February 06 2008 09:56AM
We can remember how freaked we were in the mid to late 1990s when the talk was that the Oilers were moving out of town. Everytime we fired up TSN Sportsdesk (remember that?) they had this stupid graphic of the "For Sale" sign with the Oilers' logo. Peter Pocklington was waging a war against everyone in the media—demanding free rent from Northlands, tax concessions from the City and Province, and two suckling pigs every fortnight brought to him by “a comely lass of virtue true.”
We had seasons tickets in those days, and we would sit in the stands and watch 8,500 to 10,000 people file into the building on most nights to see what amounted to 20 kinds of crap. The Rangers regularly came in and raided the Oil of anyone of marginal value—anyone remember David Oliver?—and basically everything was screwed. There was no Oil Country in those days, lambs. It wasn’t even cool to wear Oilers gear to school. We can remember wearing our Boston Celtics Starter jacket and openly mocking the kid wearing the Oilers hat for being a loser.
The dark years continued, and in 1998 Les Alexander tried to buy the team and move it to Houston. No one person had the dough to counter the offer—that kind of money simply didn’t exist in this city in those days. No one was living high on the hog with $300,000 in equity in their homes like they are now. Pocklington had defaulted on loans to the ATB and the once-mighty Oilers had been repossessed like a Toyota Corolla, whose owner was behind on his payments.
But rather than go quietly into the night like the other Canadian cities that lost their teams, Cal Nichols and Jim Hole rallied what became the EIG troops and made an offer for the team. Guys no one had ever heard of, from as far away as Lloydminister, ponied up BIG dough and collectively saved the team from becoming another footnote in Canadian history. We can remember how happy we were when it was announced that the sale had gone through. Happier than winning any game, happier than any game winning goal, over-the-moon happy that our team wasn’t leaving the city for good.
We all collectively owe the EIG, well, essentially everything in Oil Country. If it weren’t for them, the Oil would have absolutely 100% moved. Go ask Winnipeg how happy they would have been to have a Winnipeg Investors Group. When they were about to lose their team, all they could do was try and raise money from Jets fans directly—a cause that, though admirable, had about as much chance of succeeding as a Lance Bass solo album.
When Edmonton faced the same dark future, these 35-odd business people bucked up the cash to take over the team. In an era when the economy was crap, their $60 million was essentially kissed away, as were further untold millions when cash calls were needed to keep the team afloat. This group saved the Oilers, and kept Edmonton on the North American radar rather than being relegated to the scrap heap with Quebec and Winnipeg.
Once the EIG had taken over, the few fans that did show up had little to cheer about, as the Oilers were outspent on a regular basis. The slumping loonie, depressed oil prices and the lack of a salary cap kept management stuggling to keep the team on a level playing field. When they had every reason to give up, the EIG continued to slug away. They rebuilt the season ticket base one pair of tickets at a time, in a City where the business community had largely abandoned the Oilers because of Peter Pocklington. They got the Oil and its players involved with many charities in town through the Community Foundation, and built one of the most innovative and active community groups in all of pro sports.
In past weeks, many people (us included) were all over the EIG to sell to Katz. But let’s remember that in 1998, Katz was a lawyer who's Dad owned some drugstores. He wasn't the Billion Dollar Man, he was, um, doing whatever 32-year-olds do when they are getting ready to be the Billion Dollar Man.
Transitioning this team to a guy like Katz is pretty much a best-case scenario for the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club and the OilersNation. He brings the megabucks and stability that are hallmarks of most professional sports dynasties. As cash goes, he ranks right up there with Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys. But before we all get caught up in wondering if Katz will write a personal cheque for $30 millon to bring Vincent Lecavalier to Edmonton (note: this might be a good idea, DK) we should take one last moment to thank the EIG for all the good that they have done.
Thank you, EIG, for saving the Oilers when the entire league had written them off. Thank you for individually convincing jackass business men to part with enough money to buy two tickets. Thank you for convincing Superstore to buy hundreds of gallery tickets to allow the Oilers to qualify for the small-market subsidy by selling 13,000 tickets. Thank you for coming up with more cash when needed because we had to pay the likes of Eric Fichaud and Tommy Salo millions of dollars.
Thank you, EIG. Bonehead sports fans like us owe you more than we will ever probably realize.