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General Manager and President Glen Sather of the New York Rangers works the phones during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 27, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2009 Getty Images)
General Manager and President Glen Sather of the New York Rangers works the phones during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 27, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2009 Getty Images)

Big Apple Hockey Part II

Sather returns to familiar formula Add to ...

He sits, mouth working an unlighted cigar like a soother, greyer and heavier at 67 than he was at 37 when the photograph on the wall opposite was taken: Glen Sather, then general manager of the Edmonton Oilers posing with Wayne Gretzky, the teenaged player looking young enough to need a chair for skating.

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"I haven't changed," the now general manager of the New York Rangers growls in a self-mock.

But oh, how the times have.

Back then, he was the genius. It was Glen Sather, former NHL journeyman, who became the Oilers' first GM and told owner Peter Pocklington to do "whatever it takes" to get this young kid from Brantford, Ont., that the experts were saying wasn't big enough, fast enough or tough enough to play in the big leagues.

In his first NHL draft, with Gretzky's services already secured by the team owner, Sather selected Paul Coffey in the opening round and Jari Kurri and Andy Moog in later rounds. He named himself coach and led his young team to Stanley Cups and individual records that may never be matched. He was so brilliant at finding and nurturing young talent that Jack Coffey once said that had his highly-skilled, highly-sensitive son come to any coach but Sather - who encouraged the young defenceman to take chances - Paul Coffey might never have survived the NHL, let alone made the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Thirty years on, however, times have changed. In March of this year, fans held a "Fire Sather Rally" outside his office high over the front entrance to Madison Square Garden. The New York Post called the six-year, $39-million (all currency U.S.) contract he gave Wade Redden probably "the worst free-agent signing in the history of hard-cap pro sports." Redden is playing in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale.

And he sits, smiling, mouth nursing the stogie, content that, as he sees it, the game has happily returned somewhat to a style reminiscent of the glory days of the Oilers, certain that, finally, slowly, he has been turning the culture of this marquee Original Six franchise away from New York Yankees thinking and back, at least to an extent, to the sort of thinking that once worked so magnificently in Edmonton.

When you run the richest team in hockey - a team with a long string of aging superstars brought in at great cost and no result - a salary cap can become a blessing.

After missing the playoffs last spring by a final-game shootout, the Rangers are hanging on with the playoff-bound teams so far, entering their game with the Washington Capitals on Sunday night. And they are doing it with a lineup in which fully half of the players have never played professional hockey in any other organization.

This group includes goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the jewel of the franchise who arrived during Sather's first Rangers draft. Sather, however, takes no credit for this, pointing out that the late-blooming Swedish star wasn't selected until the seventh round.

"He was an afterthought," Sather admits.

The homegrown nucleus also includes defencemen Mark Staal and Michael Del Zotto, as well as the entire line of Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov, the three stars of an impressive 3-2 win last month over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The group does not include the team's only other true star after Lundqvist, free agent Marian Gaborik, the swift-skating Slovakian who came to New York from the Minnesota Wild a year ago for $37.5-million over five years. Gaborik scored 42 goals last season but was lost earlier this fall to a shoulder injury and has played in just over half the games.

Improvement has usually been an immediate priority with the Rangers, and has led to some remarkable signings, both in Sather's decade as GM and before - often with disastrous results.

What worked magnificently in 1994 - a veteran Mark Messier delivering a Stanley Cup to New York after a 54-year-drought - turned into an annual series of big-name, big-dollar signings that failed to deliver a second modern Cup. The Rangers signed Wayne Gretzky, Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr, Theoren Fleury, Bobby Holik and others to often outrageous contracts that produced results from acceptable achievement (Gretzky, Jagr) to disaster. Holik, for example, was merely a good two-way player handed a five-year $45-million deal, ended up on the third line and was eventually bought out by the Rangers.

Sather doesn't shy away from such memories. "The buck stops here," he says of the high-end signings he was involved in, such as Holik. "You can't lay the blame on anyone else."

He says when he arrived in New York he began preaching the philosophy that "you're better off to go with your own," but was up hard against a city philosophy that took its lead from baseball's Yankees: 10 years running with the game's highest payroll ($206-million in 2010) and, usually, remarkable success after signing the game's biggest free agents.

"When I came here," says Sather, "the thinking was, we need stars."

He had to convince the likes of Dave Checketts, head of Madison Square Garden Inc., that slow and within was the way to go and it was, at times, a next-to-impossible debate to win with the city's fans. The Rangers missed the playoffs during Sather's first four years. Sather hired an inexperienced Bryan Trottier to coach and it was a disaster. He hired and fired coach Tom Renney, replacing him with John Tortorella, the current coach.

Through all this, Sather never paid the usual price that falls to GMs and coaches who fail to produce the sort of results expected in a city like New York.

"Glen operates out of a comfort zone," one long-time friend says. "He gets on great with the ownership and the organization makes so much money with its teams and cable deals that there's really no pressure on him to produce right away. It's not that they don't have to win, but sort of. … He has them convinced to be patient."

At times it can produce surprising results. Sather took on NHL bad boy Sean Avery for a second outing with the Rangers when most of the league had declared the foul-mouthed agitator a pariah - and yet Avery, while still infuriating most of the league with his play, has developed into a useful, skilled forward.

"He's just a really misunderstood player," Sather says of Avery. "When he first got here he had his own publicist and was trying to get into the newspaper all the time. I got him through all that to the point where we have a hockey player 65 per cent of the time."

If the years have taught Sather one thing, it is that big-name, big-dollar signings of aging veterans is just too high a risk: "It never works out."

In today's NHL, he says, the reality of the salary cap and the ability of young players to become free agents in their prime have forced the Rangers to re-think strategy. The notion of an Oilers' type dynasty ever occurring again is unlikely, he believes.

"Look at Chicago, look at Pittsburgh," he says, referring to the last two Stanley Cup winners. "You can keep four of five of your top guys - you can't keep 10 or 12."

So you build from within, a strategy almost unknown in New York. "It actually started here in the beginning," he says, "but first you have to get rid of the stuff." Including, he admits, his own stuff that did not work out, from forward Scott Gomez (signed to a $51.5-million deal over seven years, later traded to Montreal Canadiens) to Redden and current enforcer Derek Boogaard, who is being paid $1.625-million a year to have other players refuse to fight him.

"You're in a situation where you have to shore up the team," he says. "But you also have to get draft picks. It wasn't very popular when I traded Brian Leetch [to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2004 for two prospects and two draft picks] but that's what you have to do."

Not all Sather's draft picks have worked out, of course - find a GM whose picks have - and perhaps none so dramatically as goaltender Al Montoya, taken sixth overall in 2004. One of the franchise's most promising picks, Alexei Cherepanov, died tragically at 19 after collapsing during a Continental Hockey League game in Russia. Yet increasingly the team has seen success from players such as Staal, Del Zotto, Dubinsky, Anisimov and Callaghan - all underscored by Lundqvist, who has become one of the league's top goaltenders.

Sather says that the rally against him last March was water off his back - "Doesn't bother me at all" - and that he has intention of stepping down or retiring in the foreseeable future.

"I like the adventure," he says.

It is an adventure that has taken twists and turns, but one that he says is now on course to produce a legitimate New York Rangers contender by working mostly from within and with new budget restrictions that make following the Yankees route now impossible to entertain.

"It's a building process," he says. "The process would be a lot easier if we could have ended in last place the last four or five years."

But then, it is suggested, he wouldn't be here, would he?

"Probably," he admits, and takes an imaginary draw on the unlighted cigar.

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