(Featured image courtesy of Globalnews.ca)
Far more important to fans than the March 1st trade deadline is what finally awaits them in April.
In all likelihood, whatever happens on NHL trade deadline day will pale in comparison to the Oilers’ return to playoff hockey for the first time since 2006. That’s ten years without a single game played in late April – it’s little wonder why the springtime became synonymous with defeated resignation for many Oilers supporters. Playoff contention hasn’t even been a possibility since 2008, when the Oilers fell barely short of a heroic comeback to clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Since then, the Oilers have perennially finished in the basement of the standings and usually found themselves well out of the playoffs by the Christmas break. This year’s Oilers currently sit tied for second place in the Pacific Division with the Anaheim Ducks, only three points back of San Jose. It’s new territory for Oilers fans who weren’t around for the Stanley Cup era.
For Spencer Holst, a 25 year old medical student and ardent Oilers supporter, the prospect of playoff hockey is almost sweet beyond words. Holst inherited his love of the Oilers from his father, with some of his fondest memories taking place in front of the living room television with his old man, cheering on the likes of Doug Weight, Todd Marchant, and (especially) Ryan Smyth. “My Dad was a huge Oilers fan [when I was] growing up… my earliest memory is of watching Oilers hockey” reminisces Holst. Clearly, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t merely a hobby or a distraction in the Holst household, but a respected tradition which imbued Spencer with a deep love of the sport.
Growing up in Southern Alberta, Spencer had to support the Oilers over a distance. It wasn’t until shortly before his teenage years that he would attend his first game, but the experience would further fan the flames of his burgeoning love of the team. It was a special night for his hockey-loving family, especially so because raising six children is no inexpensive task. “We had never been to an Oilers game, but my Dad really wanted to take us to [one]” says Holst. “[H]e bought these really, really cheap tickets.” On the drive up to Edmonton, Spencer remembers noticing something: “On the tickets it said ‘standing’” Holst recounts. 11 year-old Spencer and his siblings joked about the tickets being good for numbered spaces on the floor, thinking that it surely couldn’t be the case. Upon arriving at the then-Skyreach Centre, however, the Holst kids discovered how unwittingly accurate they had been in their jests. It certainly didn’t diminish the experience for young Spencer, although he recalls discovering a new level of fatigue by the conclusion of the game.
For fans like Holst, the Oilers are a lifelong investment – adulthood does nothing the diminish the intense enthusiasm they develop for the team. When the Oilers won the 2015 Draft Lottery (and the right to select Connor McDavid), Spencer received the news while refereeing a youth basketball game and (after confirming that he wasn’t the victim of a prank) immediately lost track of the game and started cheering. A year later, news of the Taylor Hall/Adam Larsson trade reached him as he was in the middle of purchasing his family’s new house. “Was” is the operative word here, as he immediately forgot about what he was doing, disregarded his reason for being at the bank in the first place, and engaged in a frenzied debate over the pros and cons of the deal with his father. To say that Holst has earned his stripes as a fan is an understatement.
For Holst, it finally feels as though his lifelong allegiance to the Edmonton Oilers is being rewarded with an on-ice product that inspires confidence and excitement. GM Peter Chiarelli has overhauled a once impotent roster in under two years with the team, which isn’t lost on fans like Holst. Nor is the significance of the tremendously controversial decision to trade star winger Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for a mostly unheralded defenseman in Adam Larsson. “I think he’s done a fantastic job… he came in and he said from day one that he was gonna be the one to make some hard decisions and he’s done that.” Holst is also quick to point out that “probably his best move was bringing [in] Cam Talbot, who has been a fantastic goalie.” After suffering through a revolving door of sub-par puck stoppers, Spencer is all too familiar with the consequences of bad goaltending and nominates Talbot when asked to name the most underrated Oiler on the current roster. It’s hard to dispute that point: Talbot has played more games than any other goalie in the NHL this season while being among the league leaders in most major statistical categories.
Helmed by hockey wunderkind Connor McDavid and world-class coach Todd McLellan, the Edmonton Oilers have finally shed a lingering culture of losing and uninspired play with a level of determination and commitment seldom (if ever) seen in Alberta’s capital over the past decade. To an outside observer, it’s unlikely possible to comprehend the exact significance of this for Spencer Holst (and so many fans like him) to finally watch the playoffs approach with mounting excitement rather than indifference or frustration. There has been no shortage of bleak moments for the franchise and its fans over the past ten years, but a new chapter in Oilers history is finally being etched into the pages of history and Holst is savouring every moment as the Oilers announce themselves as an emerging powerhouse and draw ever closer to their first playoff appearance in ten years. “I can’t imagine what the building’s going to be like [during] that first playoff game” says Holst with a grin.
Neither can I, Spencer. Neither can I.