Building The Dream
Hockey Hall-of-Fame coach Glen Sather and his wife, Ann, talk about the role of family and the importance of teamwork in designing their new dream house
Hockey Hall-of-Famer Glen Sather has answered to a lot of different monikers during his 46 years in the sport: “Slats” (his nickname), left winger, player-coach, general manager, head coach, team president, and, on five different occasions with the Edmonton Oilers dynasty teams of the 1980s, Stanley Cup champion. But there’s one title that encompasses both his ongoing professional career and his active personal life perhaps better than all the others: builder.
Whether it’s a strong network of family and friends, a thriving real estate business, or a world-class hockey team, the 69-year-old Sather has always had a knack for achieving success by dint of building strong relationships. Fittingly, at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony 15 years ago, he was enshrined as a legendary “builder” of the game. Up until a few years ago, however, Sather had never tried his hand at another, more literal, kind of building. But when he and Ann, his wife of 43 years, finally decided that their summer home in Banff, Alberta, just couldn’t keep up with their burgeoning family anymore, a new challenge emerged—build their dream house. Sather, to no one’s surprise, approached the task with the same drive and enthusiasm that he brings to his day job as President and General Manager of the New York Rangers.
“He loved every minute of building this house,” Ann says. “I mean, when guys would have a shovel in their hand, Glen would have a shovel in his hand. I think he liked that. He develops a rapport with the people he is working with.”
Glen says he looked at the five-year home project as an adventure. “I like to be hands-on with everything,” he says. “I’ve always liked the whole development process of being able to know what’s going and how it’s being done.”
“With a hockey team, you have to develop a relationship with the players, know what their personalities are like, what they can accept, what they won’t accept, because nobody is the same,” Sather explains. And nobody was ever quite the same as a 17-year-old prospect named Wayne Gretzky, who was traded to the Oilers in 1978, not long after Sather took over as coach and general manager of the Oilers. “The Great One,” as Gretzky came to be known, led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles in five years during the 1980s and became the greatest hockey player in NHL history.
But he wasn’t alone. Alongside Gretzky on that Oilers dynasty were five other future Hall-of-Famers, all of them key building blocks chosen by Sather and brought to the team when they were but teenagers. “They all grew up together,” Sather notes. “They were willing to learn and willing to do whatever it took to win.” It’s a lesson Sather says he applied to his experience building his dream house. “If the people building the house aren’t communicating, you’re not going to get anything done.”
Five years ago, though, the Sathers were anything but close to done. But from the get go, they knew what they wanted, says Gina McGuire, a family friend and interior designer who first worked with Ann on the couple’s other home in La Quinta, California, before collaborating on the kitchen and bathrooms in the new home. “The whole house was built around their family,” she says. The Sathers’ two grown sons, Shanon—who has a wife and two children of his own—and Justin, live nearby in Calgary and frequent Banff year-round, whether it’s for skiing and snowboarding in the winter or golf and swimming in the summer. So, the couple knew that to accommodate all their family’s comings and goings, their new house would have to be versatile and durable as well as beautiful and appropriate for its surroundings.
To match Banff’s rustic setting and to honor their long personal connection with the area, the Sathers’ quickly settled on an arts-and-crafts architectural style for their new home. “When we started to plan it, what I wanted to do was have it have some reflection on our previous home, which was also arts-and-crafts style,” says Glen. The Sathers’ old house wasn’t just any old house, however. It had been built nearly 100 years earlier by noted architect Walter Painter—designer of the iconic center tower of the nearby Banff Springs Hotel—who used it as his longtime private residence. In fact, because of the old home’s historic status, the Sathers came up with a novel way to both build the new house their family needed and preserve the old one they didn’t—move it.
“The process of moving it was really interesting,” explains Ann. After some negotiations, the nearby Banff Center, a retreat for local artists, agreed to accept the relocated home, where it is now used as a performance space and working studio for sculptors, painters, and writers. To get it there, though, the old house had to be literally cut in half, jacked up, and then slowly transported up the hill to its new site in town, where it was carefully reconnected. “So, our old house ended up having a new home and we were really very pleased to see it stay intact.”
To ensure that the new house also fit into its surroundings and included the necessary up-to-date conveniences, Ann says she alighted upon a “mountain modern” theme. “We didn’t want something that didn’t belong in a little town in a National Park in the middle of the Canadian Rockies,” she says. Working with architectural designer Bill Weber, of Artwood Design in Victoria, British Columbia, they leaned heavily upon materials like wood and natural rock in the design. “But for much of the interior,” Ann adds, “we wanted to use materials that would complement the rock and wood and yet be somewhat contemporary.”
After several visits to Cambria’s Design Center in Palm Desert, California, Ann says she fell in love with Cambria and was thrilled at the prospect of featuring it throughout her home because of its beautiful designs as well as its resilience. For his part, the more Glen learned about Cambria, the more he liked the product.
“The Design Center out there in California is very impressive,” he says. “We learned there is a lot of versatility to Cambria from the multitude of designs to the different edges offered. That’s what I liked, the uniqueness about it. You can go into a thousand homes and they’re full of granite, but I like the idea that there’s no bacteria on this stuff and the idea that if you spill some wine on it or some milk on it, it’s easy to clean up and you don’t have to worry about it staining.”
“Our state-of-the-art studio in Palm Desert is located in a hotbed of buzz and activity,” says Mark Blanchard, president of Cambria California. “We get a wide variety of clientele from all across North America and the world coming through our doors each day, to experience all the beautiful designs Cambria has to offer. Add to that our expert on-site staff and you have a formula that is sure to make anyone’s next project a success.”
Once Glen found out Cambria was based in Minnesota, he called up Cambria CEO Marty Davis to tell him, “my wife loves your product.” Soon, Lou Nanne, a Minnesota hockey legend and a former teammate of Sather’s, who is also friends with Davis, arranged a meeting between the two. “That’s when my relationship with Cambria started,” Sather recalls. “I talked to Marty a few times and told him what Ann and I were planning on doing.”
“One thing led to another, and pretty soon Marty wanted to come to Banff,” recalls Sather. “So, he came in the summer of 2011. At that stage, the house had been framed and the roof was on and we were starting to do some of the interior stuff. Marty really liked Banff and the relationship just grew from there. I talk to him periodically, every two or three months since then. It’s been helpful because I’d never done anything like this before.”
Though Sather was a rookie of sorts at building a house, Davis says Glen and Ann were very discerning about what they wanted in their home. “Glen is detailed and Ann has a strong feel for her choices,” he explains. “Glen’s a great guy, and enterprising in all that he does. We had a lot of fun with this project, the Sathers, Cambria, and Floform, our exclusive Lexus partner in Calgary.”
From Ann’s perspective, she liked Cambria because it blended perfectly with her “mountain modern” design aesthetic. “We used a lot of rock, as you can see, and a tremendous amount of wood. But once we started with Cambria, we just kept adding it because it fit into the style so well.”
All told, the couple ended up using nearly 10 different Cambria designs throughout the house. “We used it on all the countertops, the shower walls, and some of the flooring—mainly in the wet areas like the bathrooms,” she notes. “We used it to clad the master bedroom and dining room fireplaces, and also around the outdoor barbecue. So we used a lot of Cambria,” she emphasizes. But everywhere it appears, it blends seamlessly into the overall design. And just as seamless, according to Glen, was the installation process that the local dealer from Calgary, Floform, performed to get all that quartz in their house. “Floform was quality from beginning to end. Great group of people.”
Similarly, being impressive without being excessive might easily describe the final result of the Sathers’ Banff house, which the couple officially moved into this past July. Throughout it, you’ll find powerful, but tasteful elements of Weber’s design, whether it’s the massive fieldstone wall that begins on the home’s lower level and continues up one floor to surround the great room fireplace or the slate-and-glass water feature that greets you in the main entry and then descends down three stories. Also worth a second look: the sliding wall fireplace in the dining room clad from floor to ceiling in Cambria’s Charston™ design, the walkway bridge on the house’s upper level that features a glass panel in its floor, and the colossal, master bathroom tub bowl carved from a single block of Travertine limestone that had to be dropped in by crane before the roof could be put on.
Despite all these bold statements in the house’s design, you’ll also find subtle symbols and hidden treasures. In the grandchildren’s bunk room, for example, there’s a secret door that leads to an unseen, kids-only play space. The small, sculpted owl, sitting on a perch in Glen’s cigar room, was carved from the newel post of the staircase in the Sathers’ old house. A birdhouse hanging on the outside of the house was strategically positioned to face one of the Sathers’ neighbors, an avid birdwatcher. And let’s not forget the pantry unit that Weber cleverly mounted onto a garage door-like track in the ceiling, allowing the entire unit to magically swing away, thus opening up the dining room to seat 22 for holiday dinner.
But for all these broad and fine brush strokes, the Sathers kept family at the forefront of their design. And nowhere is this more evident than in their spectacular kitchen. With its monochromatic cabinets, clean lines, and modern hardware, the kitchen has a very zen air about it. “The kitchen does look quite contemporary,” Ann acknowledges. “But we didn’t make it so modern that people couldn’t relax there or would worry about breaking something or moving something out of place. We wanted it to be very comfortable and inviting and warm.” So, to balance out the “modern” feel with some “mountain” elements as well as to add some drama and pop to the space, Ann opted for three-inch thick slabs of Cambria Canterbury™ countertops.
“Ann knew exactly what she wanted in that kitchen and where,” McGuire says, adding that they focused on an open layout with lots and lots of counter space. “I think the biggest thing to the kitchen’s overall design was the goal of everyone being together. That way, if people are watching a hockey game or gathering in the family room, there’s still plenty of circulation, whether they’re cooking, helping prep, watching TV, or whatever.”
Glen echoes this sentiment. “We need a family home and that’s why we built the kitchen the way we did,” he says. “We wanted the house to be able to accommodate everyone.” But the new house is more than just a gathering place for far-flung friends and family. It’s also a retreat for the couple from the frenzied nature of New York, where sports fans and media alike are not shy about expressing their strong opinions about a cherished franchise like the Rangers.
“I find that going back to Banff is a nice break. It keeps your mind fresh,” Glen says. “I like the freedom of the town…I like the wildness of the country and that the majestic mountains are, of course, right outside your door.” And inside the relatively new house, he’s already carved out his own inner sanctum, a small garage that he says he’s just drawn to. “It just feels comfortable in here. And I don’t have to worry about taking my shoes off, which is especially important if I’ve just been out feeding horses,” he says. “Besides, all my tools are in here, my drills, and saws, and there’s a lot of other things in here I’m working on. It doesn’t seem like you’re ever finished.”
Indeed, the work goes on. Right after his New York team completed a very promising year this past May—the Rangers compiled the best record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season and fell just short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final—Sather quickly got to work on improving next year’s team and trying to win his sixth career championship. And though the Banff home is finally done, it’s already fitting quite nicely into Glen’s never-stop-building routine—in July he orchestrated a blockbuster trade for new Rangers offensive threat Rick Nash, all while sitting in the comfort of his favorite new spot in his brand new house.
“Sure you encounter a lot of problems with developing something like this, but they’re not really problems, they’re more like challenges,” Glen says, reflecting back on the lessons learned from his dream home’s construction. But then it becomes clear that he could just as easily be talking about championship hockey teams, or close family relationships, or life in general. “Sometimes you go through some frustration if you have to change things or move something or some ideas come along. But you just need to be versatile and accept and adapt to those new challenges that are presented. I enjoy that part, the challenge of trying to build something.”
TRADE OF THE CENTURY
To get the behind-the-scenes detail of this amazing sports story, Cambria CEO Marty Davis recently interviewed the three main principals involved in this momentous trade deal: Wayne Gretzky, Hall-of-Fame player who’d won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers; Glen Sather, the Oilers president, general manager, and head coach at the time; and Peter Pocklington, the then Oilers owner.
At a time when professional hockey was a far cry from what it is today, in an industrious city they call Edmonton, great things were happening in hockey. Wayne Gretzky was winning championships and breaking records by the dozen. They called him “The Great One,” and he was!
But it wasn’t to be just his greatness in the game that would make his mark; it was also to be where Wayne Gretzky would play professional hockey, and how he traveled to that place, that changed the NHL forever.
THE FOUNDING OF “THE GREAT ONE”
It was October 28, 1978, Wayne Gretzky of the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers, was going to be a Winnipeg Jet by morning. Just eight days before, the 17-year-old Gretzky had shined in a game against the Edmonton club, and the Edmonton coach, a fella named Glen Sather, took note. The Racers owner, Nelson Skalbania, was rapidly being drained of cash, and needed to liquidate his supposed, prized asset, this kid named Gretzky. Skalbania needed to do so quickly; cash was short, the Racers viability in jeopardy. It wasn’t to be the last time a businessman-made hockey club owner needed Wayne Gretzky for a financial windfall more than a game winning goal.
But that story is for later; now it’s 1978, we are in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Shortly after that evening game of October 28, 1978, Skalbania boarded a plane in Indianapolis headed for Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was Winnipeg Jets owner Michael Gobuty’s private plane, and Gobuty was on board. A deal had been done, Skalbania had sold Gretzky to Gobuty for $250,000. The trip would end with Gobuty’s plane landing in Winnepeg, Skalbania in tow, meeting up with Winnipeg’s general manager, Rudy Pilous, to gain his endorsement and blessing of the deal. Gretzky would be a Jet the next day. Pilous awaited near the tarmac when the two owners landed. Legend has it as it may, but it seems GM Pilous didn’t think so much of the kid. Gretzky was young, too skinny, and had very little experience to play at such a level. Pilous said it was a no go, the deal was off, a decision Gobuty will never be able to reconcile. Gobuty just gave up the greatest hockey player of all time. “I just blew it, plain and simple, I should have signed the deal just like Peter did,” Gobuty said in a recent interview. He and Peter Pocklington, along with their wives, were having dinner and some wine beneath the sunny skies of southern California, where they both live. It was early fall, 2012, 34 years had passed, but it seemed like it was just last night. The two couples were reminiscing about what was, what might have been, and what became. It was a moment when they both were at the center of the journey that produced the greatest hockey player of all time.
When Gobuty blinked that night in Winnipeg, Skalbania immediately made a phone call to his old buddy, Peter Pocklington, owner of the Edmonton club and Skalbania’s former partner in that team. “I have a deal for you,” he told Peter, “I’ll sell you the rights to Wayne Gretzky.” Pocklington was eager, he was big deal dreamer, a true believer in the upside, and his GM Glen Sather had just seen Gretzky, for just a single game, eight days prior. That was enough, the keen-eyed, hockey savvy Sather liked the kid.
Gretzky, in essence, became an Oiler in five minutes with a phone call from the Winnipeg airport, Skalbania to Pocklington. Michael Gobuty was likely in earshot when Skalbania made the deal with Pocklington. “I had heard plenty about Gretzky, he was the young Canadian phenom, that’s all I needed to know. I wanted him.” Pocklington and the Oilers snapped up Gretzky for what turned out to be $400,000 (US). Pilous was replaced soon thereafter. The Jets never really recovered, and they left Winnipeg in turmoil years later. The Oilers went on to become one of the greatest professional hockey franchises of all time, and Wayne Gretzky, while…baseball has the Babe, golf has Arnold and Jack, and hockey has “The Great One.”
THE GREAT ONE IS BORN, ALONG WITH AN OILER DYNASTY
Wayne Gretzky became an Edmonton Oiler October 29, 1978. Peter Pocklington was the Edmonton owner, Glen Sather, the coach and team architect, and Wayne Gretzky, he was the skinny kid. The three were now partners, whether they realized that or not. Hockey was to change forever, and like all truly momentous things, these three men were most likely unaware of the greatness that was soon to spawn.
In 1978 the Edmonton Oilers were merely members of the World Hockey Association, the minor leagues of professional hockey. That too, was about to change, as Peter Pocklington, Glen Sather, and Wayne Gretzky would soon take the NHL by storm. On March 22, 1979, the NHL Board of Governors, quite reluctantly, accepted the Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques, and the New England Whalers, into their National Hockey League. Most believe it was because of Gretzky’s playing for the Oilers, that the NHL finally relented. “Peter brought the NHL to Edmonton,” Sather assured me. “Others get credit but it was Peter who stuck his neck out and made it all happen.” It was a big moment of victory for Peter, but Pocklington says: “It was Gretzky that made it happen. The WHA was in big trouble and going down. If it weren’t for Wayne, the NHL would have blocked us again. Gretzky’s star forced them to take us.” Rest assured, these teams entered the NHL largely due to Wayne Gretzky.
In the coming nine years in the NHL, Peter Pocklington, Glen Sather, and Wayne Gretzky won four Stanley cups and five conference titles. Gretzky scored a league leading 92 goals just two seasons later. The skinny, little, inexperienced kid was something else. The season after that, Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, and Jari Kurri all scored over 100 points. The Oilers were on their way. They would win 400 games over nine seasons, Glen Sather would win 464 games in the NHL, the team would set the NHL record for most goals in a season: 446. Paul Coffey would set the NHL record for most goals by a defensemen: 48. They would set the NHL record for most goals short-handed: 36. The league would then have to change the rules to prevent three-on-three play to deal with this Oiler domination. This is referred to as the “Gretzky Rule.”
“Glen Sather was the best coach I ever played for,” Gretzky said. “He was like a second dad to me. He and my dad made me who I am as a hockey player.”
Gretzky went on to compile 100 or more points all nine years he was an NHL Edmonton Oiler, scoring over 50 goals in all but two of those nine seasons, the first and the last. Gretzky made over 100 assists in all but his first season as an NHL Oiler, scoring more than 200 points a remarkable four times.
Wayne Gretzky today leads all NHL hockey players, past and present, in goals (894), in points (2,857), in assists (1,963), in points per game (1.92), in goals per game (.6), and in most times named most valuable player to his team (9). All while being in the top six all-time for games played.
Wayne Gretzky’s statistical domination of his sport is staggering. In just 10 short years together, Pocklington, Sather, and Gretzky had indeed built a dynasty.
THE GREAT ONE IS GONE FROM HIS HOMELAND
Wayne Gretzky was sleeping off a late night, the Oilers had just won their fourth Stanley cup. It was May 22, 1988. Nelson Skalbania, yes the man who had sold Gretzky 10 years prior, tracked him down by phone. It was early in the morning and Skalbania, upon reaching Gretzky, began to try and persuade him to leave Edmonton, and become a Vancouver Canuck player/owner, and 20 percent partner in the team. Gretzky, almost irritated, isn’t interested and hangs up. The Oilers had just won their fourth Stanley Cup, Gretzky loves being an Oiler, he hasn’t ever considered not being an Oiler, and he intends to remain an Oiler. Four short months later, he won’t be…
Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers had won four NHL Championships in just nine years. Gretzky was the darling of all in hockey. He had one year left on his contract; he loved Edmonton, and loved his teammates. Gretzky certainly was not making the salary that the market would bear. In a recent interview from his home in Phoenix, Gretzky mused, “I wasn’t the highest paid player in hockey, but I was well paid.” Wayne wanted to be brought up to market when his contract was up in 18 months. Pocklington was concerned. Edmonton was a small market, revenues and margins, even in the great years, were tight. Pocklington, like Skalbania in 1978, was stretched financially. Peter’s other businesses were hemorrhaging and the Oilers were going to soon have to pay Gretzky big money, along with the other Oilers stars. Hockey in Edmonton was going to get very difficult financially. Pocklington was in a quagmire, and probably only he knew then, or knows today, just how deep it really was.
Jerry Buss, an old friend of Pocklington’s and the owner of the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, had once offered Peter big money for Gretzky. Peter had declined. A couple years later, the Kings new owner Bruce McNall, by almost a chance meeting, bumped into Pocklington, and reiterated the previous owner’s offer, telling Pocklington, “it was still on the table.” Pocklington told McNall to “give me a call.” McNall did, and what would become one of sport’s most notorious trades, the trade of the century, was in the works.
Pocklington and McNall began talking. Peter ultimately came to the conclusion that a trade of Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, his hockey player, Edmonton’s hockey player, Alberta’s hockey player, Canada’s hockey player, “The Great One,” was inevitable and probably irreversible. It had to be, he had to do it, and there were many reasons. First, Pocklington knew the Oilers could not afford Gretzky at the market he could demand, along with the other Oilers salaries that would rapidly escalate thereafter. Pocklington needed to get something for Gretzky. Second, Pocklington was in serious financial trouble, and his banks were squeezing him intensely. Ultimately, Peter concluded that it would be the best for him, best for the Oilers, best for Wayne, and best for hockey to make the move. This wishful surmising allowed him to make the deal, and appease the fan in him.
Peter had most certainly attempted to sign Gretzky to an extension. The reality, Gretzky wanted to test the market to gain a measure as to his value. “Peter didn’t want to lose me, and end up with nothing,” Gretzky states. “Now that I’ve been on the other side in management, I understand why he did it.” It seems the only way Wayne Gretzky could have stayed in Edmonton was if Peter Pocklington, in the years subsequent to 1988, was willing to subsidize the small market team, and fund the losses that would occur to keep Gretzky and the other Oilers stars on the team, or…Wayne Gretzky would have had to accept a steep hometown discount to stay in Edmonton.
It wasn’t to be. The great Wayne Gretzky would be sold to the Los Angeles Kings for $15 million ($18.5 million CAN), and two players, Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, along with three draft choices. The trades had to be in the deal to work around the NHL rules about “selling” players outright. Shortly thereafter, as a result of the Gretzky sale/trade, the NHL tightened the rule so that today no cash sale of a player can occur.
Sather hated the deal. “It was Peter’s single biggest mistake of his life,” states Sather. “I still believe that we would have won three or four more Stanley cups.” Gretzky is more pragmatic: “It was a business decision, I understand that.” As to Sather’s proclamation, “I think we would have won four or five more Stanley cups, the team was that good.”
To be sure, there was that brief moment for the three partners to discern the certain regret by all, whereby at the press conference Sather and Pocklington agreed to say “the hell with it.” According to Sather, they would withdraw from the deal. “I told Wayne we would go out there and announce a long-term deal for Wayne to stay with the Oilers, at that point Peter would have matched McNall’s deal,” calm and reflective Sather seemed to be back at that exacting moment. “Wayne had moved on.” All three agree on this exchange. Gretzky described, “when I went to the press conference, just before I got in the room, Glen pulled me aside and said ‘I can kill this deal right now, if you want to end this.’” Gretzky pauses, “And I looked at him and said, ‘This is bigger than the team now, and it’s gone farther than anybody anticipated, and I don’t really think there is any turning back.’”
The deal was done. Understandably for Gretzky, it was too late, too much had happened, the train had left the station.
THE IRONY OF SPORT, THE IRONY OF BUSINESS, AND … THE IRONY OF LIFE
The reality of it all, Peter Pocklington, the supposed villain, might have been the only person in Canada who would have, at his personal expense, subsidized the team to retain those stars at the higher salaries. No other owner likely would do such a thing, but Pocklington probably would…he is just that kind of guy. The problem: Pocklington’s personal wealth was diminishing fast, and he was doing all he could to hold it together. “The Gretzky trade was business, I had to do the deal, for business reasons, and Wayne understands that today,” says Pocklington. “As a fan, I hated the trade, hated it.” There was a glisten of sadness in the corner of each of his bright blue eyes. Pocklington stiffened up: “I have stated publicly, I’d trade him again,” the sternness of his business ilk reared up again, shunning the uprising of his deep emotions, so present today when Gretzky, Sather, the Oilers and the once “Camelot of times” in Edmonton, force him to look back.
And so it was, the finest hockey player in the world was leaving the finest hockey team in the world.
Gretzky was a Los Angeles King, Peter Pocklington, a villain, Glen Sather was torn, Wayne Gretzky was melancholy, Edmonton was hysterical and angry, really angry…Canada, much the same…
…And the NHL…was better off, the Edmonton Oilers won again, Gretzky thrived, Sather too, and hockey raced through the southern United States. Today, multiple franchises south of the Mason-Dixon Line thrive, arguably none did till “The Great One,” the great Gretzky, went south with the game.
Pocklington remains the villain, like O’Malley, Stoneham, Modell, Steinbrenner, and those many, many dastardly owners of yesteryear, all who put their financial interest ahead of the hearts and souls of the rabid sports fan, and ruined a kid’s life for a day, a month, a year, or even a lifetime.
In the end, the reality, “most a fan” would do the same thing in like circumstance.
A “great trade” or the “the greatest mistake of your life”? Probably both…