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.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.