They still play the game from time to time on NHL Classics. Wayne Gretzky in Toronto, 1980 spring. Mere months before old hockey men in Hogtown could be heard saying "he wouldn’t have made the 1950-51 Leafs at ALL" and there he was on that night in historic Maple Leaf Gardens slicing and dicing. It was a night to remember, and the dawn of Oiler nation.
March 29, 1980. Edmonton at Toronto. It’s hard to describe the feeling westerners (and Oiler fans) felt about entry into the National Hockey League. Suffice to say the only way we were going to get into the inner circle of hockey was through the outlaw saloon doors. Bill Hunter, we love you.
And that night in Toronto, as Leafs fans cheered their boy Gretzky and we cheered his future, it was like the doors were finally open to Canada’s prairies.
Gretzky was sublime. The game highlights are here. The boxscore is here. That game–like a hundred other little things (many documented in the quintessential book on that Oiler team–THE GAME OF OUR LIVES) galvanized the Edmonton Oilers as a special team and won lifelong devotion from a legion of fans.
When people talk about the Oilers fanbase being rabid or intense, it’s probably because that group was born at the very beginning of one of hockey’s greatest teams. It was impossible to watch the skill and creativity and not be drawn in. The Edmonton Oilers, once they gained entry into the NHL, were immediately a big story. They ripped through the 1980’s, going supernova when their owner turned to Scrooge.
They were special. And that road trip long ago, the one that took them to Atlanta, Toronto and Detroit was another impact moment in the development of that special team. They won all three games on their way to the playoffs. Against Philadelphia, they lost quickly (3-0) but would exact revenge down the line.
The current young Oilers should never be compared in talent with the glory boys. However, there are times during this rebuild when old men recall those special times and see a glimmer of the storied past. We thank this new generation of Oiler hopefuls for the jog down memory lane, and promise to enjoy this group for what they are: unique, gifted and getting better by the day.
No pressure, though. We need to let them write their own story.
One of the truly exceptional writers in this city is Colby Cosh. This link gets you to his 2003 archives and part way down the page is a wonderful description of the game. I wish I could link directly but sadly don’t have the internet acumen to do it. So, you have to promise me you’ll read it.
Cosh’s account of that old game is as always spot on.