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Barry Fraser, one of the all-time best hockey scouts, is living here again with wife Tina after two decades in the sun in Cabo San Lucas, now 80 and forever the reason the Edmonton Oilers got great in a hurry in the NHL.
Whenever we get another NHL draft, it should be noted that 40 years ago this June, Fraser called out Paul Coffey’s name with the sixth overall pick after Washington had the fifth selection and took fellow defenceman Darren Veitch.
The same draft Fraser got winger Jari Kurri at No. 69, goalie Andy Moog at 132 in round six, and a very good NHL centre Walt Poddubny at No. 90. He was dealt to Toronto a few years later for centre Laurie Boschman and was a point-a-game NHLer who died of a heart attack at 49 after 422 points in 468 games.
Obviously, Fraser’s glory day was the NHL phone draft Aug. 9, 1979 when he got Kevin Lowe with the 21st pick — last one in the first round — had a swing and miss with tough winger Shawn Babcock from Windsor in the second round and then called out Mark Messier at No. 48 and Glenn Anderson at No. 69.
But to this day, Fraser remembers Coffey, voted one of the 100 Greatest Players in NHL history, and his pick more than just about any other in an early first-round that featured three future Hall of Famers (Denis Savard at No. 3 to Chicago, Larry Murphy No. 4 to Los Angeles and Coffey sixth).
Coffey, now 58, had 1,531 points in 1,409 games and won three Norris trophies.
“Paul was the best skater I’d seen since Bobby Orr,” said Fraser, who retired in 2000. “I was lucky. I saw Paul a lot because he played for Kitchener and I was living there then. For home games, pretty handy. Paul and I knew each other.
“Question with Paul back then was he was such an offensive player whether he’d ever be able to play good defence. But here’s the way I looked at it: the worst he would be would be a good left-winger.
“I never wanted that to happen, of course. But if Coffey had been a left-winger, then maybe Mark Messier doesn’t play there to start his NHL career.”
And yes, Fraser was more sold on Coffey than Coffey’s junior coach, former NHL defenceman Rod Seiling, who played for Canada in the ’72 Summit series and played close to 1,000 NHL games.
“Rod S said I needed to work on my skating and my passing. True, he said that. I’m like ‘that’s easy to work on.’” said Coffey in a text. “Skating and passing. My two strengths.”
“I don’t know what Seiling was thinking,” said Fraser.
Fraser, who always watched lots of NHL games from his Mexican abode after retiring, moved back to Edmonton last June. This is where he became an Oiler scout in the WHA days, then oversaw the draft table for two decades.
Again, there were early misses, like Babcock, who never played an NHL game.
“He was a tough kid and he could skate really well. He was 17 when we took him and looked like he would develop but never got much better,” said Fraser. “It’s always projection but I always said I didn’t know what my daughter at 17 was going to be like at 20, so how do I know about one of these kids.”
The first Oiler draft was the way the 2020 draft might well go because of COVID-19, video conference. It was a phone draft in August, 1979.
Fraser, laughing heartily when told that most of the media hanging around the team back then asked; “who the heck is Kevin Lowe?” when the Oilers got him after Michel Goulet went No. 20 to the Quebec Nordiques.
“To me Kevin was all-around pretty good at everything as a junior. He was physical and a leader. To me he was a sure bet especially where we were picking,” said Fraser.
The 1979 draft was the one where World Hockey Association kids who had left junior to sign pro were folded in with Canadian Hockey League juniors, arguably the best first round of all-time.
Ray Bourque went eighth that year. Rob Ramage (Birmingham) went No. 1, Mike Gartner (Cincinnati) No. 4, Rick Vaive (Birmingham) No. 5 and Craig Hartsburg (Birmingham) No. 6. Goulet was also playing for the WHA Bulls.
Outside of the star teenagers playing against men in the WHA, the NHL scouts were in the dark about the rival league, though.
“The NHL wouldn’t let them go to the games. The owners wouldn’t pay for their tickets. Mark Messier? They never saw him play. Lots of people aren’t aware of that,” said Fraser.
Fraser is still upset by the one who got away, Bengt Gustafsson.
The Oilers signed Gustafsson out of Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League in early 1979, and used him as one of their two protected forward/defencemen along with Wayne Gretzky in the expansion draft that year.
The NHL ruled they had signed the centre after a Dec. 31 deadline even though the Oilers claimed to have never been told about that date. He reverted to Washington who had drafted him in 1978 in the fourth round but hadn’t signed him.
“If we had been able to keep him, I don’t think Mark would ever have played centre,” he said. “Does not keeping Gustafsson bug me? Yes it does. Gustafsson wouldn’t have been as good at centre as Mark but he was a pretty good player in the NHL for a long time.”
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