It’s not often I have a hard time cobbling words together about a player, a GM, or a person. Today, I’m going to try to do this one justice.
Former Oilers head coach John Muckler has passed. He was 86.
If you are of a certain vintage, then you already know that John Muckler was a huge part of the fabric that made up the glory years of the Edmonton Oilers. John’s official capacity in the organization was assistant coach until 1989, when he was the head coach for the 1989-1990 cup squad. He would leave Edmonton at the end of the 1991 season with five Stanley Cups to his name, an incredible feat to attain. Winning one Stanley Cup is a lifetime achievement; he was one of the few who did it all five times.
Muckler would coach, he would eventually become a general manager for the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators later on. Muckler wore many hats throughout his career, none were finer than his time behind the bench when the Oilers took their fifth cup in the 1989-90 season. A rookie head coach at that time, Muckler took a team that had a disappointing end to the 88-89 year through what could have been a rocky 89-90. While the 89-90 season had both ups and downs, it ended just right.
John Muckler faced a daunting task in 1989, and he knew it. Now the sole head coach of the Oilers, Muckler needed to get everything he could from his crew to put together another run. With the Gretzky trade now a year old (and a recent first round loss to the now Gretzky-led Kings), the heat was on in Edmonton. So many things happened in the 1989-90 season that could have easily tripped up a club. That didn’t happen with John Muckler.
Things could have really started off sideways when goaltender Grant Fuhr needed to have his appendix removed to begin the year. In goes Bill Ranford, who had 35 total games in the league up to that point. Ranford would end up being the Oilers goaltender with sixteen playoff wins that year, but more on that later. The heat got turned way up when a major player in the Gretzky trade refused to play for the club just four games into 1989. Jimmy Carson made it abundantly clear that after a 49 goal season, things weren’t working out. Oilers GM Glen Sather would end up moving Carson to Detroit in a package that netted Adam Graves, Petr Klima and Joe Murphy, a move that certainly had doubters. Muckler certainly had his work cut out for him, but he’d see it through.
Like any season, there were great big highs. There were also enormous lows. The Oilers would sparkle in December with a 9-2-2 record, there was a 20 game period where the Oilers would find just seven wins. An especially brutal three game losing streak saw the Oilers yield a ten spot to the Flames. Nobody likes the Flames. There were enough highs to outnumber the lows, and the Muckler-led Oilers would finish second in the Smythe division to secure a playoff berth.
The Oilers were no strangers to the playoffs at that time; they’d won four of the last six Cups at that point. They had some unfinished business to take care of, and that included getting past the first round after being unceremoniously dropped off in seven games by the Kings in 1989. After getting by Winnipeg in seven, those Gretzky-led Kings in four straight, and the Blackhawks in six, they’d face Boston for all the marbles.
The 1990 Cup Finals were like no other series. The power failed in the Garden (again), Petr Klima scored a big goal in the third OT of game 1, Craig Simpson led the club in scoring, Bill Ranford was the wall in net, and the John Muckler-led Oilers picked up their fifth Stanley Cup just 21 months after Wayne Gretzky was dealt to the LA Kings. They did it by defeating a Bruins club that finished first in the entire Wales Conference, and they did it on Boston’s ice.
“This feels great … it’s possibly the nicest of the five. Coming out of training camp we never expected to be in this position … but we won again with a great team concept. I just can’t say enough about Billy in goal, or the kids Gelinas, Murphy and Graves, or the leadership from the guys who’ve been here so many times”
Muckler would go on to Buffalo, the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators over the next two decades. As GM, he would lead the Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 before losing to the Anaheim Ducks.
The Oilers’ 1990 Stanley Cup is a standalone moment for the club. It’s not only the punctuation mark on a decade of dominance challenged by only one other club, but it’s a testament to the coach. Muckler took what could have been kindly called a tumultuous time period and was able to calm the waters so well that it resulted in hockey’s greatest reward.
The Oilers still search for another moment like it today.