Ex-Oiler and new Canadian sports hall of famer Paul Coffey stands up for Edmonton
Paul Coffey. (Michael Peake, Toronto Sun)
NHL legend Paul Coffey was at his Kia Dealership in Bolton when one of his associates told him that a guy from Alberta had been calling.
“I said, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Coffey. “And she said, ‘I don’t know, but he wants to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Where is he from?’ And she said, ‘Calgary.’ And I said, ‘I don’t talk to people from Calgary.’”
Coffey laughed as he told the story, though playing in Edmonton for seven seasons and winning three Stanley Cups with the Oilers (as well as one with the Pittsburgh Penguins) means that he still holds on to old rivalries a little bit, and there were few rivalries as intense in the NHL as Calgary-Edmonton.
But he did call the guy back.
“He said, ‘Is this Paul?’ And I said, ‘Maybe. It depends,” Coffey said, with a laugh.
Turns out, the Calgary guy was Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame chair Colin MacDonald, with the news that Coffey was being inducted into the prestigious Hall, Class of 2015.
“It took me totally off guard,” said Coffey.
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, Coffey was a three-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenceman and holds a slew of NHL records for scoring by a D-man. But he also was known for his play with Team Canada, helping the Canadian team win three Canada Cup tournaments, including the 1984 event where he made the now-famous poke check to break up a Soviet 2-on-1 and then on the same play assisted on the game-winning goal, sending Canada to the final and ultimately the title. Another Toronto-area hockey player destined to play for the Oilers is teenage sensation Connor McDavid, who will almost certainly go first overall in the June NHL draft with Edmonton holding the No. 1 pick. Edmonton won this week’s draft lottery and many hockey types feel that given the Oilers’ recent track record of not developing highly-touted young players and the fact that they play in one of the smallest markets in the NHL, means that McDavid playing in Edmonton is not the optimum situation for the Newmarket native or the league. But Coffey thinks that’s baloney.
“I really think those people don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “Edmonton’s a great place to play. Maybe if all of us didn’t get into contract problems, we would have all ended our careers there. Daryl Katz is a very good owner, a guy that loves the Oilers, loves Edmonton and he’ll do whatever he can to make that team successful. I left Connor a note the other day congratulating him on going to Edmonton, an incredible city with great fans and a city of champions. I was there for seven years and I’m so proud to call myself an Oiler, and I think he’ll do great there.”
Coffey sees parallels between the current Oilers and the fabled teams he played for early in his career, very young and talented, though the present group of Edmonton players still has everything to prove. The father of three (who has coached his two sons in the Toronto Marlies system) believes a young squad can benefit from playing in a smaller market, such as Alberta’s capital.
“There’s something to be said for small-town western Canada,” said Coffey. “The Hawerchuk’s, the guys that played in Winnipeg. They didn’t look at it that it was 40 below. They looked at it like it was great place to play hockey and it was a great place to bond as a team.
“Edmonton’s phenomenal,” he added. “You know, they talk about Toronto being a tough place to play and these other cities, Edmonton is just as tough, but fair. The fans were instrumental in all of our careers, because they kept us accountable. If you had a bad game, you heard it. But they were a great fan base, they came in support. They love the Oilers, they have a new rink coming there ... you can call it whatever you want. But Connor McDavid’s going to Edmonton and it’s pretty exciting as a former (Oiler).”
Growing up in the Toronto area, Coffey was and still is a Maple Leafs fan and it hurts him to see the way the Buds have struggled in recent years though he’s confident that his old NHL rival — President Brendan Shanahan — will turn things around.
“It’s been disheartening to watch,” he said. “But you’ve got to give Shanahan some time, you’ve got to give his group some time. They’ve done what they think they have to do and now they’ve got to build it slowly. As a fan, you want to be entertained, you just want something, and hopefully we can get it here in Toronto. They’re far off, but they’re not far off. They seem to have some pretty knowledgeable people.
“I have faith in Brendan, you have to. He’s running the show. A lot of people say, ‘You can’t just step in and manage.’ But how do you get the experience? You got to get in there and do it. Brendan was an under-aged player drafted by Jersey, an early pick, a player that worked his way up, ended up being in the Hall of Fame, won Stanley Cups. So if you don’t have faith in him, who do you have faith in? Because the game still has to stay in hockey hands, guys who have experience and guys who have been there.”
Ironically, Coffey might not be in any Hall of Fame if a minor hockey coach, Bob Williams, didn’t switch him from forward to defence when he was nine.
“I was always a centreman, I was Davey Keon man, he was my guy,” said Coffey. “But Bob put me on defence because I could skate. I remember not being happy about it, sitting in the car on the way home and sulking a bit and my dad (Jack) turned around and said, ‘How many defenceman are there on the team? I said four. He said, ‘How many forwards?’ And I said nine. He said, ‘Give it a chance, you’re going to get more ice time.’ And the rest is history.
Joining the smooth-skating Coffey in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame class of 2015 are: Canadian soccer legend Craig Forrest, speedskater Susan Auch, para-swimmer Michael Edgson, Sharon and Shirley Firth, cross country skiers and the first Indigenous athletes to represent Canada at an Olympics, judo star Nicolas Gill, hockey’s Danielle Goyette, moguls queen Jennifer Heil, Olympic cyclist Lori-Ann Muenzer, golfer Jocelyne Bourassa and field hockey coach Marina van der Merwe.