Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Fred Brathwaite, Glen Sather, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Wayne Grettzky
Grant Fuhr was a man of few words during his National Hockey League career.
“Back then, five words was a long conversation for me,” Fuhr told me recently.
Fuhr preferred to let his play in goal do the talking, winning five Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers from 1984 to 1990, capturing the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 1988, being named one of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players, and becoming the first black player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
“The Great One,” Hall of Fame center Wayne Gretzky, also vouched for his former Oilers teammate, calling him “the greatest goalie that ever lived.”
Fuhr tells his story with the help of Gretzky and other NHL legends in Making Coco: The Grant Fuhr Story,” a Sportsnet documentary that goes behind the mask of one of the league’s most acrobatic, dominating, and enigmatic goaltenders.
“I think the biggest thing is it’s a chance for people to see what my life was actually like,” said Fuhr, who was nicknamed “Coco” during his playing days. “There has always been speculation, guessing and such, and everybody thinks that the world is glamorous all of the time.”
Audiences will get a first glimpse of the film at a private screening in Toronto during the Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday, September 11. The documentary will have its world premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival on Saturday, September 29, as part of the festival’s closing gala.
“Making Coco” will be televised in December on Sportsnet in Canada. The film’s producer says he’s still working on when and where it will be shown in the United States and elsewhere.
“Grant’s often forgotten on those great Oliers team because there were so many great players,” said Adam Scorgie, producer of the documentary directed by Don Metz. “You had arguably one of the greatest players to ever play (Gretzky), one of the greatest leaders in Mark Messier and you forget how good Grant Fuhr was backstopping that team and all the boundaries he broke within the NHL. He was the first black superstar, the first to win the Stanley Cup and the first black to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.”
The Oilers teams of Fuhr’s era were known for their offensive prowess, not their defensive skill. Yes, they had a Hall of Famer in smooth-skating offensive-minded defensman Paul Coffey, who states flatly in “Making Coco” that “I don’t block shots.”
The Oilers’ defense was its offense, which often left Fuhr to fend for himself at the other end of the rink.
“I licked my chops every time we were going to play them ’cause I knew I was going to get three or four two-on-ones guaranteed,” Tony McKegney, the NHL’s first black player to score 40 goals in a season, told me recently. “Well, we did and we would lose out there 7 to 4 or something like that. During those games, Grant would make five or seven spectacular saves. Obviously, Wayne and Messier and Glenn Anderson were the story, but if you asked them today they would admit they had four guys up the ice all the time to score knowing Grant was back there.”
Because of Edmonton’s go-go offense and gone-gone defense, Fuhr has a career goals-against average of 3.38 – the highest among all Hall of Fame goaltenders.
Other Hall inductees with regular season GAA’s over 3.00? Georges Vezina (3.28) – yeah, the trophy guy- and the New York Islanders’ Billy Smith (3.17), who has four Stanley Cup rings to Fuhr’s five.
Fuhr compiled a 403-295-114 (ties) record and posted 25 shutouts in 868 regular season games with Edmonton, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames from 1981-82 to 1999-2000. He had a 92-50 record in 150 Stanley Cup playoff games, including six shutouts.
And Fuhr wouldn’t be a true Oiler if he didn’t provide some offense. His 46 points – all assists – that places him third among NHL goalies behind Tom Barrasso’s 48 points and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Martin Brodeur’s 47 points. Three of Brodeur’s points are goals that he actually scored or was given credit for.
Fuhr’s accomplishments aren’t bad for a player who many hockey experts thought was overweight, broken-down, and washed up when the Blues signed him in 1995-96.
He revived his career in St. Louis, thanks in large part to training with Bob Kersee, a world-class African-American track coach and husband of U.S. Olympic track Gold Medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
After appearing in only 49 games for three different teams in 1993-94 and 1994-95, Fuhr played in a whopping 79 games in 1995-96 and 73 contests in 1996-97 for the Blues and posted a 63-55-27 record in those two seasons.
“It saved my body, it got my body through a lot,” Fuhr said of the training. “The body was good, but it became so much better. And I got a better understanding of it, what I was capable of, and how I could play around certain injuries.”
Fuhr’s legacy and longevity captivated another goaltender of color, Fred Brathwaite, who became a teammate in Fuhr’s final NHL season in Calgary.
Growing up in Ottawa, Brathwaite so idolized Fuhr that he put up a poster of the veteran goaltender in his bedroom at his mother’s house, where it still hangs today.
“Just the way he could raise his game to the level it could be,” said Brathwaite, a Hockey Canada goalie coach who was the New York Islanders’ goalie coach last season. “He might let in a goal or two, but when it came down the final thing, he’d raise his game up to help his team win Stanley Cups, or Canada Cups, and all those other things. I was very fortunate, very lucky, to play with him in his last year of hockey.”
Fuhr considers considers himself lucky, despite the ups and downs he experienced in his life and career.
The child of black and white biological parents, he was adopted by a white family in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada, and was lured to the net by all the neat gear that goaltenders wear.
Small town Spruce Grove and Western Canada served as an incubator of sorts for Fuhr in the early stages of his career.
He said he never really experienced racial hostility on or off the ice the way players like forwards Devante Smith-Pelly of the Washington Capitals, Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban have endured in recent seasons.
Fuhr thinks that the NHL’s first generation of black players – forwards Willie O’Ree, Mike Marson, Bill Riley, Val James, and McKegney ran that gauntlet for him.
“Some of the (minority) guys that played in the minors in the states, they did all the heavy lifting,” Fuhr said. “Guys like Val James, Bill Riley, Mike Marson, they did the heavy lifting, they went through all the abuse.”
He said he didn’t feel or sense racism’s sting until he was traded to the Sabres in 1992-93 and after a suburban country club where other Sabres players and team officials were members initially denied him membership.
“The more you traveled in the states, the more you could see it (racism). You live in an element where race matters a little bit and people have some pointed views on it,” he said. “You would think that as time progresses and as history progresses that it would get better. And, if anything, in the last for or five years, it has taken steps backwards.”
Fuhr doesn’t shy away in the film from discussing perhaps the lowest point in his career – a one-year suspension by the NHL in 1990 after he admitted that he abused cocaine from 1983 to 1989. The league reinstated him after he served five months of the penalty.
“I went to the school of life and, unfortunately, not everything runs as smoothly as it’s supposed to. You make mistakes along the way, and there’s a great price to pay,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is that I lived life – good, bad and otherwise.
“I wasn’t sheltered from anything. I didn’t protect myself from anything. So, yeah, you can make mistakes and still have a positive life out of it,” he added. “There are things in school that they don’t teach you. The only way to learn ’em is by falling on your own. Yeah, I tripped and fell on my face a few times.”
But from the falls, Fuhr said he’s now able to teach others on how to avoid stumbling.
“Kids that I help out now, talk to and such, I get a little bit of credibility because of having been through it instead of someone telling them ‘Hey, this is how it has to be’ having never been through it. Having been though it, and been through it in a public way, I get a little more credibility from them.”
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