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Sunday, September 9, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Image Soiled, Drug Use Flies In Edmonton Oilers' Face

Toronto Globe And Mail

EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers are in the midst of a public relations nightmare. The team's carefully culled all-Canadian image - reinforced by five Stanley Cup championships and the long-time wholesome presence of Wayne Gretzky - is suddenly in peril after goaltender Grant Fuhr's confession he often used cocaine off the ice.

In bars and taxi cabs throughout the city, people have been expressing little surprise at the news of Fuhr's problem with cocaine, saying they had heard the rumors for years.

But many are asking the same pointed questions: How could a close-knit, professional sports team not detect a star athlete's long-term addiction, especially when there were such troubling signs - not paying his utility bills or his wife calling to tell the Oilers' coach of finding cocaine stashed in the house? And if Fuhr was using drugs, what about the persistent rumors that other players did too, as a 1986 Sports Illustrated article alleged?

``I think hockey's image in general has been kept too clean,'' said Derek Parsons, a 23-year-old Oiler fan. ``This thing with Fuhr didn't surprise me at all. I'd heard the rumors. I think there are probably other Oilers, too, who have used drugs.

``They have drugs in football and baseball. I guess they've had it in hockey, too, and tried to keep quiet for a long time. I doubt Fuhr is the only one.''

There is no proof to back up allegations that other Oiler players have used drugs. But the subject is an issue among the journalists who are almost as connected to the locker room as the players.

Local newspapers bear headlines these days such as ``Oilers 90 - Under a Cloud'' and ``Rough road ahead.''

Mark Mulvoy, managing editor of the magazine Sports Illustrated, told the Edmonton Journal he was surprised that names of Oilers involved in cocaine use did not come out after the magazine's article was published. He also said Oiler general manager Glen Sather never asked for the identity of players the magazine said had used or were using cocaine. SI did not give names in the article.

``At no time in our conversation did he ask for the names,'' Mulvoy said. ``Nor would I have given them to him, if he had. But it's naive to think that he didn't know who they were.''

Sports columnist Terry Jones wrote last Sunday that he and other reporters once sat down and wrote down names of players the journalists had heard were using cocaine.

``We each wrote five names on separate pieces of paper,'' Jones said. ``They were the same names. We'd heard all the rumors. It didn't make them true, either.''

Oiler general manager Glen Sather has confirmed that he, too, was in the same dilemma, having heard rumors about Fuhr's drug use but having no evidence to act on. Sather said the team will try to help the goaltender with his problem and abide by the decision of a Sept. 26 National Hockey League hearing into Fuhr's future.

Gretzky, the Oilers' team captain until he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings two seasons ago, also said he had heard rumors and was curious about every detail of the scandal, which he called ``a sad situation for everybody involved.''

``I honestly didn't know about it,'' Gretzky said last week. ``In fact, I don't know any guys who knew about it. You hear rumors, but you never believe anything until you see it. Rumors are rumors.''

It appears from published reports, however, that the Oilers did everything they could to keep the truth about Fuhr simply rumor.

A lead editorial in the Edmonton Journal after it broke the story said that Sather and Fuhr were denying a problem existed as they faced down the newspaper's story.

``Late into the interview,'' the newspaper said, ``Fuhr and his general manager Glen Sather denied there was a drug problem. They finally admitted Fuhr's drug use when they realized the depth and extent of the evidence The Journal had gathered.''

That is similar to the approach Sather and the Oilers took in 1986, when the Sports Illustrated story alleged that five or more Oilers had cocaine problems at one time.

The article, based on unnamed sources, was widely criticized for a lack of evidence and had no followup in subsequent years when Fuhr was apparently snorting cocaine.

``This entire article has been taken out of context with no reasonable backup,'' Sather said at the time. ``If someone on this club was convicted of using drugs, he wouldn't be here any longer.''

Later, in a widely acclaimed documentary on the Oilers called Boys on the Bus, Sather said he was ``absolutely positive that there can't be a guy that plays professional hockey and has a serious drug problem. I think that guys have been exposed to drugs in this league, as in any walk of life.

``In the NHL, there can't be one guy who could be hooked on any kind of drugs and play on a regular basis. You'd have to notice it - the trainers, the doctors, I mean everyone.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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