MacTavish, Lowe able to separate business, friendship

ANAHEIM -- In general, these relationships never end well.

At some point, somewhere down the road, there will be a reckoning, and the best one can hope for is that the end comes swiftly and without too much heartache for either side. It is this way for all coaches and all general managers, no matter how deep their friendship.

"I've heard that. I don't know it to be true. But I have heard that," Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish acknowledged Saturday.

It was a picture-perfect Southern California morning. MacTavish's Oilers are up 1-0 vs. the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in their first conference finals appearance since 1992, so talk of a breakup seems wholly out of place.

Shortly before meeting with reporters at the Oilers' hotel, MacTavish and GM Kevin Lowe chatted casually among the palm trees that encircle the pool. For more than 20 years, their careers have intertwined and intersected. They share 10 Stanley Cup rings, won with two different teams. They share a passion for the game and a cohesive coach/general manager relationship that is among the most long-standing in a game in which job security is the ultimate oxymoron. Straddling all of these issues is a deep and abiding friendship.

"The one thing that I know is that Kevin's always been able to separate the business part and the friendship part of it," MacTavish said. "And I think a lot of people have questions about that. I understand the business side of it. We're friends for sure. Close friends. But he understands the line that he has to walk as my boss and manager. And he's always been able to separate the business part of it."

You have to go back to the fall of 1985 to chart the evolution of a friendship that has sparked such a unique working relationship.

MacTavish, now 47, missed the 1984-85 season with the Boston Bruins while serving jail time for vehicular homicide. The Bruins let MacTavish out of his contract and then-coach/GM Glen Sather arranged for the rugged forward to come to Edmonton.

When MacTavish first arrived in Edmonton that fall, he stayed with Lowe for a couple weeks until he got his own place.

"He fit in with the Oilers right away," Lowe, also 47, recalled.

MacTavish would become entrenched in the community, marrying a local girl and helping the Oilers to raise three Stanley Cup banners. Both he and Lowe would wear the captain's "C" in Edmonton.

Right away, MacTavish said he knew Lowe was going to be successful in the hockey world well beyond his playing days. Lowe was smart and comfortable with the media. He also bridged the sometimes significant gap between the rarified worlds occupied by teammates Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and the rank and file.

"He's a great leader," MacTavish said of Lowe, the Oilers' first ever draft pick.

Later, sitting by the pool, his pants rolled up to mid-calf, Lowe said people assume that a general manager's job is to come down on the coach. It's not like that at all, he said. At least, not the way he and MacTavish work.

"I think it's kind of like being teammates, sort of the same relationship," Lowe said. "The coach does his job and you do your job."

Lowe spent 13 years patrolling the Oilers blue line, winning five championships before going to New York for the 1992-93 season.

A year later, MacTavish followed and the pair won another Cup on Broadway in 1994. Both men went directly from retirement as players to assistant coaching positions, Lowe in Edmonton and MacTavish in New York.

When Lowe took over for head coach Ron Low in June 1999, he brought MacTavish onboard as his assistant. Then, 13 days after Lowe was named GM in June 2000, he announced MacTavish as his replacement behind the bench.

The relationship has grown and altered as their circumstances have changed. Certainly, the coach/GM dynamic is starkly different than that of the head coach/assistant because the stakes are significantly higher on both ends of the equation.

"It can be a difficult relationship to manage at times, but he's done a good job," MacTavish said. "Ultimately, his No. 1 priority is to the organization. I mean, we've had disagreements, don't get me wrong. But ultimately, you always know where his intentions lie, his good intentions lie, and vice versa."

The two socialize often, and even when they're out, the topic never strays far from the game.

"We talk about hockey every day. It's constant, to the wives' dismay at times," MacTavish said. "But that's the same for a lot of hockey people."

In his four years as a head coach, MacTavish's Oilers have missed the playoffs twice and were ousted by Dallas in the first round twice. But both he and Lowe operated on a shoestring budget in small-market Edmonton, shopping around top players like Doug Weight because the economics didn't allow the team to keep them.

This season, however, the new collective bargaining agreement suddenly put the Oilers in a position where they were buyers of talent, not sellers. Lowe engineered bold trades to bring in superstar defenseman Chris Pronger and veteran center Michael Peca. Later, he acquired defenseman Jaroslav Spacek and goalie Dwayne Roloson. But for a while, it didn't look like the moves were going to have the desired effect. The Oilers struggled to make the playoffs, and had it not been for a complete collapse by the Vancouver Canucks, they might not have made it. There were rumblings that missing the playoffs might have cost both men their jobs.

Some critics believed Lowe had overpaid for Roloson, while Pronger struggled to come to grips with the new rules early in the season and there was quiet criticism that Lowe had overextended himself in signing the hulking defenseman to a five-year deal. There were questions about MacTavish's ability to get the team in sync as they lost key games to lesser opponents.

Yet the Oilers not only made the playoffs, but they also knocked off top-seeded Detroit in six games and then, after trailing favored San Jose 2-0 in the second round, reeled off four straight victories before taking Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Friday night by a 3-1 count.

Scouts praise MacTavish's work with Pronger, who has emerged as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, and the defensive scheme that has been crucial in Roloson's postseason success.

Lowe admitted there was an element of the unknown about what MacTavish was capable of now that he had a full toolbox to work with.

"This is his first kick at coaching a more talented group of players, with some superstar players," said Lowe. "I think he's having some relative success. It validates what he's done. Until you get there and have a kick at it, you never really know."

Veteran Oiler Ryan Smyth said he's seen little change in the coaching habits of the man they call Mac-T.

"He stuck with it for the most part," Smyth said. "He's been a hard-nosed guy, cares about his players. You know, obviously throughout the year, we were blocking shots, not a lot of teams do that. ... That's sort of how he is or was as a player and is as a coach."

Lowe said he knows the nature of the business is that nothing lasts forever.

"We know that it's a reality of the business," he said. "But that's the conventional way. I've never been about convention. I've quite often thought I'd fire myself before I'd fire him."

Indeed, it seems that such a day of reckoning for two old friends is a long, long way off.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.