Tony Esposito, he was a perfect fit on the most high-octane offense the game has ever known, because the team’s style was familiar to him. “I loved playing for a run-and-gun team,” he said. “I got lucky enough that when I was playing junior in Victoria, that was the first time I’d seen a run-and-gun team, so with junior and the training, my progression to the NHL was playing the same style of hockey. It was comfortable for me.”
Fuhr battled Andy Moog for playing time, which he believes made him a better goalie, and became Edmonton’s primary starter for most of the 1980s, especially during the playoffs. Fuhr played a crucial role in four of the five Cups he won with Edmonton, including an incredible 1988 run in which he went 16-2 en route to the Oil’s fourth Cup in five years.
Wayne Gretzky called Fuhr the greatest goalie in the history of the game. He played in six All-Star Games, won the 1987-88 Vezina Trophy and was acrobatically sensational for Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup, too. But he wasn’t just a star for what he did on the ice. He’s not the first black player in NHL history, but he is the first black superstar. “You notice it more now,” Fuhr said. “At the time you just treated yourself as a player, first and foremost. Obviously with Willie O’Ree and Mike Marson, Billy Riley, Tony McKegney, all those guys playing ahead of me, you didn’t really think of it that way. So I just feel pretty fortunate to have ended up in a spot where I could be successful.”
Fuhr is also remembered for being suspended by the NHL for a year in 1990 for using cocaine throughout the mid- to late 1980s. The league was aware Fuhr had been clean for a year but punished him for conduct “dishonorable and against the welfare of the league.” He earned early reinstatement by February 1991 and played a key role in another deep playoff run by the Oilers. “My only hard feelings out of the whole thing was it was probably about two or three years late, but at the same time, you make a mistake and you’ve got to pay the price,” Fuhr said. “We were just young and got caught up with the wrong crowd. It was a young, dumb mistake.”
He was traded from Edmonton in 1991-92 and, after a year trying to keep a lowly Toronto Maple Leafs team afloat, ended up backing up Dominik Hasek in Buffalo. But a trade to L.A. in February 1995 let Fuhr suit up for 14 late-season games, and he realized he could still play. The ensuing off-season, Mike Keenan and the St. Louis Blues came calling. “I thought I’d get a fair shake to play, but I didn’t think I’d get to play every day,” Fuhr said. “As it turned out, Mike basically told me, ‘Play until you’re tired.’ And when you get an opportunity, you don’t want to turn it down, so I was fortunate enough to play most of the year.”
“Most of the year” is modest. In 1995-96, Fuhr, then 33, started an NHL-record 79 games. On a stacked Blues team that added Gretzky at the trade deadline, Fuhr had a great shot at a sixth ring, especially when he was stymying the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. Then Nick Kypreos happened. The enforcer ran Fuhr in the crease, blowing out several of the goalie’s knee ligaments. Fuhr is still asked about it all the time today. He said he doesn’t doubt the hit was a deliberate attempt to throw him off his game, but he doesn’t believe ‘Kipper’ meant to injure him.
Fuhr returned from the knee injury to play several more years in the NHL but never at the same level. He retired in 2000 after a stint with Calgary, then took a healthy run at being a pro golfer. In 2004, in his sixth trip to ‘Q’ school, 42-year-old Fuhr was about to qualify for the Canadian PGA Tour, but an improperly signed scorecard disqualified him. It’s not as much of a sore spot as you may expect, however. He doesn’t believe he was as close to golf stardom as he was portrayed to be. “I have enough friends that actually play on the Tour and realize how much work they’ve put into it, and at that time I didn’t have the time to put in that work,” he said. “You realize how good they are when you know how much work has to be done.”
Fuhr stayed in hockey as a goalie coach, starting with the WHL’s Prince George Cougars and catching on with the Gretzky-coached Phoenix Coyotes for four seasons from 2005-06 to 2008-09. None of those Phoenix teams made the playoffs and none had strong goaltending, but Fuhr’s cast of stoppers to work with included a 38-year-old Curtis Joseph, Brian Boucher, Mikael Tellqvist and a young Ilya Bryzgalov. It’s fair to wonder what Fuhr might have been able to do with a higher-pedigree netminder. He said he’d consider coaching an NHL team’s goalies again if the opportunity arises.
He remains a diehard fan of the game today, following the Oilers closely. Walking through the Hall of Fame with Fuhr, he’s genuinely excited to slip inside on a weekday relatively unnoticed and look around. He’s not one to pretend milestones don’t matter, either. “I have five Cup rings, and do you know who has more than me?” he asked. “Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante.”
It’s not the type of phony aw-shucks modesty you get from many players today. Fuhr tells it like it is. He’s thus unafraid to look back on his drug problem, which he believes was blown out of proportion. He points out that the season when he was supposedly partying the hardest was one in which he played 75 games and won the Vezina Trophy. In other words, it would be impossible for a heavy drug user to handle that workload. Not that he excuses his behavior. He knows what he did was wrong. “You have to be careful with the people you associate with,” he said. “Stick with your good friends, but know that you’re going to have a lot of acquaintances who are going to want to do everything for you and be with you, and not always for the right reasons.
“It’s always easy to look back and say, ‘Hey, if I could, if I had known this now, back then, it would be easy to say, ‘Bad choice.’ But at the time, it’s also a part of growing up and learning. So, did I grow up and learn the hard way and pay a price for it? Yeah, I did. But at the same time, it’s made me a better person today, so I wouldn’t change it. How’s that?”
Born: Sept. 28, 1962, Spruce Grove, Alta.
NHL Career: 1981-2000
Teams: Edm, Tor, Buf, LA, StL, Cgy
Stats: 403-295-114, 3.38 GAA, .887 SP, 25 SO
All-Star: 2 (First-1, Second-1)
Trophies: 1 (Vezina-1)
Stanley Cups: 5
DID YOU KNOW?
Fuhr attempted to retire as an NHL player at 26 in 1989. He claimed he was disrespected by teammates in Edmonton’s dressing room, but the main reason stemmed from a squandered business opportunity. He had struck an endorsement deal to display Pepsi logos on his pads and was angry when the Oilers refused to sign an agreement allowing him to wear sponsored equipment – or so he thought. Once he learned it was the NHL blocking the move and not the Oilers, Fuhr made amends with GM Glen Sather and returned to the team.