On media day at the Stanley Cup final, Glen Sather – the architect of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup final team – has been coaxed to the podium for a rare public appearance. Sather is sitting stiffly beside Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, fielding most of the questions.
There have been all kinds of opportunities to speak with Vigneault, Martin St. Louis, Henrik Lundqvist and the other principal players during the Rangers' unlikely run to the final, but not to Sather, who keeps a very low profile. He is rarely seen and seldom heard, so this was an opening, an opportunity to ask all manner of questions of Sather, the legendary Slats, winner of five Stanley Cups in a seven-year span as coach of the old Edmonton Oilers. And now he's trying to snap out of a personal 24-year championship drought.
Sather used to be the most central of figures in a Stanley Cup final, trading barbs with reporters, opposing coaches, players who got under his skin or ones who he wanted to rile to get under their skins. The term “acerbic” was invented to describe Sather: Once, when rookie Philadelphia Flyers' coach Mike Keenan wanted to put a water bottle on the top of the net so his goalie could stay hydrated, Sather scoffed: “Next thing you know, they'll want to put a whole buffet out there.”
For some, Sather's most impressive feat in his time with the Rangers is actually staying employed. He has the ear of the eccentric James L. Dolan, the executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company.
“Well, I had another complicated owner that I worked for for a long time,” said Sather, and the longer-serving reporters in the room knew he was talking about former Oilers' boss Peter Pocklington.
Nowadays, the rare views of Sather are mostly glimpsed through the television cameras, sitting in his private box high above the ice wherever the Rangers happen to be playing.
And that's too bad because it used to be such an interesting game, fencing with him. He can be alternatively funny, dry, and confrontational.
Misdirection was once a big part of his strategy. If a distraction was necessary to get the focus and pressure off his team, Sather would routinely provide it.
Sather explains his low profile by saying the focus should be on the participants – players and coaches – not the executives who assembled the teams. And on some level, that’s correct.
His humour – still – helps keep everything light.
“It’s really complicated,” said Sather when asked what a general manager actually does once his team qualifies for the Stanley Cup final. “Today it took us about three hours to figure out which golf course we were going to play on this afternoon. Later on this evening, we have the question about dinner, what are you going to watch on TV tonight. Is Game of Thrones on? It’s tough.”
No tougher than the Rangers’ challenge in the 2014 Stanley Cup final, which opens Wednesday against the heavily favoured Los Angeles Kings.
Unlike the Kings, who used a tried-and-true method of building their team from the ground up through the draft, the Rangers are a far more haphazard collection of individuals. Trades brought in marquee names such as Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash. Free agency added Brad Richards. In the past, Dolan’s money was variously spent on adding the unproductive likes of Wade Redden, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury through free agency.
In 2009, the Rangers signed the NHL’s leading playoff scorer to a five-year, $37.5-million (U.S.) free agent contract that runs out this spring. Too bad Marian Gaborik is currently playing for the opposition Kings, who found a way to utilize his strength – a great finishing touch around the net – rather than focus on the weaknesses, including an unwillingness to block shots.
The two centrepieces of the current Ranger team are goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defenceman Ryan McDonagh. Lundqvist was a seventh-round pick, 205th overall, in the 2000 entry draft, soon after Sather joined the team and when assistant general manager Don Maloney handled the draft.
McDonough was the player Sather coaxed out of the Montreal Canadiens, in the same trade in which he got the Habs to take Gomez’s contract off his hands as well. It is by far the shrewdest bit of horse trading he’s managed in his Rangers’ tenure, and Sather freely acknowledged Tuesday that he hadn’t seen McDonough play when he made the deal – that it was done squarely on the recommendation of his scouting staff.
Naturally Sather disputed the commonly held view that his Rangers tenure has been something less than a Broadway smash in his time at the helm. Thank goodness, that well-conceived 14-year plan is finally paying dividends.
“I don’t think it’s been rocky,” argued Sather. “Every year there’s only two teams that fight for the Stanley Cup and there’s one that wins. It takes time to get in this position.
“Anyone who’s been in the hockey business knows what it can be like. It’s complicated.”
No more complicated than Sather himself.