(Image courtesy of oilersaddict.com)
As we exist now, Edmonton Oilers fans represent a snapshot of a rare time for any hockey fan base. The devout supporters of a storied franchise, over the past decade we have endured the lowest points in the history of our team. We haven’t made the playoffs even once in that time, and no other NHL team can claim the same dubious distinction. With the Oilers firmly in playoff contention through the halfway mark of the 2016/17 season, it appears that the team has finally made significant gains; enough to shed its status as a perennial bottom-feeder. To entirely comprehend the magnitude of this from a fan perspective, one must understand the history of the team.
Entering the NHL as an expansion team in 1979, the Edmonton Oilers had a degree of fan support from their the moment of their NHL inception. As they hailed from the now-defunct World Hockey Association (WHA), the Oilers had technically been a team an Alberta’s Capital since 1972 when they were absorbed by the NHL. It gave hockey in Edmonton an immediate foothold, but most of the credit belongs to a skinny kid named Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky came to Edmonton somewhat fortuitously; with the WHA on the verge of folding and the Indianapolis Racers on the brink of financial collapse, Peter Pocklington – then owner of the Oilers – purchased the young superstar’s contract. That sort of a transaction
Only the uninitiated need an explanation as to what came next: Gretzky tore the NHL apart at just 18 years of age. He tallied 104 points – earning what was to be the first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player – and drove the Oilers into the playoffs in their inaugural season. The new team lost in the opening round, but it was still a successful year for the upstart group; they had loudly announced their arrival at professional hockey’s highest level, led by an 18-year-old kid who was already becoming the best to ever play the game.
For fans of the team, the 1980/81 Oilers represent the beginning of one of the greatest chapters in hockey history. Despite earning only five more points in the standing than the previous season’s iteration, the team’s roster was laden with names destined to be entrenched in the annals of hockey history. Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, and Paul Coffey were just kids at the time; Anderson, Coffey and Messier were all just 19 years old. Kurri was the greybeard of the group at the ripe old age of 20. Gretzky once again decimated the NHL scoring race (this time to the tune of 164 points) and eclipsed the 100-assist mark with 109. The team advanced to the second round of the playoffs that year, losing in the second round.
While the Oilers of 1981/82 would ultimately lose in the opening round of the playoffs as they did in their inaugural year, the team did anything but regress. Gretzky, Anderson, Coffey, Messier, and Kurri finished as the team’s first through fifth place scorers (respectively). In 1982/83, the group truly emerged. Of the five, only Coffey (a defenceman) finished below the 100-point line; though he still came close, with 96. In the postseason, the team made its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Losing to the New York Islanders in ___ games, it was a loss that marked a turning point for the franchise. There’s a popular story in Oilers lore that, after losing the final game of the series, the defeated Oilers filed past the locker room door of the New York Islanders, expecting to see a celebration in full swing. What they saw instead was a sort of muted joy; Islanders slumped over, holding ice packs over vicious bruises, and splinting fractures.
If the story is to be believed, that was the moment when the glory day Oilers first understood what was required to win hockey’s holy grail. The rezlization set in that, talented as they might be, they couldn’t win a Stanley Cup without discovering a new level of fierceness and determination. It was a lesson clearly not lost on the young team, as the 1983/84 season saw them return to the finals round of the palyoffs where they this time defeated the Islanders four games to one. It was the tipping point; the Oilers went on to repeat as the 1985 league champions, and achieved the feat twice more (’87 and ’88) before the most infamous controversy in Oilers history.
END OF AN ERA
There’s a reason that Peter Pocklington’s name is one of the most reviled in the lexicons of Oilers fans. Remember that part that I wrote about him buying Gretzky’s contract? That wasn’t exactly unusual in that era of professional hockey. Those sorts of transactions never occur in today’s NHL; the team salary cap system (implemented following the NHL season lost to the 2004/05 lockout) all but assures the extinction of those sorts of deals. So while purchasing Gretz’s contract wasn’t unusual, what Pocklington did in the summer of 1989 was unthinkable.
In a deal that rocked the city to its core, Pocklington orchestrated a “trade” with the Los Angeles Kings that sent Gretzky out of Edmonton. It might actually be more accurate to call the deal a “sale”, since the primary return for the Oilers was monetary. That’s not to suggest that Martin Rucinsky and Jimmy Carson were sub-par NHLers, but the reality was that none of the players who became Oilers in the transaction even approached Gretzky’s level of talent. While the Oilers would win one more Stanley Cup the following year (1990), the legendary era in Alberta’s capital city was over. Gretzky was gone, and Oilers fans were shelled.
Although The Great One was now gone and the Oilers were a shadow of what the team once was, hockey remained a fixture for Edmontonians. Following the Stanley Cup victory of 1990, the team returned to the Western Conference Final in both 1991 and ’92, failing to advance to the cup finals both times. It would prove to be the last surge of Edmonton’s once-revered group, which was slowly unravelling – Jari Kurri was gone by the start of the 1990/91 season, and Messier by 91/92. Messier’s departure to the Rangers proved the final death knell for the team, as the 1992/93 Oilers fell off a proverbial cliff and into the basement of the NHL. The team wouldn’t return to the post-season until the summer of 1997, and wouldn’t advance past the second round of the playoffs until 2006.
Due to an impasse between the the NHLPA (NHL Players’ Association) and the NHL’s ownership group in summer 2004 (when their existing agreement expired), 2004/05 became the season that never was. With the NHL year lost to an owner-inposed lockout, it appeared as though no hockey would be played in Edmonton for the first time since 1971. In an attempt to sate the city’s hockey appetite, the Edmonton Oilers moved their minor league affiliate, the Toronto Roadrunners, to Edmonton for the season. While Edmontonians didn’t take to the Roadrunners as a legitimate alternative to Oilers hockey, the decision to move the team into Alberta’s capital for the lockout season makes a fairly strong statement about the city’s love of the game.
When the lockout finally ended the following summer (2015), the NHL underwent its most extensive set of rule and policy changes in modern history. New rules were introduced to improve the quality and speed of the game, and the league was converted to a salary cap structure. The salary cap in particular changed the complexion of NHL hockey; no longer could teams with wealthy owners (such as the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers) try to “buy” championships by spending two to three times as much as smaller-market teams, such as the Oilers. In the months preceding the first season of the NHL’s salary cap era, various big-ticket players were suddenly available as their teams struggled to get below the salary cap. The Oilers took advantage of this, acquiring two of the league’s best defencemen and centers in Chris Pronger and Mike Peca, respectively. It was a time of hope and excitement in Oil Country.
Edging into the last playoff spot in the final few weeks of the 2005/06 season, the Oilers went on a memorable run upon arriving in the post-season. They dispatched the first-place Detroit Red Wings in the opening round, and clawed their way back from a two-game deficit in their following series with the San Jose Sharks. After beating the then-Anaheim Mighty Ducks in five games, the Oilers made their first appearance in the Stanley cup finals in 16 years. Due in part to goaltender Dwayne Roloson’s injury, the Oilers would lose the cup final in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes. Any hope of returning to the Stanley Cup Final was immediately dashed when Chris Pronger demanded a trade out of Edmonton just days after the game seven loss. His request was granted shortly thereafter when he was sent to the Anaheim Ducks for a package of prospects and draft picks.
THE BLEAK YEARS
The 2006/07 Oilers were a shadow of the previous season’s team. Pronger was gone, most of the previous year’s pending free agents had followed him out of town, and as the season wore on it became clear that not only would there be no return to the cup final that year, but there wouldn’t even be playoff hockey in Edmonton that summer. As fans we were already reeling from our beloved Oilers’ plummet to mediocrity, but what came next was crippling; management dealt Ryan Smyth (a career Oiler and face of the franchise) at the trade deadline because they were unwilling to close the $100,000 gap in their ongoing negotiations to extend his contract.
2007/08 would be the last time for several years that the Oilers would even come within a proverbial sniff of the playoff cut for nine seasons. Tasked with following up their promising 07/08 campaign, the 2008/09 Oilers regressed badly. Tasked with improving upon the putrid year, the 2009/10 Oilers imploded. It marked the beginning of the Oilers’ official “rebuild”, as the team finished dead last and earned the number one selection in that summer’s entry draft. Certain that better days were directly ahead, the organization selected junior hockey phenom Taylor Hall who immediately jumped into the NHL the following season. Both he and Jordan Eberle – another junior hockey star and an utter hero for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey championships – played their rookie season together in 2009/10, with Eberle announcing their arrival in their first game with a goal that electrified the entire fan base.
Despite the presence of Hall and Eberle, the Oilers finished in the league basement once again. For the second straight summer, they attained the first overall pick at the NHL Draft. This time they selected playmaking wizard Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Llike Hall, RNH jumped straight into the NHL as an 18-year-old the following season. Like Hall, he sustained an injury that shortened his rookie campaign and proved the kiss of death for a team that was languishing once again. The Oilers sat in second-last place at season’s end, and won their third consecutive draft lottery to select first overall. They took Russian hotshot Nail Yakupov, who jumped straight into the NHL the following– you’re beginning to see the pattern, here, right?
Due in part to the fact that the 2012/13 season was shortened to 48 games due to another lockout by the ownership group, the Oilers finally climbed out of the league’s bottom-three. Amidst great uncertainty as to whether or not their would be any hockey played that year, many of the NHL’s best signed temporary contracts with teams in various European hockey leagues. Hall, Eberle, RNH, and highly-touted free agent signee Justin Schultz all played for the Oilers’ minor league affiliate, The Oklahoma City Barons, instead of following suit. The result was that the four dominated the American Hockey League until the beginning of the shortened NHL season, where they enjoyed an early advantage over other teams where some guys hadn’t played together in up to six or seven months.
Ralph Kruger, the first-year head coach who produced this uptick in the team, was rewarded with his termination papers; new General Manager Craig MacTavish brought in another rookie bench boss in Dallas Eakins, announcing him as the solution to all the team’s problems. To say that the Oilers regressed under Eakins is too soft a statement. The team imploded under Eakins, performing so putridly that fans started tossing their jerseys onto the ice in protest on several occasions. Eakins was terminated midway through his second season. The head coach of the Oklahoma City Barons, Todd Nelson, was promoted to interim coach to finish off what had become yet another season with the Oilers as bottom-feeders.
THE CLOUDS PART
Having finished third-last, there was approximately an 88% chance that a team other than the Oilers would win the draft lottery. Regardless, the Oilers won for the fourth time in six years and earned the right to select hockey prodigy Connor McDavid. It prompted team owner Daryl Katz to clear house and hire legitimate and accomplished hockey minds in coach Todd McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli. Finally gone were Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, the executives most responsible for the Oilers’ becoming a perennial debacle. The Oilers once again finished in the NHL’s bottom three at the conclusion of the 2015/16 season, but the effect of quality coaching and management had a noticeable impact on the Oilers over the course of the year. The team was making strides, largely on the back of an 18 year old hockey wizard (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
2016/17 has marked a high point for the organization and the fan base in the post-lockout era. For the first time in over a decade, the Oilers are comfortably in a playoff spot past the halfway mark of a season. Chiarelli’s shrewd managerial decisions have turned a once-anemic group into a unified, competitive team of which Oilers fans can be truly proud. Connor McDavid is living up to his wunderkind billing, and dazzling us with on-ice displays the likes of which look as though they shouldn’t be physically possible. All is finally well with the Oilers, it would appear. But is all well with the fans?
All evidence points to “not yet”. Consider the history of the team: never has there existed something beautiful in Oilers history that hasn’t eventually been shattered, revoked, or parted and sold. The glory day Oilers were ripped apart by Peter Pocklington in a move that put over a million dollars in directly into his pocket and sent the greatest player in hockey history to a team in California. That championship roster was dealt away for lesser parts, piece by piece, until nothing remained. The Oilers were never more than a middle-of-the-pack team after that, but the post-lockout aberration in 2006 truly had the next generation (my generation) of Oilers fans convinced that Edmonton had a championship team. Less than a year later, we were watching the face of our franchise dealt away in a trade that ultimately proved to be pointless. After the next season showed all the signs of better things to come, the proverbial wheels fell off and the organization publicly committed to a rebuild that has been ongoing ever since. Every year, we were promised that the Oilers would be better. Every year, the Oilers failed to improve. Every year, we felt increasingly gullible and regretted our optimism.
The years of losing have taken their toll. They have drained the time and patience of a loyal fan base almost to the point of exhaustion. This season’s iteration of the Edmonton Oilers is likely the best that has existed at any point in the post-Gretzky era, and fans are clearly appreciative. The team’s resurgence has coincided with the erection of Rogers Place, a state-of-the-art monument in the middle of downtown Edmonton.
It’s probably fair to say that the current climate among fans is better than it has been at any point since the Oilers’ miracle run in 2006. There’s a sense of collective elation and relief hanging in the air as the 2016/17 Oilers continue to establish themselves among the NHL’s best teams and Connor McDavid continues to make a case for himself as the best professional hockey player in the world. It is finally a great time to be an Oilers fan, but there’s a tentativeness underrunning the joy for many. After all, this is an organization with a history of selling its most precious assets; sometimes for pennies on the dollar. There are no signs of that happening with Peter Chiarelli occupying the head office, nor is that necessarily a major concern for fans anymore; it’s just that we have a long and illustrious history of having our beautiful things taken away.