Edmonton's Greatest Hockey Hero (and it's not who you think)

Randygregg_medium I first saw Randy Gregg play a game of hockey in the fall of 1975. He was among a group of young blueliners auditioning for the University of Alberta Golden Bears, looking to fill the departing skates of several defencemen of the previous season’s national champions. He stood out immediately with his lanky 6’4" frame and his flaming orange hair which stuck out in all directions under his white helmet. Something of an awkward skater, he demonstrated poise and hockey intellect right from the start.

Randy was all of 19 that fall, breaking into Canadian college hockey at an age that future teammates like Lee Fogolin and Paul Coffey were breaking into the National Hockey League. Who could have guessed then that the gangly redhead would wind up not just a 2-time University Cup champion but a 5-time Stanley Cup champion, let alone the fact that he would accomplish all of this in his home town of Edmonton? There are impossible dreams, and then there are absurd ones.

Randy Gregg may have been new to university hockey that season, but he wasn’t new to university life. Indeed he was in his fourth year medicine, having been accepted as a 16-year-old whiz kid. He played midget and juvenile hockey the early years before deciding to try out for the Bears. It turned into a four-year gig as he continued the onerous trek through medical school.

I was 19 myself that fall, having discovered the Bears the previous spring when they had made that glorious run to the national title, overcoming such opponents as Jim Corsi (Concordia goalie) and Tom Watt (U. of Toronto coach) along the way. Clare Drake was the mastermind behind the Bears’ bench, Ross Barros was the offensive defenceman who drove the bus, while the team’s leading scorer was one John Horcoff (Shawn’s daddy).

By that fall those and many other players had graduated. Even Clare Drake had taken a sabbatical that season to coach the WHA Oilers, although he returned in 1976 to play a key role in the next wave of the U of A dynasty. I came to check out the newcomers at an early season affair at Varsity Arena (now known as Clare Drake Arena but essentially unchanged). It’s a cramped space with very hard wooden benches, but if one knows what dead spots to avoid, allows the spectator to be right on top of the game. Which at the university level is a very good brand of hockey, still the best-kept secret in town for my money.

My space in those years was on the benches behind the west goal just to the defensive left of the Zamboni hole. Unlike today, in those days the Bears defended that end two periods out of three, so over the course of the seasons I became intimately familiar with their left defencemen, of which Randy Gregg was one. Over those four years he grew before my eyes, becoming an ultra-calm and stable defensive presence and master of the transition game with a good first pass and lethal wrist shot.

With Gregg the centrepiece of a squad that also featured future NHLers Don Spring and Dave Hindmarch, the club quickly returned to prominence. They reached the national championship game in 1977, before taking the University Cup the next three years running, what remains a unique feat even in the long and dominant history of the Golden Bears. Randy Gregg was a central player on the first two of those champions, serving as team captain in 1979 while simultaneously copping the CIAU Player of the Year award. That middle champion was the greatest of all Bears’ teams, surely the top amateur club in the country. (I’m convinced the University Cup champions would take out the Allan and Memorial Cup champs in a hypothetical showdown for amateur supremacy most years and certainly that one.)

Gregg was typically modest of his hockey talent, saying: "There were much better players around, but I think they wanted to say:  we appreciate that to play this level of hockey and to go to medical school is a little different, maybe something of an accomplishment." Number me among those who marvelled at the med school-hockey double, but who judged Randy strictly by his performance on the ice where, simply put, he was the best player on the best team in the country.

He was also a committed amateur. After that 1978-79 season the New York Rangers came calling, offering a two-year contract for $100,000 per with a significant signing bonus. Randy demurred, instead accepting an invitation from Father David Bauer – a man who intrigued him -- to represent Canada in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid. For five months Gregg and his teammates (including past Golden Bears Hindmarch, Spring, John Devaney, and  Kevin Primeau along with Coach Drake, and future Oilers Ken Berry, Glenn Anderson and, for you trivia fans, goalie Bob Dupuis) barnstormed arenas across Canada and around the hockey world for the princely stipend of $4,000 for the winter. "I tend to be pretty single-minded," said Randy, "and at that point my ambition was to be part of the Olympic program. Besides, down the line, I figured the hundred thousand wouldn't be as important, looking back, as going to Lake Placid -- if I could make the team." He not only made the squad, he was named captain.

Randygregg2_mediumI took my one opportunity to see one of those tune-up games, an absolute beauty at Varsity Arena against interim coach Billy Moores and the still-powerful Golden Bears, who emerged with a 4-3 upset victory. It was one of those rare games with two home teams; it was a joy to see the homecoming of the local-kid-made-good, wearing the red maple leaf complete with an extra "C" and playing his usual rock steady game on the blue.  A couple months later Gregg would lead Team Canada to a respectable showing in its first Olympic appearance in 12 long years. A personal highlight occurred when Randy beat the legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak for his lone goal of the tourney. Unfortunately the Canadians dropped a tight 6-4 decision to the powerful Soviets, knocking them out of medal contention.

Randy disappeared from view for a couple years after that as he continued his unconventional career far from the beaten path. He had visited Japan as a Golden Bear and again with Team Canada, enjoyed himself thoroughly, and made enough connections to snare a job in Tokyo as playing-coach for the Kokudo Bunnies, retaining his amateur status on the ice while working an off-ice job for the team’s owner. When the season came to an end Dr. Gregg would fly home to Edmonton and immediately resume his internship at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

By the spring of ’82 he had no fewer than 3 NHL suitors awaiting his return to North America, including the Rangers, the Calgary Flames and the hometown Edmonton Oilers. Wishing to stay at home Randy turned down a substantially higher offer from the Flames and signed with the Oilers, the original "home town discount". Within days he was playing his first NHL game, in the playoffs no less, partnered with Paul Coffey. Oilers won his first game, 3-2, on an overtime goal by Wayne Gretzky, but lost that first-round series in a major upset to the L.A. Kings.

I was intimately familiar with the big redhead but it seemed odd to see him in the unfamiliar environment of the Coliseum and the unflinching spotlight of the NHL. I cared about exactly three teams in those days, the Oilers, the Bears, and Team Canada -- same as today, come to that -- and here was a fellow Edmontonian and exact contemporary of mine who was trying to complete the triple, lining up with Gretzky and Kurri, Messier and Anderson. Straight out of the Asian League! I worried that he would be overmatched out there against the likes of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer, Larry Murphy;  but that turned out to be no concern whatsoever. Gregg and his perpetually calm demeanour fit in seamlessly, his big body appearing awkward but always seeming to be in the way of whatever the bad guys were trying.

Randy instantly became a mainstay on the team, playing a full 80 games plus four playoff series in each of the next two seasons. He reached statistical peaks in 1983-84, scoring 13 goals and 40 points with a +40 rating in the regular season, then 10 more points and +16 in 19 playoff games. In the 99th game of that long season, Gregg and his high-powered teammates achieved the ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.

In those days I had season tickets in the southwest corner of the Coliseum. Like today the Oilers defended that end two periods out of three, so I became intimately familiar with their right defencemen, of which Randy Gregg was one. (He had made the conversion seamlessly at the NHL level in keeping with the needs of the club.) He was most frequently paired with Don Jackson, an American college-trained rearguard. In modern terms they would be considered the third pairing behind Huddy-Coffey and Fogolin-Lowe. But they were a solid duo who received a regular rotation, as Glen Sather was among the very first NHL coaches to go with  three pairings on a full-time basis. It didn’t hurt that Slats had the luxury of depth on the blueline that was the envy of the league.

Randy was not a proactively rugged player, which given his size was guaranteed to drive a segment of the fan base nuts. For one thing he eschewed fighting entirely, saying "I never fought in hockey because I couldn’t stand the thought of anybody, especially my kids, seeing me lose it, seeing me that far out of control ... My attitude toward fighting was, if you win you’ve got sore hands, if you lose you’ve got a sore face!" But Gregg used his size to advantage in other ways, positioning himself perfectly, getting in the way of any thrust towards goal, using his reach, a quick stick and his oversized feet to deflect pucks out of the danger area. He could be exposed on a one-on-one against a fleet opponent, but had a way of forcing them to go way wide into the corner where the strong goaltending tandem of Fuhr and Moog could easily handle bad angle shots. He possessed a safe and sure first pass, and wasn’t beyond jumping into the rush when the situation presented itself, as happened often with Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers. Not that often, mind you; as Gregg himself wryly observed, "I’ve often said I was a fifty-goal scorer in the NHL, but that it took me nine years to get the fifty."

As a defence-first type he was exactly what the goal-happy Oilers needed. He was a consistent plus player, ranking 90th on the all-time list at +164, in just 474 regular season games (+0.35/GP). In the big games of the playoffs he stepped it up another notch, going +71 in 137 post-season contests (+0.52/GP). He ranks 3rd on the all-time list of playoff plus, sandwiched between Jari Kurri and Wayne Gretzky. Randy Gregg could play a little bit.

The local hero celebrated that summer of ‘84 by marrying his sweetheart, Kathy Vogt, a long-track speed skater he had met at the Lake Placid Games. My wife and I got to know Kathy a tiny bit in subsequent years, as it happened our seats were on the same section and row as a number that were reserved for wives and girlfriends. A teacher (as is my wife), she was the most down-to-earth one there, wouldn’t avoid eye contact but would always take a moment to smile and say hello and maybe share a word or two.  

In the fall of ’84 Sather convinced Randy Gregg to represent Canada on the best-on-best stage of the Canada Cup. One of 8 Oilers on the squad, he fluctuated in and out of the line-up, and became a Canada Cup champion when the hosts won the final game right in Northlands Coliseum, a 6-5 victory over Sweden to sweep the best-of-three final series. It was a rich 13 months for Edmonton hockey fans, with two Stanley Cups and a Canada Cup awarded right before our eyes.

After the second Stanley Cup in ’85 and the shock defeat to Calgary in ’86, Gregg retired, his hockey dream supposedly filled, having proven to himself he could skate with the best. It turned out to be a crafty negotiating ploy, as Sather sweetened the pot 6 weeks into the new season and convinced the reluctant rearguard to return. It was a stabilizing point in what had started out an uneven season, and the Oilers gradually gained steam and rolled to the President’s Trophy before regaining the Stanley Cup in a dramatic 7-game Final against Philadelphia.

Gregg talked again about retirement before his career took another unique twist. It was announced that former professional hockey players could be reinstated as amateurs for the Olympics, which were being hosted just down the road in Calgary. Once again Randy spurned a comfortable six-figure salary to chase the dream, representing Canada in his second Olympics. After another long winter of barnstorming exhibition games, Dave King’s squad came up just short in Calgary, finishing fourth, a crushing disappointment to Randy and the whole country for that matter.  

Nonetheless Oiler fans were relieved when Gregg returned to the fold shortly after the games, and his reliable defensive posture helped to deliver a fourth Cup to Edmonton. Two years later came the fifth, Gretzky-less Cup. Only 7 Oilers remained from the first triumph six years previously: Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, and Randy Gregg. The last three of them were full-fledged Edmonton products, but only one of these could lay claim to winning 7 different major championships, all representing this city over a decade and a half.

That fall of 1990 Randy and the Oilers parted company. As happened far too many times towards the end of the Pocklington years, the departure was a difficult one, handled clumsily. The circumstances are described by Charles Wilkins in his remarkable book "Breakaway: Hockey and the Years Beyond" (McLelland & Stewart,1995), which features a lengthy and fascinating chapter on Randy Gregg (and to which I attribute any quotes in this article). His comments about Pat Quinn are particularly interesting in light of the Irishman’s current position with the Oil:

During the summer and autumn of 1990, when Randy was putting every available hour into FunTeam, the Oilers decided he was expendable and left him unprotected in the league's annual equalization draft. "Sather told me he'd faxed every team telling them not to bother drafting me, because I wouldn't report," say Randy. "Vancouver drafted me anyway and offered me an enormous amount of money compared to what Edmonton had been paying me." 

The Canucks were interested in the thirty-five-year-old rearguard partly as a player but more so as a model for their young defencemen. "And I was interested," he says. "But I'd already committed myself to getting FunTeam going, and I knew that if I left Edmonton at that point it just wouldn't happen. So I turned them down."

 

By the next summer, however, with FunTeam well established, Randy signed with the Canucks. It would be his last year in pro hockey, and, to judge by the record book, it could hardly have been especially fulfilling: twenty-one games, one goal, four assists. "The truth is," says Randy, it was one of the most rewarding years of my career. I was supposed to be there to help the young guys, and I ended up learning five times as much as I taught. And it was almost exclusively because of Pat Quinn. He's such a great guy, an amazing man; I developed so much respect for him." Randy praises Quinn as introspective, disciplined, and committed to his players. "It's a real rarity in hockey to find a guy who can be a friend to the players, as Pat is, without losing their respect. Even after all my years in hockey, he showed me things about dignity and relations within the game that I'd never seen before."

Those 21 games and the 7 playoff games which followed were all that separated Randy Gregg from being the first career-long Oiler, a feat which still hasn’t been accomplished by a meaningful player. It was a crying shame: the proud Edmontonian may have been lost on a technicality, but there was a deeper issue of respect, and of a broken trust in the manner he was left unprotected. Somewhat fittingly he played his last game on Coliseum ice, as the Oilers bested his Canucks in a hard-fought six-game series. I watched him shake hands with what remained of his ex-teammates, feeling certain this really was the end of the line after an injury-plagued season. Randy lost his last series just as he had lost his first; in the ten years between times his team's record in Stanley Cup playoff series was a remarkable 25-3.

In retirement Dr. Gregg remained a proud Edmontonian; in fact he lives in his home town to this day, having reputedly never changed his home telephone number in his life. He continues to set a wonderful example, starting with his successful medical practice at the Randy Gregg Sports Medicine Clinic. The FunTeam Alberta project cited above was his brainchild back in 1990, an alternative form of hockey and other sports where pressure to win is reduced in favour of self-esteem, skills development, team play, and plain old fun for kids and adults alike. FunTeam is a going concern today, and Randy Gregg remains the chairman of the board, heavily involved on the personal level; he walks the walk. He has produced a number of manuals for hockey drills, and remains heavily involved with volunteerism in the community, especially involving kids. Randy is still somewhat involved in university hockey, doing an annual gig as a colour commentator at the University Cup. One of the most coveted awards in university sport is the Randy Gregg Award, recognizing excellence in hockey, academics and community involvement.

I was fortunate to see the man up close and personal for a time in the early 90s when both our sons played in the same Tom Thumb program. Ice time was frequently doubled up between our two teams; we "coaches" didn’t know what the heck we were doing, but we knew enough to accept with alacrity when Randy offered to run the practices for both squads. While I tried not to let on what a huge fan I was – he quite simply didn’t want that kind of attention, wanted to be just another dad – it was a thrill to share the same ice surface a few times. Randy was reluctant to talk about the old days with the Oilers, though I was able to get him going once when I brought to practice my prize collector’s item, a game-used Jaroslav Pouzar stick. He fondly remembered the rock hard Czech, and the conversation carried on merrily for a few minutes before he caught himself and said, "The good old days ... it’s fun to reminisce occasionally." And with that it was over. But if one asked him a solid hockey-related question, such as what is the key to switching from left to right defence, one would be guaranteed of a thoughtful and detailed answer. Mostly, though, he was there for the kids, ALL of the kids, including the wheelchair-bound one who was included in every possible way from practice goalie to assistant bench coach.

These days Randy and Kathy’s own kids are making headlines in speed skating. 21-year-old Jessica Gregg will soon be emulating both of her parents as she represents Canada in the Vancouver Olympics on the short-track team, while brother Jamie Gregg, 24, has a strong chance to make the long-track squad at the Canadian trials later this month.  

Over the years I have seen Randy and family in passing a few times at Clare Drake Arena, but you’re not apt to catch him over at Rexall Place. He was lured into participating in the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium, which served as something of a 20-year reunion for the first Stanley Cup team, but his relationship with the Oilers reportedly remains strained at best. It’s more than the circumstances surrounding his departure, as his respect for Pocklington, Sather and the organization had steadily eroded long before that. He deplored the way the organization disrespected some of its stars and spit out its veterans. "We kept on winning into the late eighties, but it was largely because of the incredible closeness among the players and the leadership and talent of guys like Messier and Gretzky. Essentially we were playing for one another and for the fans, not for the organization."

Randy Gregg was a quiet leader in his own right. It remains a fact that once those winners left the organization, the organization stopped winning.

***

In closing I return to the title of this rambling essay. There are different measures of greatness, and of heroes. Certainly there were greater hockey players than Randy Gregg to pass through this town over those years, including the genius Gretzky and the bull moose Messier. Whether there were greater men is another question entirely. And whereas the others passed on through and now reside in more southerly climes like Hilton Head or Hollywood, Dr. Randy Gregg remains a proud citizen of the home town, and the country, he represented so well over his stunningly accomplished career.

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