When the Edmonton Oilers' trainers were looking for a number for newly arrived defenseman Chris Joseph last week, it was suggested that he be given sweater No. 29. That turned out to be impossible, because No. 29 already was the property of backup goalie Daryl Reaugh.
It is easy to forget Reaugh's number, if not his presence. Grant Fuhr, in an iron-man role unprecedented since goaltenders began covering their faces, has started all of the Oilers' 24 games.
"When you've got the best goaltender in the world, why not play him?" asked Glen Sather, Edmonton's general manager and coach. "Glenn Hall played 502 straight games without a mask and never got tired. There's no reason for Grant to get tired."
Sather did say that Fuhr would not play all 80 games, but Fuhr claims that playing every game is just fine with him. He is expected to be in goal tonight when the Oilers face the Capitals at Capital Centre.
"I'm having fun," Fuhr said. "You can't help but have fun when you're winning."
Asked whether he feared the heavy regular season schedule might affect him at playoff time, since he has never played more than 48 games in a season, Fuhr replied, "No, I get the odd day off in practice and that's enough."
If winning makes it fun, Fuhr has had some enjoyable years in Edmonton. His 161-64-35 record is the best among active goalies and his 47-19 playoff mark surpasses even Billy Smith's.
Although most people give superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson most of the credit for the Oilers' remarkable success, they have the security that, if they do mess up, Fuhr probably will save them any embarrassment.
"Grant Fuhr is the best goaltender who ever played the game, there's no question of that," Gretzky said. "Don't forget, the shots are harder and faster now, and Grant makes saves on reflexes that no other goaltender could make."
Fuhr hardly ever is caught out of position and after making an initial save he usually has his white pads in position to rebuff the rebound. His temperament is ideal, too. When he does give up the occasional bad goal, he doesn't brood about it.
That's essential playing for the Oilers, because as Sather said, "These guys play under quite a burden. Everybody expects us to win every night and we expect to win every night. That's a lot of pressure."
Fuhr played every game for Canada in the recent Canada Cup, faced the Soviets in Rendez-Vous 87 and has led the Oilers to three Stanley Cups.
Still, he has not earned a Vezina or Jennings trophy and has been chosen for a postseason all-star team only once, as a second-team choice in 1982. Other goalies, playing for defense-minded teams, have used misleading statistics to cart off those honors, a fact that doesn't upset Fuhr at all.
One of the few times Fuhr ever lost his cool occurred five years ago, when he was booed in Northlands Coliseum and responded by calling the fans "a bunch of jerks."
Fuhr still admits to feeling more comfortable on the road than in front of the critical, spoiled hometown folks.
"It's changing, though," Fuhr said. "When they appreciate you, it makes it a lot more fun and they've shown their appreciation more than in the past."
If Fuhr seems preoccupied with having fun, he really means it. A few years ago, when his salary was revealed as being among the NHL's lowest, he could not understand the fuss. Even now, he is vastly underpaid, anually earning $200,000 Canadian -- about one-third of what Mike Liut earns in Hartford.
His contract is being renegotiated, but, unlike Paul Coffey, who refused to play unless he was traded or given a huge raise, Fuhr refuses to let the matter of money affect his outlook on hockey -- and life.
The Oilers are in a close battle with Calgary for the Smythe Division lead, but nobody is getting uptight about it and Sather said, "There's a long time before we need to worry about first place."
Still, Coffey's holdout combined with the defections of so many members of last year's team -- Andy Moog, Randy Gregg, Reijo Ruotsalainen, Kent Nilsson and Jaroslav Pouzar -- forced Sather to make the deal with Pittsburgh last week.
It is significant that Joseph, Craig Simpson, Moe Mantha and Dave Hannan all moved right into the Oilers' lineup.
"Paul Coffey should do well in Pittsburgh, where they don't expect quite so much of him as they did in Edmonton," Sather said. "How good the deal is from our point of view must wait a few years, until we see how good Joseph is going to be.
"You have to make changes when you're on top, because if you don't the waiver draft and the entry draft will bring you down. I had thought about making changes last year."