Backchecking: Grant Fuhr

Matt Larkin
Grant Fuhr

It’s a dark, frigid morning during Toronto’s cruelest winter in 20 years. Anyone awake is annoyed about it, unable or unwilling to string two sentences together. Except a Hall of Fame goaltender 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, made of titanium, that keeps him from hurrying anywhere. “He sets off all the alarms at the airport,” says his fiancée, Lisa.

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 a soon-to-be released autobiography. It’s a tell-all, meaning he’ll account 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 battle with cocaine use, which led to a lengthy suspension during his playing career.

Some people would be jittery resurfacing to be thrust in the spotlight for 12 straight hours, 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 51, laps up the pressure, no problem. He answers questions on anything, from his playing days to Canada’s 2014 Olympic team, with such little hesitation that he’s, well, goalie-like in his reaction time. “This is fun,” he says. “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 says. “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 for time with Andy Moog, 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,

Fuhr played in six All-Star Games, won the 1988 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 says. 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.”

He 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 Oiler playoff run. “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 says. “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 says. “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 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 infamously 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 says he doesn’t doubt the hit was a deliberate attempt to throw him off his game, but that 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 the Flames, then took a healthy run at being a professional golfer. In 2004, in his sixth trip to ‘Q’ school, Fuhr was about to finally 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 says. “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 Western League’s Prince George Cougars and catching on with the Gretzky-coached Phoenix Coyotes for four seasons from 2005-06 to 2008-09. None of 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 he’d do with a higher-pedigree netminder. Fuhr says he’d consider coaching an NHL team’s goalies again if the opportunity arises.

And where has he been since? For one, Fuhr dabbled in coaching minor hockey at the bantam AAA level, for curiosity’s sake. He remains a diehard fan of the game today, following the star-crossed Edmonton Oilers closely. Of the modern generation of goalies, he enjoys watching Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Kari Lehtonen and Jonathan Bernier the most. It’s refreshing experience to walk the Hall of Fame with Fuhr, who is 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 asks. “Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante.”

His personal life also changed when he met Lisa at a golf tournament organized by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The happy couple spend a lot of time in Palm Springs, where Fuhr helps a local golf club in public relations. He has also launched a website to promote his personal brand, grantfuhrmkt.com, with help from marketing consultant Paul Cookson, who does promotional work for many retired NHLers. Lately, of course, Fuhr has put lots of time into his book. He covers his entire career in it and gets to address the more controversial parts of his life, the drug use in particular, in his own words. “We indulged as kids, but at the same time it wasn’t this big crisis,” Fuhr says. “You can’t play to a level of being one of the best in the world if it’s that big of an issue. The players, you’ve got to remember, we play and practice every day. And at the time they said I was at my hardest partying, I managed to play 75 games, go 16-2 in the playoffs and win a Canada Cup, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

“Having gone through it, you have to be careful with the people you associate with. 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.”

Fuhr is just as serene talking about drugs as he is any other aspect of his career. He’s conquered his demons and he’s utterly at peace. The prevailing theme in his upcoming book, he says, is that he’s happy with how his life has gone. “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,’ ” Fuhr says. “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?”

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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