November 20, 1980 was a Thursday of course, it being exactly one "solar cycle" ago (28 years = 7 leap cycles). It seems like a long time ago but what goes around comes around; there are some interesting parallels between Oiler teams then and now.
In those days the Oilers played most of their midweek home games on Wednesday. 28 years ago yesterday was another such game, an utterly forgettable 6-4 loss to Vancouver, remarakable for just one thing: it was the end of the short coaching career of Bugsy Watson.
In the fall of 1980 Glen Sather was assuming the reins of GM with the departure of Larry Gordon. His first job was to replace himself as coach. In the brash Bryan Watson, Sather saw a lot that reminded him of himself. Both had lengthy NHL careers because they were as long in guile and gamesmanship as they were short in actual talent. A good comparable for Watson among mondern players would be the guy who now wears Bugsy's old #18 for Red Wings, Kirk Maltby, with a little Jerkko Ruutu thrown in for good measure.
Watson's most famous accomplishment was his shadowing of Bobby Hull in the 1966 playoffs in which Bugsy drove Bobby beyond distraction and into revenge mode. Hull had killed in the Wings the previous year's playoffs, and in this, the fourth consecutive Hawks-Wings semi-final Wings coach Sid Abel unleashed his skating pit bull with the single task of taking down Hull. Which he did, with both scoring twice in the series while conducting an ongoing tong war. Wings won in six.
In his classic book on those 1980-81 Oilers, The Game of Our Lives, Peter Gzowski wrote:
'Just a few months earlier, Watson had seemed the perfect man to put some toughness and fire in the Oilers. He must have been one of the most voracious competitors ever to have played the game. Small (five-ten) and stocky -- he played at 170 pounds -- he set league records for penalties; until Dave "The Hammer" Schultz came along to lead Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s, he was the most penalized player in NHL history, with 2,212 minutes -- more than thirty-six full games -- in the box. Yet no one regarded him as a bully, or an intimidator. He shared many of Sather's characteristics as a player; in a book called The Violent Game, the American sporrtswriter Gary Ronberg singled out the two of them. Ronberg described them as "relatively small rogues," and went on to write that, "They intimidate few players, but have a knack for unnerving them with an impertinent word or gesture, an annoying slash or cross-check. When they fight, it is usually against a bigger and stronger man, but the mismatch is in one sense an advantage -- little men are usually beaten, and when they manage to avoid a thrashing it seems like a victory."
'Although Watson played with nine different teams in his seventeen years in the league, the most vivid memory most fans have of him was as the Detroit Red Wing who stuck so closely to Bobby Hull in a 1966 playoff series... The tactic, sending one defensive specialist out to hobble a superstar, was not new at the time but no one had seen it used to this degree before, and it drove Hull to distraction. As a result of punishment he received in the course of that and other assignments, Watson's face looks like that of a battered pug. The bridge of his nose is concave; scar tissue crinkles over both eyes. He looks, as his nickname Bugsy suggests, like some small-time hood in a Hollywood gangster movie. For all that, though, there is a boyish vitality about his rearranged features, despite their brutish history. Women find him inordinately attractive.'
The Oilers had finished with a flourish the previous season under Sather's tutelage, grabbing the last playoff spot with a late surge and playing the first-overall Flyers tough in a surprisingly close first-round series. But the second year they struggled out of the gate. "Veterans" of the previous season included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Dave Hunter, Dave Lumley, Dave Semenko: still young and developing players who were subject to ebbs and flows in their physical, mental and emotional games. In this sense they weren't too different from the modern group of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, Marc Pouliot, Zack Stortini, all of whom are struggling with the burden of higher expectations after the giddy heights of last spring. And their coach is struggling tight along with them.
In '80-81 the young Oilers and their coach struggled right out of the gate. Gzowski again:
'On his first road trip as coach, Watson was having difficulty adjusting the social distance he felt he ought to maintain from the players. For seventeen years he had been one of the boys; now, he missed the fraternity. Executive robes did not rest easily on his shoulders ... At the morning practive in Buffalo after their defeat by the Sabres, he had felt out of cointrol of the team. At least one player,who had apparently not settled for just a beer after the game, smelled of booze in the morning. Watson was angry with them, and disappointed.'By mid-November the team had struggled to a 4-9-5 start, winning just one of 10 home games (a big one, the first ever Battle of Alberta which Oilers won 5-3 on two goals from Dave Semenko). Other than one frustrating run of 4 consecutive ties during a 6-game homestand -- no overtime in those days -- other home games were even more frustrating losses, many of them to mediocre opposition. In 6 home games the squad had scored 4 goals and failed to win.
Sather, whose patience with his players was legendary, wasn't satisfied with what his friend Bugsy was getting out of them. After that 6-4 loss to the ever-mediocre Canucks he had seen enough. With Peter Pocklington's blessing, Slats turned to the one guy he had the utmost confidence in: himself. That weekend, with the local press congregated in Toronto for the Eskimos' annual Grey Cup victory, Bugsy was fitted with cement shoes and quickly sank out of sight.
Sather: "The most important thing is the team. If my own brother was coaching this club, or playing on it, and it wasn't working out, I'd let him go too."
Although they predictably won the next game, 6-3 over Buffalo, Oilers continued to struggle under Sather. They posted an even worse 4-12-1 W-L-T mark in his first 17 games and made the turn at New Year at 8-21-6, before making a second half surge that took them right into the second round of the playoffs where they were eliminated by the defending champion Islanders. Sather had established firm control of the team and continued in the dual role (later becoming club president as well) as the team blossomed into a powerhouse and ultimately, a dynasty.
Historical footnote: The Grey Cup weekend firing was a time-honoured NHL tradition. Half a century ago, in a situation that closely parallels the Sather-Watson situation, Punch Imlach fired Billy Reay during Grey Cup weekend 1958 and became GM-coach of the Leafs. As described by sportwriter Scott Young (Neil's dad) in his own terrific book, The Leafs I Knew:
Those '58-59 Leafs also went on a late season run to scrape into the playoffs, then made it through to the second round (then known as the Stanley Cup Finals) where they were eliminated by the defending champion Canadiens. Imlach too had established firm control as his team blossomed into a powerhouse cum dynasty.
'November 26, Vancouver. Here for the Grey Cup. Sad but not much surprised to get the news that Billy Reay had been fired as the Leafs' coach and that Imlach would take over for the time being. What a bunch of cunning so-and-sos. They wait until every Toronto sports columnist is three thousand miles away covering the Grey Cup, and sports pages are all full of Grey Cup, and they fire Reay.
'Not that we could have changed the situation. But we might have put the finger on a few people who deserve to share the blame -- and do it before most fans forget, which generally takes about 48 hours; or until the next hockey game.'
In both cases the team was still 3+ seasons away at the time of the Grey Cup firing, but once they won the Cup they held onto it for awhile. Both Punch Imlach and Glen Sather won four Stanleys in the dual role. And Billy Reay and Bugsy Watson became historical footnotes in their own right.