Grant Fuhr Biography
Hockey player, coach
The Edmonton Oilers dominated the National Hockey League (NHL) throughout the 1980s, in no small part due to the goaltending talents of Grant Fuhr. Fuhr was an indispensable component of a team that won five Stanley Cups in seven years, a sometimes brilliant defender who was particularly effective in playoff games. In 1988 Ralph Wiley called Fuhr—who was then 25—"the best goalie in the NHL. The best on earth."
Fuhr's once stellar reputation was tarnished by injuries and the admission of substance abuse. Suspended from the Oilers in 1990 for drug use that occurred during the team's glory years, Fuhr staged a comeback and continued as a successful keeper for several teams through the 1990s, most notably in a four-year run with the St. Louis Blues from 1995 to 1999. Just a few years after his retirement in 2000 Fuhr was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the first person of African descent to be so honored. He is now a goalkeeper coach for the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL.
Hockey is nothing less than an obsession for most Canadians. Children learn to skate at an early age and dream of the NHL the way American boys dream of playing professional football. Grant Fuhr was no exception to this rule. At the age of seven he announced that he was going to become a goaltender in the NHL, and he made good on his promise. Fuhr was born in Edmonton in the autumn of 1962 to teenage parents who gave him up for adoption. Even though he considers himself black—or at least of mixed race—he was placed with a white family. Initially his adoptive parents were reluctant to accept him, fearing that they would not be able to instill in him a sense of racial pride. They found that most people accepted their unorthodox family, however, and they were able to deal honestly with their son and his concerns. "We were always honest with Grant," Betty Fuhr told Sports Illustrated. "We asked him to be fair in his judgments, to not judge a person—or himself—on social or economic standing, but on their honesty and integrity."
Fuhr's father was an insurance salesman who was fond of both golf and hockey. He allowed his son to turn the family basement into a makeshift rink and bought the boy a pair of skates when he was four. Grant skated constantly, developing coordination far beyond the norm for one of his tender age. In school he excelled at other sports as well, but hockey remained his favorite. In 1979, when he was 16, he turned down a chance to play catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates' baseball farm team because "hockey was in." Needless to say, this fascination with sports left little time for formal studies. Fuhr dropped out of high school at 16 and joined the Victoria Cougars of Canada's Western Hockey League. Wiley described the young athlete as "5 ft. 9 in., with strong legs, good eyes, and hands that defied description. He was…different."
Fuhr was also black, and he was attempting to make the majors in a sport that is still almost exclusively white. Bob White, a coach in Montreal, told Sports Illustrated that Fuhr might have been steered away from hockey had he grown up in eastern Canada. "If Fuhr had been born in Quebec, he might not have made it to the NHL," White said. "You can be recruited with a [goalie] mask on, like Grant Fuhr. He was lucky he was out west.… And it's good he wears the mask." If this harsh judgment speaks to inherent racism in hockey's ranks, it also speaks to Fuhr's outstanding ability, mask or no mask. As a teenager, Fuhr showed such obvious potential that he was made a member of the Edmonton Oilers as a number one draft choice before his eighteenth birthday.
Ron Low, a former Oiler, remembered Fuhr's early years in a Sports Illustrated feature. "Grant never played in the minors," Low said. "We all knew he was great from the first day of camp. A natural. Yet he had no style. Or, rather, his style was all styles. He would come out 15 feet to challenge the shot on one offensive rush. The next time he would be back in his crease. He could read the game so well. He anticipated the game. Grant was just…different. Different from anyone I'd ever seen." Fuhr honed his skills by practicing against his high-scoring teammates such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, as formidable a pair of offensive players as can be found anywhere. Quickly Fuhr improved his reflexes and grasped every nuance of the game, becoming expert at both instinctive plays and strategic moves.
Fuhr helped the Oilers to advance to the playoffs in his rookie season as well as his sophomore year. By 1984 the seeds of the dominant Oilers team had been sown. In that Stanley Cup season, Fuhr turned in ten playoff wins. The following season he stunned the league by earning 15 playoff victories as the Oilers won another Cup. In the 1985-86 season the team once again advanced to the playoffs, and Fuhr stood in the goal even though he had spent several sleepless nights by his adoptive father's deathbed. When Edmonton contended for the Stanley Cup again in the spring of 1987, Fuhr had an astounding goals-against average of 2.46 through nineteen games. He was universally feared as a cool hand in the game's most stressful position and was considered nearly unbeatable in the clutch. Barry Pederson of the Vancouver Canucks summed up the exceptional talents of Grant Fuhr in Sports Illustrated. "Bar none, Grant Fuhr is the best goalie in the league," Pederson said. "He has the fastest reflexes. Sometimes his concentration might drift during inconsequential games. But in the big-money games Fuhr is the best. He's the Cup goalie. It's sure not by luck."
A five-time All-Star, Fuhr was chosen to be the starting goalie in the 1987 Canada Cup games against the Soviet Union's national team. Although Team Canada's roster also featured star goalies Kelly Hrudey of the New York Islanders and Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers, Fuhr started all three games and helped the Canadians to beat the Soviets for the Cup. Wiley called Fuhr's performance in that series "breathtakingly effective." Fuhr then turned in yet another stellar season with Edmonton in 1988, earning the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender.
With such success to his credit, Fuhr was allowed to go his own way off the ice, with little supervision. Perhaps not surprisingly, he ran into trouble, financial and otherwise. In the early years of his contract, Fuhr's salary was extremely modest by the standards of professional sports. He paid little attention as his extravagant ways led him into debt. In retrospect, Fuhr told Sports Illustrated that he was "a kid who did some dumb things." He added, for instance: "When my clothes were dirty, I just threw them in the closet and went out and bought something else." Fuhr now admits that overspending was only one of his problems. He fell in with a fast crowd and began to use cocaine—not to the point of addiction, but certainly to the point that it added to his financial woes.
In 1990 Fuhr came forward about his drug use after spending two weeks in a counseling center in Florida. He admitted that he used "a substance"—he did not say cocaine—for some seven years, or most of the period that the Oilers rested at the top of the NHL. Details of Fuhr's drug use were supplied by the player's ex-wife, Corrine, who told the press in Edmonton that she often found cocaine hidden in Fuhr's clothing and that she fielded numerous threatening telephone calls from drug dealers who had not been paid. These embarrassing details no doubt contributed to the one-year suspension handed down in September 1990 by NHL president John Ziegler, who called Fuhr's conduct "dishonorable and against the welfare of the league."
Many observers felt that the year-long suspension was too harsh. Fuhr had, after all, acknowledged the problem and had sought treatment for it. He had also tested free of drugs for a year before the suspension even began. In fact, Fuhr was reinstated 59 games later, and he led the Oilers to a 4-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils on his first night back. Despite this initial success, the Oilers, who were starting on a rebuilding program, traded Fuhr to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of the 1990-91 season.
Many speculated the Fuhr's trade to the Maple Leafs marked the beginning of the end of his career. Age had slowed his reflexes somewhat, and injuries had begun to affect his play. After years of recurring tendonitis in his left shoulder, he underwent surgery and had the joint pinned during his suspension. He had 25 wins, 33 losses, and 5 ties in his first season with the Leafs, and had developed a winning record during the 1992-93 season when he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. Fuhr had a successful 1993-94 season with the Sabres, sharing time in goal with Dominik Hasek, with whom he shared the NHL's William N. Jenning's Trophy for fewest goals allowed. Early the next season he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, where he saw limited action.
Many assumed the Fuhr's career was winding downs in the mid-1990s, especially as he endured recurring knee injuries. But his trade to the St. Louis Blues at the start of the 1995-96 season saw Fuhr return to form. From 1995 through 1999, Fuhr had four successive seasons in which he posted a winning record, and his goals against average was under 3.0 each season. On reconstructed knees, Fuhr led the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1998-1999. Fuhr was traded to the Calgary Flames in 1999 and played just 23 games with the Flames before retiring in 2000.
Fuhr retired with a lifetime record of 403-295-114, with 25 shutouts. He was only the sixth goalkeeper in the NHL to earn 400 wins, just one of the statistics that earned him selection to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. Fuhr discussed his honor with the Philadelphia Enquirer: "Being a black athlete going into the Hall of Fame is obviously a special honor also—especially in hockey, being the first one—but the reason you get into the Hall of Fame is for what you have accomplished on the ice, and I probably take the most pride in that." Following his retirement, Fuhr served as a goalkeeping consultant for the Calgary Flames before joining the staff of the Phoenix Coyotes as a goalkeeper coach in 2004. On the club's Web site, Fuhr said: "I am extremely excited because becoming a goalie coach in the National Hockey League is a great opportunity."
Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1990; September 28, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 8, 2003.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 23, 1998; April 21, 1999; April 27, 1999; May 18, 1999.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1990.
Sports Illustrated, January 11, 1988; September 10, 1990.
"Grant Fuhr," Legends of Hockey, www.legendsofhockey.net/html/ind03fuhr.htm (January 31, 2005).
"One-on-One with Grant Fuhr," Phoenix Coyotes, www.phoenixcoyotes.com/news/story_details.php?op=details&ID=3647&SectionID=11 (January 31, 2005).
—Mark Kram and