"Take 'em wide, Bucky!"
Through sheer determination and hard work, Kelly Buchberger achieved immortalizing fame in the city of champions, far eclipsing his athletic ability and his tenure with the less than great times in the later 1990s.Yet he is very much an Oilers legend and a fan favorite. No one, not the Oilers and most certainly not Buchberger himself, could have ever imagined that when he walked into the Northlands Coliseum for the first time.
Born in Langenburg, Saskatchewan, the wide eyed youngster can recall his first NHL game with special clarity. He was called up from the Moose Jaw Warriors and inserted into the Edmonton line up in the 1987 Stanley Cup finals! He would play three games in those finals, helping the Oilers knock off the strong Philadelphia Flyers. Buchberger would get his name on the Stanley Cup, the first of two such engravings in his career.
The kid must have been in great awe back then. The 188th overall draft pick from 1985 was suddenly playing for the Stanley Cup. His teammates were named Gretzky and Messier. It was every western Canadian kid's dream come true in the 1980s.
And Buchberger was living that dream, though he must have been in so much awe that he probably was certain he did not belong. But as was his trademark throughout his career, he was determined to somehow prove he did.
Bucky was a kamikaze forward who pursued pucks with vigour. Strong on his skates with a growing but never truly perfected ability to read plays, his checking was relentless and insistent. He was a very physical forward, not afraid to drop the gloves though he was far from a NHL heavyweight.
He was not much of a player with the puck, relying on his speed to drive to the net and bang at loose pucks. He was far from gifted with vision and hands to make plays or score the prettiest of goals. His true value to his team, especially the strong Oilers teams of the late 1980s, was as a ground soldier who opens up space for the better players.
More importantly he inspired teammates with his reckless energy and never-say-die attitude. He played every shift like it was game seven of the Stanley Cup finals, even in pre-season. He was the perfect example for younger players.
It was almost as if Buchberger was never completely certain he'd earned that magical Oilers jersey. And he damn sure never took it for granted. He played every night like somebody might take it away from him at any moment.
Years later they stitched the 'C" on the front of his #16 jersey. Just prior to the 1995-96 season, Buchberger as named as the ninth captain in franchise history. Like his entire career, you could tell he was totally awed, and genuinely honoured and surprised.
But it was a surprise to few others. By the mid 1990s he was the last link to the great dynasty teams of 1984 through 1990. His work ethic and passion, his courage and Oilers pride set great examples for teammates and rookies, and made him the obvious choice to wear the "C."Former teammate Craig MacTavish was an especially big fan of Bucky.
"It just shows you what heart, determination and unselfish play can do for a career in terms of longevity. He's surpassed everybody's expectations in terms of what he's got out of himself. That's his story.
"The thing that stands out when I think of Bucky and his career is regardless of his accomplishments, the Stanley Cups, he viewed his contribution based on what he did on a nightly basis.
"He wanted to justify his position in the lineup every game, and it's that type of work ethic and mental toughness that has distinguished him in his career."
Former teammate and Oilers GM Kevin Lowe compared Buchberger favorably to another OilerslLegend.
"He was as much a team player as I've seen, as close to Mess as anybody I've seen. He put anything personal second to the accomplishments of the team. He's one of the great Oilers.
When Buchberger left Edmonton for Atlanta in the 1999 expansion draft, new Oilers captain Doug Weight credited his former captain for teaching him about what it took to be a leader.
"Everything he did, on and off the ice, was about being a leader," Weight said. "The way he played the game, the way he prepared, the way he treated his teammates and their families. He had respect for not only the authority of the coaches, but the organization. He was very loyal. As a fan, you could see his game, the blocking shots, his will to win, but I saw leadership in every aspect of his life. Every young player who played with him not only had the utmost respect for him, but learned a lot."
Buchberger, who finished his career in 2004 after stops in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, credited the great Oilers before him for his success.
"Playing with those great players, it made me a better player," he said. "Watching how they played, the way they worked and carried themselves, it was an honour to watch and learn from them. Those guys made me the player I am."