Coffey's career reaches a fitting conclusion

Updated: November 5, 2004, 11:41 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Sometimes a proper ending takes a little longer to write.

So it is with Paul Coffey, perhaps the game's most superb skater and an integral part of the Edmonton Oilers team that ranks among the greatest dynasties of all time.

Paul Coffey is best remembered for his tenure with the Oilers.
A defenseman built for an era of fire-wagon hockey, Coffey eventually became trapped in an era of offensive stagnation. After winning three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers (1984, '85, '87) and one more with the Pittsburgh Penguins ('91), he bounced around the NHL for 10 seasons accumulating, at the time, the most goals (396), assists (1,135) and points (1,531) among defensemen in NHL history.

But instead of a ceremonial sendoff to mark the end of a historic career, Coffey merely faded from the game after the Boston Bruins waived him in December 2000.

Four years later, the proper ending has been written as Coffey now enters the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"After 21 years, hockey and I had kind of sapped everything we could out of each other," Coffey told ESPN.com last year. "Not everyone can leave like Wayne. Sure you'd like to be recognized for your career, but to just kind of ride off into the sunset, sneak out when nobody was looking, well, I'm a shy enough person to think that was a nice way to leave."

There will be no sneaking out this time, not with luminaries like longtime teammate and friend Wayne Gretzky on hand. This time Coffey will leave through the big doors.

"Not many people know this but we actually played together when we were 14. We actually became friends at that time," Gretzky said recently. "Paul wasn't any different at 14 than he was in his first year in the NHL. He was probably the best skater, by far, on the ice. He knew at 14 he was going to play in the NHL. It was just a matter of when and where."

Before teaming up briefly with Gretzky on a Toronto bantam team, Coffey played with fellow inductee Larry Murphy in another minor hockey system in the city. The two would join up again in Pittsburgh for a Stanley Cup run in 1991, the two forming a potent power-play tandem along the Penguins blue line.

Although The Hockey News ranked Coffey 20th among prospects in the 1980 draft, Edmonton made the defenseman the sixth pick overall.

For Oilers head honcho Glen Sather, there were two methods of dealing with a young player of Coffey's caliber -- try to jam a square peg of an offensive force into a round hole of a stay-at-home defenseman, or let him be.

"He's obviously one of the purest skaters the game's ever seen. He just had such tremendous acceleration," Sather said. "He fit in with the style we wanted to play. I couldn't see molding him into a defensive defenseman."

Coffey's skating allowed him to get into a strong position for an offensive play or recover quickly for a defensive one, added another Hall of Fame coach and manager, Scotty Bowman, who had Coffey in Pittsburgh and again in Detroit in the late '90s. It was under Bowman that Coffey had his last Coffey-esque season, racking up 74 points in in 76 games during the 1995-96 season.

"He wasn't defensive-minded. (Players like Coffey), you're probably better to put them in an offensive situation. He was an offensive machine," Bowman said.

With the Oilers' dynastic team of the 1980s, Coffey was a perfect fit. Opposing teams would set up schemes to defend forwards like Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glen Anderson, so there was little they could do when Coffey stepped into the play.

"He was often referred to as like a rover. There doesn't seem to be many defensemen who play like that now. I don't know who'd you'd put in that category now," Bowman said.

His statistics reinforce that notion.

Coffey holds the NHL career playoff records for goals (59) and points (196) by a defenseman, as well as the record for single-season goals by a defenseman (48). He won the James Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman three times, played in 14 All-Star Games and was named to either the first or second All-Star team eight times. He was the most prolific offensive defenseman until fellow Hall of Fame inductee Ray Bourque passed him during the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.

In many ways Coffey was a victim of his own superlatives. Because he was so gifted offensively, he was considered a defensive liability. It was an unfair knock on him, teammates say.

I really think he was underrated as a player. Paul could single-handedly change a game. He could be one of the first guys in the offensive zone and yet he could also be the first guy back.
Wayne Gretzky

"I really think he was underrated as a player," Gretzky said. "Paul could single-handedly change a game. He could be one of the first guys in the offensive zone and yet he could also be the first guy back.

"Paul was a little bit like I was. I couldn't play the way Messier played. Paul wasn't Ray Bourque or Denis Potvin. But he was never out of position. He hit guys but he didn't hammer them," he said.

Gretzky points to the Oilers' run to their second Cup in 1985 as a defining period in Coffey's career. In 18 postseason games, Coffey recorded 37 points, an NHL record for defensemen. He also tied Gretzky for the team lead with 11 points -- an NHL record in a five-game final -- against Philadelphia, a team Coffey would later join and help to the 1997 Stanley Cup finals.

"He was dominant," Gretzky recalled. "Offensively nobody could stop him. They couldn't get the puck away from him.

"His passes from the back end. He was almost like a Dan Marino. He could hit a guy on the fly at center on the tape," he said

Illustrations of Coffey's offensive prowess are countless, but he was by no means a one-trick pony.

Coffey had been the last cut by Bowman in the 1981 Canada Cup tournament, a competition in which the Russians had destroyed Canada 8-1 in the championship game. Three years later, during Canada's sudden-death semifinal game against Russia, Coffey found himself the lone man back on a two-on-one break midway through the first overtime period. With a nation's hockey pride on the line, Coffey deftly knocked down a centering pass by Vladimir Kovin and accelerated in the other direction, eventually firing a shot on net that was deflected by Mike Bossy for the winner.

"It changed everything in Canada. Paul did those things," said John Muckler, a member of the team's coaching staff. "I think people are too willing to pick on his defensive game and not look at his overall abilities."

Those abilities weren't simply god-given. Gretzky recalled how Coffey was one of the first players on the stationary bike every day.

"His work ethic was always at a different level," said Gretzky, who also recalled Coffey taking home his famous skates (always a size or two too small so his feet got the feel of the boot) or sticks so they'd be just as he wanted for a game.

Still, if Coffey's game was sometimes misunderstood, so too was his demeanor. Shy and quiet, Coffey developed a reputation as being aloof, especially juxtaposed against the carousing, fun-loving Oilers veterans.

"He was a little more reserved early on," said Kevin Lowe. "He came on the heels of a group of pretty outgoing players that maybe made him seem a little different.

"His position was, he didn't want to be anything that he didn't think he should be. He loved to go home and listen to music and watch movies," he said.

As his career wound down, it appeared Coffey was hanging on too long. From 1998 until the Bruins released him, he scored just 13 goals and appeared in just five playoff games while bouncing from Chicago to Carolina to Boston.

Had he not been so spectacular, had he not re-defined the notion of the defenseman as offensive juggernaut, those final years might not be seen in such stark contrast.

Those who know him say Coffey's final seasons reflected his passion for the game not a desire to recapture old glory.

"A man like Coffey, with his passion, his love of the game, having to give it away is difficult," Muckler said. "That's a very difficult thing for them to do."

"It's hard for all of us when we have to retire," Gretzky added. "All of a sudden people are saying you don't belong.

"Paul was a winner. As much as he scored goals and got assists, he was a winner," he said.

Coffey has returned to the Toronto area, where he operates a Toyota dealership north of the city. On the dealership's Web site, there is Coffey's distinctive autograph with an equally distinctive "#77" tucked among the letters.

"It's funny to see him now," said Lowe, whose mother still keeps in regular contact with Coffey's mother. "He is quite an extrovert now. He loves to talk."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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