Grant Fuhr is kinda neat. This is to introduce the Edmonton Oilers' 19-year-old rookie, the first black goaltender in the NHL. He's in town for only the second time. First time there was a blizzard, a plane crash and a subway crash. Fuhr gave up six goals that night to the Capitals. Now he's starting in the All-Star Game. And what does the kid think of his lofty station?
"Kinda neat," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."
As part of the package, the NHL All-Stars went to the White House yesterday to hear a pep talk from the Gipper, who it turns out not only played cowboys in the movies but once was a hockey coach. And what did the kid rookie from Spruce Grove, Alberta, think of going to the White House and meeting President Reagan?
"Sharp place," Grant Fuhr said. "Kinda neat. The worst thing is to figure out what to say to him."
On meeting Herbert Hoover one summer long ago, Babe Ruth said, "Hotter'n hell, ain't it, Prez?"
Grant Fuhr, on meeting Reagan, said, "Hi."
Grant Fuhr is a wonderful goaltender, by all accounts, maybe the best to come out of juniors since Bernie Parent. In 102 games in the Western Junior League, his goals-against average was 2.84. The NHL talent scouts liked his precociousness. No flopper, no gimmicky goalie, Fuhr worked with the savvy of an old hand, cutting off the angles as well as bringing a kid's quickness to the net.
Handsome, too. Smiles nicely. Polite and cordial. Soft-spoken. Just doesn't say much.
"He's shy," said Bill Tule, the Oilers' publicity man. "You got five- and six-word answers? You're four words ahead of everybody else. On national TV in Canada, an interviewer used 18 questions on him in two minutes. It's just that this kind of thing is new to him. You spend two years in junior, you don't get interviewed a lot."
You get a lot of bus rides.
For $285 a month, Grant Fuhr played last year for the Victoria Cougars.
That was a raise of $40 from the year before.
By bus, who knows how long it takes to get from Medicine Hat to Kamloops, from Saskatoon to Billings, from Leftbridge to Portland?
"Seattle to Calgary is 23 hours on a bus," Fuhr said.
Not so kinda neat.
"Gets to be a fairly long bus ride."
This has been the half-season of a kid goaltender's dreams. Barely four months past his 19th birthday, he is making maybe $125,000 a year. The Oilers drafted him in the first round last spring. During part of this season, Fuhr played 23 games without a loss. Now he meets the president of a foreign country. And tonight he will go against Bossy and Middleton, Stastny and Trottier.
Must be a dream?
"No different than junior," Fuhr said. "Things are going about the way they did in junior. Just traveling better, and the cities are more fun."
Fuhr has discovered he is a pretty good goaltender who rises to the level of his competition. The Oilers are 20-3-10 with him in the net. His goals-against is 3.59, which isn't bad on a Wayne Gretzky team dedicated to taking six zillion shots a night and be damned with defense.
"I was curious as to what the NHL would be like," Fuhr said. "Things have gone easy."
"He's been outstanding," said Bill Barber, a winger with the Flyers who will be shooting at Fuhr tonight. "Along with Wayne, Grant is the reason Edmonton has become so good."
"I've only seen him in one game," said Al Arbour, the Islanders' coach, "but his reputation is that he's the best young goalie for a long, long time." Thinking on it, Arbour went back to World War II to name a 17-year-old goalie, Harry Lumley.
Since he was 5 years old, Grant Fuhr has been a goaltender.
His parents were "too young, both under the age of 18, and they couldn't support me at the time, so they put me up for adoption." A white couple in Edmonton adopted him. He doesn't remember seeing another black playing hockey back then. He doesn't remember race being a problem.
"Just another hockey player," he said. "Nobody noticed the difference."
His teammates call him "Cocoa."
Growing up, he watched the NHL on television.
Loved the old goalie, Gump Worsley.
"Kinda neat," he said of that name, Gump. "Such a classic name."
Fuhr turned pro at 16, he said, because "it was something to do."
Why in the net? Most players go with the puck.
"Stopping pucks is more fun, more of a challenge."
Asked to describe his goal-tending style, Fuhr said, "Sometimes I end up falling down, and sometimes I end up standing up. Whichever way I need to stop the puck."
With Edmonton he gets a lot of chances to fall down and stand up.
If this was basketball, the Oilers would be called runnin' gunners.
They scored from 90 feet away the other night, by accident when the Ranger goalie didn't see a flip shot intended for the corner, and they figure it's a night ill-spent if they get less than 40 shots.
Meanwhile, the kid goalie is all by himself thinking of defense.
"We still give up a lot of shots," Fuhr said gently to a fellow who asked if having Gretzky on your side ensures a goalie's leisure. "Normally, we give up about 35 shots a game. We're a team that is really offensive minded, so sometimes we give away too much on defense. But right now, the team is playing better in front of me."
And yes, he said, it's more fun being in the net than being Wayne Gretzky.
"He has to go out and score a goal every night or everybody figures he's had a bad game," Fuhr said. "But with me, I can blow one or two goals and get away with it."
He smiled kinda neat.