NHL

Grant Fuhr: Before the NHL

Many people in the hockey world know Grant Fuhr as a Hall of Fame goaltender who won a Vezina and five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, along with a host of other accolades.

Before becoming a household name in the hockey world, the native of Spruce Grove, Alberta dominated the Western Hockey League during two seasons with the Victoria Cougars (now Prince George).

Grant Fuhr, Victoria Cougars #31

 

“There was no bantam draft, I was invited out to Victoria’s training camp by a gentleman by the name of Ken Leroux, who was a scout in Edmonton,” Fuhr said.

He also added at the time he was playing for a trio of teams at the midget, juvenile and junior B level teams when he was discovered.

Fuhr did not make the Cougars squad initially. He played exhibition games prior to the 1978-79 season before returning home where he played eight games of junior A with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“Playing some exhibition was good,” he said. “I got invited back the next year and everything worked out good from there.”

‘Worked out good’ is an understatement.

The following season, the future two-time Canada Cup champion jumped into Victoria’s lineup and had an immediate impact, taking home WHL Rookie of the Year after earning 30 wins in just 43 appearances. The Cougars advanced to the league final before losing out to the Regina Pats in five games.

A young Grant Fuhr. (photo – WHL)

He credited the Pats as a tough opponent during his junior days with teams that featured players like Doug Wickenheiser and Garth Butcher.

“We always had good games against Regina at that time,” Fuhr said. “Portland was hard to play against as well.”

Victoria finished the job in 1980-81, defeating the Calgary Wranglers (now Lethbridge Hurricanes) in seven games to win the then-President’s Cup as WHL champions. Victoria compiled 60 wins in 72 games, a league record that still stands today. Fuhr was responsible for 48 of those wins – tied for second most in a single-season and one behind Glen Hanlon’s record of 49.

The leading scorer during both of the Fuhr’s WHL seasons was Barry Pederson, infamous in the Vancouver area as the player acquired by the Canucks from Boston in exchange for Cam Neely and a first round pick which ended up being Glen Wesley, who went on to play in 1457 NHL games.

“Barry was an awesome player.” Fuhr said about his old teammate, “As a junior player you looked up to guys like Barry because he’s a consummate professional.

“Everything he did around the rink, everything he did around the game was always first class. He made the young guys feel welcome….perfect to have as a teammate.”

Though inevitably team mates drift apart over time, almost 40 years after winning a championship, time is still found to catch up every so often. Fuhr now resides in Palm Springs, California, making it far and few between with seeing his old teammates.

“You see the odd guy around once in a while,” he said. “Every now and then I talk to Bob McGill and I ran into Wade Jensen not long ago. So, you still see guys around.”

Jensen was Fuhr’s back up during the run to the Memorial Cup and McGill went on to play 705 NHL games.

One thing Fuhr pointed out was he misses the rivalry between his Cougars team and the New Westminster Bruins, who were coached by Ernie “Punch” McLean. The Bruins teams weren’t great teams during the two seasons Fuhr was in the league, amassing just 27 wins in those seasons but he says they were fun games to be a part of.

“I miss the real nasty part of that rivalry” Fuhr said. “Both teams had big tough teams. They were fun games to play in.”

The Bruins played out of the Queen’s Park Arena which still stands today while Fuhr’s Cougars played out of the Victoria Memorial Arena that was demolished in 2003.

He says he still prefers the old WHL arenas over the newer ones being built over the years.

“I think the old barns were all the great barns because they have character,” Fuhr said.  “Some of the new rinks are very commercial, they’re not the same.

“Half the fun of playing in them was learning how the buildings were and the bounces in them. With the older rinks it seemed to be much more of an advantage being the home team than in today’s games with the arena specs not all being quite as standard as seen now.

“The boards in the old Victoria barn were never straight. So, you had to realize how things worked…I still like the old buildings.”

After being named the WHL’s Top Goaltender and helping his team to a Memorial Cup berth, he was selected in the first round, eight overall by the Edmonton Oilers at the 1981 NHL Entry Draft and made the immediate jump from junior to the NHL look seamless.

Fuhr with Wayne Gretzky at the 1981 NHL Draft. (photo – AlbertaCulture)

“I had no expectations in my first year in the NHL.” he said about his rookie year. He appeared in 48 games and compiled a 28-5-14 record during the 1981-82 season.

“I actually thought I was going to end up back in Victoria for a third year,” he said. “So, with no expectations, you play free and I think that was a big help my first year.”

Fuhr credited the Victoria Cougars program under the late Jack Shupe, for his successful transition to professional hockey.

“For me, I was kind of lucky in Victoria,” Fuhr said. “Jack Shupe had us play a fairly wide open style. So the transition to Edmonton wasn’t that different than what we played in Victoria.”

In 1996-97 as a member of the St. Louis Blues, he appeared in 79 of 82 games, something we’ll most likely never see again from a goaltender.

“It’s a little bit of taking care of your body, but for the most part it’s your mind,” Fuhr said, about how he was able to manage such a feat.

During two other seasons, he saw over 70 appearances during the regular season including the 1987-88 campaign, which was arguably his most successful. He led the NHL in wins and shutouts, took home the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and won his fourth Stanley Cup with the Oilers. He played in 75 regular season games and 19 more in the playoffs.

“I loved playing and I was fortunate enough to play on teams that’d let me play,” he said. “I think the years that I played more, I actually played better.”

After his playing days, Fuhr briefly lent a hand to the franchise that gave him his start, helping the now Prince George Cougars as a goalie consultant during the 2003-04 season, something he really enjoyed.

“I enjoy the WHL, it’s fun hockey to watch,” he said. 

Fuhr says he still tries to follow the WHL as much as he can from down in California and loves the passion and effort the young men bring night in and night out.

“They’re playing to make a name for themselves and to make it, so they compete every night,” he said, which is one of the main reasons junior hockey is always exciting to watch.

On Saturday, he will be in Langley as part of the Giants’ Legends night, taking in the Vancouver Giants tilt against the Edmonton Oil Kings. Fuhr is in town for the majority of the weekend and will be joined by the likes of Ray Bourque and Doug Gilmour to sign autographs at the Western Canada Collectibles Experience taking place at the Langley Events Centre.

A final question for Fuhr – we asked what the WHL taught him in both hockey terms and as a person.

He gave much of the credit to Shupe for the way he ran the Victoria Cougars franchise as the head coach and general manager, then owner starting in the 1980-81 season.

“Hockey-wise, the WHL taught me how to be a professional,  Fuhr said. “Jack Shupe used to run the program in Victoria like it was a professional franchise.”

Along with the 1981 President’s Cup, Shupe also led the 1973 Medicine Hat Tigers to the Western Canada Hockey League (now WHL) championship, serving as both head coach and general manager.

“We’d practice at eleven in the morning like NHL teams, so it was basically an NHL system,” Fuhr said. “He groomed us to be both good people and good players and professionals.”

Fuhr keeping busy on the golf course down in California. (photo – Richard Lui/The Desert Sun

Now 57 years of age, he is helping run the Desert Dunes Golf Club in the Palm Springs area and is an avid golfer himself. He competes at the annual American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe, an tournament for the top golfers among celebrities from the sports and entertainment industries.

“I still like playing, it keeps me occupied.” said Fuhr, a scratch golfer.

 

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