EDMONTON — Long before the days of analytics and performance coaches, John Muckler brought a keen strategic mind to the free-wheeling Edmonton Oilers.
The former NHL coach and general manager was remembered Tuesday by members of the Oilers organization, where he made his mark, and around the league.
The Oilers announced Monday night that Muckler died at age 86.
He was part of the staff that put together the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, joining Edmonton in '82 as an assistant coach under Glen Sather before going on to win five Stanley Cups with the organization between '84 and 1990 — the last one as head coach.
"He was a little bit older than me and I guess a little more mature, and sometimes a little more patient," Sather said Tuesday on a conference call. "But he was also a strong-willed individual who was very fair in his discipline but he had one focus in mind, and that was to do (things) the way we wanted players to play."
Kevin Lowe, who played defence on all five of Edmonton's championship teams, said Muckler was as vital to the team's success as superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. He said that the Oilers' strategic acumen is an overlooked part of the team's success.
"We don't win all those championships without being a superbly technical team," Lowe said. "We won championships because we had talent, but you don't win four Cups in five years without having more than that.
"I really believe we won because of the systems by John Muckler and (assistant coach) Teddy Green, and supported by Slats (Sather)."
Forward Craig Simpson, who joined the Oilers midway through its dynasty years, likened Muckler to a father who was stern when he had to be, and showed kindness when needed.
Sather said Muckler also knew how to loosen up.
"He had a humourous side too, I can still remember listening to him laugh," Sather said. "We had a lot of laughs together. We spent so much time together we were like brothers."
Muckler left Edmonton and served as director of operations and head coach with the Buffalo Sabres from '91 to '95, and as head coach of the New York Rangers from '97 to 2000.
He became the Ottawa Senators' GM in 2001, and helped build a squad that reached the 2007 Stanley Cup final, where they fell to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
"John Muckler's passion for the game and for working with hockey players impacted so many at every stage and talent level," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
"In a career that spanned 50 years — first as a defenseman in the old Eastern Hockey League and then in various coaching and managing roles with six NHL franchises — Muckler made countless friends in the game and contributed to the success of some of the greatest players in hockey history."
Toronto forward Jason Spezza, who played under Muckler in Ottawa, was among the players remembering Muckler's contributions on Tuesday.
"John Muckler was a guy who had a big influence on my career," Spezza said. "He took me under his wing and taught me a lot, and he was a pleasure to be around."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also paid tribute to Muckler on Twitter.
"John Muckler knew hockey. Respected by players, fans, and executives alike, he was a five-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Canada Cup winner - among many other accomplishments. My thoughts are with all who are mourning the loss of this legendary figure."
Maple Leafs forward Jimmy Vesey says he's been "in awe" of sharing a locker room with one of his childhood hockey heroes.
Vesey and Joe Thornton are two of Toronto's off-season additions to its forward ranks. The 27-year-old Vesey, who grew up in the Boston area, was a fan of Thornton's while the 41-year-old was starring with the Bruins.
"I grew up watching the Bruins. Joe Thornton was the captain, he was my favourite player," Vesey said Tuesday at the Maple Leafs' camp. "I wore two numbers in my life before I turned pro. No. 8 was my dad's college number, and No. 19 for Joe Thornton. Just to be on the same team as him and see him on an everyday basis is unreal."
"I've kind of been in awe, to be honest," Vesey added. "(I'm) trying not to act like an idiot in front of him."
Vesey said he's been learning from the six-time all-star known as "Jumbo" by quietly observing him.
"Everyone's talked about how positive he is, how he carries himself, and that's something that can really rub off on the team and rub off on me especially," Vesey said.
The admiration for Thornton is not restricted to the younger Maple Leafs.
"Jumbo's been a guy that even as a player I look up to," said Spezza, an influential veteran in his own right at age 37. "Even though he's only a few years older than me, that's kind of how it works. You try to emulate certain guys who play certain styles, and he was a guy for me."
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The NHL said Tuesday that its four divisions for the 2020-21 season would be named after corporate sponsors.
While selling naming rights to sponsors often leads to sports controversy, Spezza says he understands why it was done this time.
"I was probably one of the guys who was against that kind of stuff for a long time," Spezza said. "Due to the circumstances though I welcome it."
The all-Canadian division will be known as the Scotia NHL North Division. The others are the Honda NHL West Division, Discover NHL Central Division and MassMutual NHL East Division.
"They've done it in a classy way where it's not all over the place," Spezza said. "It's a difficult time, and if it gets us playing then that's great."
Oilers teammates say Finnish forward Jesse Puljujarvi has become an improved competitor in his time away from the NHL club.
"He looks bigger, stronger, faster, his shot's unbelievable," Oilers forward Kailer Yamamoto said Tuesday. "He just looks like he's ready now.
"I think he's going to shake some heads this year."
Puljujarvi is rejoining the Oilers this season after spending time with Karpat in Finland's top league.
Edmonton selected Puljujarvi fourth overall in the 2016 NHL draft, but the big winger had trouble sticking with the Oilers and bounced from the NHL to the American Hockey League's Bakersfield Condors.
Puljujarvi elected not to re-sign with the Oilers for the 2019-20 season and joined Karpat instead. But general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett, who joined the Oilers in 2019, made a push to re-establish relations with Puljujarvi and his agent this summer.
The overtures worked as the 22-year old winger signed a two-year deal to return to Edmonton, worth US$2.35 million according to CapFriendly.com.
"That helped a lot," Puljujarvi said. "Both guys want me here."
Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse, a presence himself at six-foot-four and 221 pounds, called Puljujarvi "the biggest guy on the ice."
"Did he say that? I like that," the 6-4, 201-pound Puljujarvi said, then added with a laugh: "He's big too, but maybe I'm bigger."
SIZING THEM UP
One of the main talking points at Montreal Canadiens training camp has been the size factor after the team added some big bodies in the off-season.
Brendan Gallagher touched on that theme in a discussion with the media Tuesday before having a bit of a second thought.
"I'm a little biased, but I'm a smaller guy myself and the biggest thing for me is it doesn't matter if you're big or small, you've just got to win your battles and compete," the five-foot-nine sparkplug forward said.
"Rather than saying size, if I can take that back, I'd say we brought in a lot of guys that are going to win their battles and compete and be hard to play against in that way. Regardless of what your stature is, you're still capable of doing that ... If you're able to do those things, size isn't all that important."
Still, Gallagher noted bigger guys like Josh Anderson and Corey Perry won't hurt.
"Obviously having the bigger frame, it's going to help a bunch in that aspect," he said.
Young Ottawa Senators forwards Josh Norris, Colin White and Brady Tkachuk found a unique way to pass time during quarantine.
Norris said they moved the couches around to allow for some football.
"Brady was the QB and me and Whitey were going one-on-one in the living room," Norris said. "Thankfully we didn't break anything or knock anything over. But it was just something to just kind of stay sane and have some fun."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.
The Canadian Press