Oiler goalie an undersung Stanley Cup hero for NHL champions

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Let other goaltenders have their individual awards. Grant Fuhr will take his three Stanley Cup rings. All but lost on a team loaded with superstars, Fuhr was brilliant Sunday night as the Edmonton Oilers fought off the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1, to win the cup in seven contentious games. It was Edmonton's third National Hockey League championship in four years, and Fuhr has been instrumental in all of them.

It figured that Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall, the remarkable rookie, would be named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. He stopped more shots and his style is more attention-getting.

Fuhr, however, had a lower goals-against average and a higher save percentage. All Fuhr does is make the great save when the Oilers need it most. Twice Sunday he stymied Doug Crossman when the latter could see the whites of his eyes. Twice he stopped Ilkka Sinisalo at point-blank range.

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His leading asset is quickness - he has the fastest hands and feet in the league - and it saves the Oilers when they lose the puck trying for a flashy breakaway.

Fuhr almost never is caught by surprise. But he also almost never gets enough credit on a team that features luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Mark Messier. Their offensive theatrics usually overshadow his consistent defensive work.

Gretzky led all playoff scorers with 34 points, and assisted on the winning goal in all four Edmonton victories. Wayne's control of the puck seemed to mesmerize Philadelphia's vaunted defense. He would wait until two or three Flyers converged on him, then calmly hit an open teammate with a lead pass.

Kurri led the playoffs in goals, with 15, and scored the winner late in the second period of Sunday's decisive seventh game after Gretzky cleverly set him up.

Back at the fort, Fuhr kept the Flyers at bay for more than 58 minutes after a goal when his team was two men short. Oh yes - Grant Fuhr. Good little goalie.

He may come up short when the goaltending trophies are handed out - he's never won the Vezina Award - but he rarely comes up short under pressure. If NHL general managers had to pick a goaltender to play one game for all their jobs, it's assumed they would pick the small, bouncy Fuhr - as indicated by the fact that he played both games for the league All-Stars in this year's series against the Soviets.

``The important thing to me is that I have three Stanley Cup rings, and I'm only 24 years old,'' said an ebullient Fuhr. ``Our whole season is geared to winning the cup, and we had a lot to prove this year. We lost it last season, and worked hard to win it back.''

And never harder than in the finals. The Oilers appeared in control when they took two at home and split a pair in Philadelphia. But the Flyers refused to give up, erasing a two-goal deficit to pull out Game 5 in Edmonton, then winning Game 6 at home to take it to the limit.

As for the goalies, Fuhr has no doubt who came out on top. His philosophy of goaltending is reminiscent of that made famous by Boston's Gerry Cheevers in the 1970s.

``The bottom line is the wins,'' Fuhr said. ``... especially in the playoffs. The team is what counts. If the team is winning, the goalie can't be doing too badly.''

Fuhr, who is probably the most relaxed goalie in the league, spent every off day he could during the playoffs getting in 36 holes of golf.

``I didn't play any differently in the playoffs than in the regular season,'' he said. ``You win with the things that got you into the playoffs. I like to stay loose. If you relax you play better.''

Fuhr stresses that the Oilers played better defense this spring than ever before.

``I was facing 20 shots instead of 40,'' he says. ``All the forwards were hustling back to help out on defense. That makes my job easier. But if one of our guys gets caught, it's my role to make a big save here and there.''

It's rare for a black to play pro hockey - particularly in goal - but Fuhr never thought about such things.

``I started in net when I was about four years old, right in the Edmonton area,'' he said. ``There's never been anything else I wanted to do. I'm just out there enjoying it.''

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