September 09 2009 08:34PM
To say I never saw a return to the Edmonton Oilers by Mike Comrie coming is to understate in the extreme -- one need only read what I wrote Aug. 19 to see how out to lunch I was on the possibility.
Remember? It was such a ridiculous notion, and for so many reasons, that I wasn't even going to ask MC about it. It made no sense. Too many bad feelings his first time around, when he could have and should have been the hometown hero but turned his back on the Oilers.
And then there was the fit, or lack of same, given the make-up of the roster as it sits going into training camp. And blah, blah, blah . . . At least one of the local dailies agreed, quoting a team source giving a Comrie encore the thumbs down.
Well, as it stands right now, after a 15-minute, face-to-face conversation I had with Comrie this afternoon, I've got to tell you we'd all better get used to the idea of seeing MC in Oilers silks again.
While I'm told there's no deal done as of now and that there's at least one other option for Comrie -- I believe it's the Atlanta Thrashers -- I'd be willing to wager MC will be an Oiler by noon Friday.
In what stands as a classic case of letting bygones be bygones, Comrie and the Oilers have settled their differences to the point where I believe the ink is a formality and the unlikeliest of do-overs will begin when Comrie reports for training camp physicals Saturday.
I think I've got it right this time.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
If you remember the split between Comrie and the Oilers in 2003, a nasty bit of business that included searing ill-will between Comrie, agent Ritch Winter and then-GM Kevin Lowe, then your reaction to the possibility was likely much the same as mine was Aug. 19.
Like, WTF? How is this even possible? What part of the first time didn't everybody understand? What's changed since then? Why would Comrie even entertain returning to a city that's a hockey fishbowl, a city full of avid fans still pissed that he took a stack of bonus money and blew town by forcing a trade to Philadelphia?
In light of the conversation I had with Comrie, plus others in the last week with various people, I'd like to think I've got some insight as to what's at play here and what's changed since I was so wrong three weeks ago. So, let's take a swing at figuring out how and why things have turned 180 degrees since MC waved goodbye six years ago.
BURYING THE HATCHET
First and foremost, the two prime players, Comrie and Lowe, have done some maturing in the six years that have passed.
My sense is that having stepped back from things by moving from GM to president of hockey operations, and with the passage of time, Lowe has grown enough to let go of the bitterness that was obvious in 2003.
Lowe's as passionate a man as you'll ever meet, and he took it as a slight to himself and the organization when Comrie started making noise about being unhappy in Edmonton. The reasons why didn't matter. Lowe played hard-ass, hard-ball back then -- a no-holds barred game that included the request Comrie buy his way out of Edmonton with $2.5 million that would get him a ticket to Anaheim. That game is over now. It's taken six years, but the grudge, and it was a dandy, is gone.
I think it's safe to say Comrie, who was 22 when the split took place, sees things much differently now as well.
Paint Comrie as a spoiled athlete with a sense of entitlement if you will, but I believe his inability to cope with the pressure of playing in his hometown had as much to do with the simple fact he needed time and space to grow up as anything else. Who doesn't? The difference is most of us don’t have to do it in the spotlight he was so uncomfortable in.
As is the case with Lowe, the past six years have provided Comrie some perspective. He's days away from his 29th birthday now. That's not a free pass. At least I think not.
While Comrie angered fans by never stating specific reasons why he wanted out in 2003, he's been quite forthright recently as the days have ticked by and camp has approached. He could've and should've handled some things differently. He's plead guilty to that.
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
-- As unpopular as Comrie is with some fans, he was well-liked in the dressing room. Everybody remaining from when he last played here -- Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios and Fernando Pisani -- has voiced support privately, and to team management, about a possible return. If Hemsky and Horcoff et al, say they want Comrie back, it's probably prudent that management listen.
-- Owner Daryl Katz wants this to happen.
And, before you trot out the "meddling owner" routine, it's not altogether unusual for owners to make their wishes known. Many around the NHL do, it's simply matter of degree -- from subtle to all-out arm-twisting.
-- Katz and Mike's dad, Bill, are good friends and I suspect that's at play here, as well. I think it's a shame -- not to be confused with a hockey decision -- Bill Comrie, who has given millions of dollars to charitable causes in this city and been a model citizen, felt compelled to leave town over the level of hostility he felt during the split in 2003.
This is a better city with Bill Comrie in it.
I don't know if Comrie's best years are ahead of him or behind him, but I do know the Oilers aren't exactly burdened with players who have scored 30 goals in the NHL.
Small players? Yes. Thirty-goal guys? No. I'm still having trouble getting my head around how Pat Quinn is going to fit all these little guys into a line-up that was supposed to get grittier and tougher.
Maybe Comrie on left wing with Horcoff and Hemsky is a start. Maybe Robert Nilsson gets moved. The fit, as I wrote Aug. 19, is something I still don't necessarily see even if Comrie can bounce back from a bad hip.
My guess, even knowing what we know, is that all Comrie has to do to make good on a second chance is, well, be the Mike Comrie on the ice fans here used to cheer for. It'll be a rough ride at first, and that's to be expected, but if he performs, if he delivers the goods, maybe there's a chance for him to have this town by the tail again.
If Comrie and Lowe can set aside their differences, get around what was and focus on what might be, maybe fans should do likewise and give it a chance.
Pulling it off would be one helluva story, no?
-- Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.