As a Buffalo Sabres fan born in the early-90’s, I grew up not knowing much about Grant Fuhr’s time in Western New York. I was, of course, able to witness the end of his career with the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames, but for a Hall of Fame netminder, his career in Buffalo is seldom referenced, neither by fans of the Sabres, nor those on the outside.
As an adult, I decided to dive into his career as a whole and familiarize myself with his journey to stardom. I quickly became fascinated by what I found. This is a man who experienced more than his fair share of ups and downs throughout his NHL career, but always managed to persevere. So naturally, I reached out to see if he would take some time to chat with me about his incredible career, and his experience with the Sabres (among other things).
Grant was gracious enough to give me a call from Southern California, where he currently resides, to take a trip down memory lane in a question and answer segment.
Grant Fuhr: “You know, each year kind of stands out for itself because you go through different things through the course of that year. For us, our hardest series were always against Calgary. I mean, at that time, our division probably had three of the best teams in the league with ourselves, Calgary, and Winnipeg so, just getting out of our division was hard.”
AS: Obviously Wayne Gretzky was part of those championship teams in Edmonton and he’s cited you as the greatest goalie of all time. Can you dive into your relationship with Wayne and the dynamic you guys built playing for three different franchises?
GF: “Well, I think the best part of it is that we’re friends. I’ve been lucky enough to have been friends with him since I got to Edmonton. As far as having him as a teammate and a leader, there’s no better person. You see the way that Wayne treated the younger guys when they came in, how he took them under his wing, made sure everyone was comfortable and able to play to the best of their ability.”
“He’s kind of the true nature of a superstar where he makes everybody around him better. By being able to practice with him and be around him every day, it definitely made me better.”
AS: Who was the best shooter you ever faced in your career?
GF: “The best shooter… Games or practice? Alex Mogilny was good. I didn’t have to play a lot of games against him but Alex could shoot the puck as well as anybody. Other than that, probably Al MacInnis and Brett Hull. They’d be the other two that you definitely payed closer attention to.”
“In game, probably Al. He was probably the biggest one because we saw him 10 times a year, but other than that, it’d be a guy like Brett (Hull), Mario Lemieux. Guys that were good with the puck.”
AS: Shifting gears toward your time in Buffalo; In the documentary “Making Coco” you did briefly mention that things didn’t go as you anticipated with the Sabres. Can you elaborate further on that at all?
GF: “Obviously you want to have success with every franchise you’re with so, I think part of the deal was that I wanted to be successful there. I know the one year we beat Boston which people didn’t think we could do, but we still lost to Montreal in the next round.”
“We would have liked to improve on that so… Any time you leave a franchise, you’d like to at least have won with them. In that sense, it feels like there’s a little bit left unaccomplished with it.”
AS: With you in place in Buffalo as a proven veteran at the time, what was the dynamic like between you and Dominick Hasek who was kind of an over-ager prospect who just kind of exploded out of nowhere?
GF: “Actually, Dom didn’t really come out of nowhere, he just never got a chance. I mean, I played against Dom in the Canada Cups so, I knew how good he was. He didn’t really get a chance in Chicago, and the first chance he really got was in Buffalo. He was a talent that was waiting to take off, he just needed that opportunity.”
AS: Was it ever difficult to simultaneously mentor a young goalie while also competing with him?
GF: “No, I think that’s the fun of athletics. Up until then, I never really had a goalie coach so, your sounding board was your partner. Ronnie Low kind of mentored me along the way in my first year so, the fact that I was taught right from the beginning that you’re there to make your partner better, and your partner is there to make you better.”
“So, the team wins, you win, your partner wins. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
AS: Knowing that dynamic, how special was it for you guys to share a Jennings Trophy in 1993?
GF: “Oh it was fun. Just to get to watch Dom in practice it made you practice harder. I think that was the fun part because neither of us liked to be scored on. So, with that boing said, it made our team better.”
AS: After leaving Buffalo, there were some who thought you were slowing down. You had the short stint in Los Angeles, but you stormed back after that with what some would say was the best hockey of your career in St. Louis. Was there something about landing there that helped you take your game back to where it had been in Edmonton?
GF: “I think part of it is when I left Buffalo. I had a sit-down conversation with John Muckler and probably could have stayed there for a few more years and played a backup role, but I didn’t feel I was ready to do that yet, mind-wise.”
“It made me take a look at where I was at in my career and decide that if I was going to stick around, I had to be better and it may have just put a little chip on the shoulder where, it forced me to be better and look at myself from within.”
AS: How on Earth did you manage to play 79 games at 33 years old that first year with the Blues, while playing another 7? The following season after recovering from a torn ACL?
GF: “Mind over matter. I think that’s the biggest thing. You prepare to play every day so, the fact that I was able to play every day, the let me play every day, was something that one, I could prove to myself that I could do it, and two, prove to everybody else that I could do it.”
AS: That’s a record that will never be broken. Not in today’s NHL.
GF: “Well, they seem to manage goalies a little more now. I think that was the fun part. They let me play and… The thing you have to worry about is the mind getting tired, but I enjoyed being at the rink, I enjoyed being on the ice, and I enjoyed playing so, I found that more relaxing. Most starting goalies will enjoy playing.”
“I mean, I think a little bit now they’re worried about getting burnt out playing back-to-back games and everything, but they still prepare to play so, you just have to manage their practice time a little bit. Mike Keenan was good about that with me.”
AS: You went through a lot of equipment transformations throughout your career in terms of mask style, and you went from Brown brand pads to Franklin. Was there ever a time where equipment changes took a great deal of adjustment on the ice?
GF: “No because I would try stuff in practice once or twice to see if I liked it or not. I knew right away whether I liked something or not. I could wear it once or twice and know if I liked it so, it was an easy transformation. I just had a good feel for equipment.”
“You know what feels good when your body is moving and stuff. Upper-body stuff was harder to break In than pads because I didn’t like a whole lot of padding.”
AS: Franklin was a relatively unknown brand before you started wearing them.
GF: “It was a street hockey brand so when they approached me about making some stuff, we had a couple of trial and errors in he beginning but probably three months into me wearing them, they were fabulous. They did a really good job and they made great baseball stuff up until that point, so they knew what they were doing.”
AS: When you finished your career with Calgary, you played with Jarome Iginla, and Fred Brathwaite. Those are two players of color who have said that they looked up to you as a role model growing up. What was it like to play with two young guys who you directly inspired in that way?
GF: “You know what, it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it was my last year and I’d have loved to play another two or three years but the body was done at that point, so you’re more of a mentor than a player.”
“If you’re a positive influence on the guys you played with, then you’ve accomplished something in your career. It’s not so much about the individual stuff, it’s more about how you make your teammates feel, if you can make them better players, and if you leave the game where people are happy to play with you, then you’ve accomplished something.”
AS: The “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative is fantastic, but for some the message rings hollow. You have the incidents involving Akim Aliu, and just last week Brandon Manning was suspended in the AHL for using a racial slur on the ice. Do you feel there is something the league could be doing better so that “Hockey is for Everyone” is more than just words?
GF: “I think the game still has to grow in that sense. It’s part of a transition and it doesn’t happen overnight. I think that’s the problem with society probably taking a little step back here in the last little while. That hasn’t helped matters either.”
“I think it’s going in the right direction, but it still has a lot of room for growth.”
AS: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re up to today. You’re a golf pro now?
GF: “Well, I masquerade as director of golf.”
AS: (Laughs) But in “Making Coco” it referenced a few times that golf was your second passion after hockey.
GF: “It was. I mean, I’ve always liked golf and I find it to be four hours where you have peace and quiet and I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s very relaxing and very therapeutic so, I enjoy being on the golf course, I enjoy talking golf with people, I enjoy the tech side of it with all the equipment and everything.”
“It gives me something that keeps the mind fresh and it’s something I do love.”