Loyal. Gullible. Passionate. Bitter.
Pick any word you want to describe fans of the Edmonton Oilers, but after living in this town for 22 years — I arrived just in time to catch the last Stanley Cup parade in 1990 as a newbie at the Edmonton Journal, the emotional connection between the people who buy the hats and tickets and jerseys and their hockey team never ceases to amaze me.
In a town where it’s been two decades since the Oilers won anything, after five straight years out of the playoffs, including back-to-back 30th-place finishes during the leanest stretch in franchise history, you’d think the love affair might wane just a little, but nooooooooooooooo.
I drove out to Millennium Place in Sherwood Park for the fifth day of the Oilers development camp today. I had to circle for 10 minutes to find a parking space. When I walked into the rink, there wasn’t an empty seat to be had — at least not on the side of the two-rink complex where the team was skating. People were standing six deep.
When I emerged from the dressing rooms after the last players had left out the back door to hop a bus back to Rexall Place, there were still 50 people at the wrong exit hoping somebody, anybody — "Hey, is that Kyle Bigos?" — would sign something.
Tip of the hat. Really.
WIN OR LOSE
Save for a dark stretch in the mid-1990s when the team was beyond brutal (The Gord Mark Era), the economy stank like over-ripe limburger and Peter Pocklington was losing his tenuous grip on the franchise, I’ve never seen fans here waver in support of this team.
Bitch and moan? Sure. Whine about what Kevin Lowe did or didn’t do as the GM? Absolutely. But shrug their shoulders? No. Five years out of the playoffs and you can’t find a parking spot in Sherwood Park because fans are packing a rink to watch drills the first week of July?
For somebody who wasn’t born-and-bred here, who didn’t witness the Glory Days first-hand before Pocklington sold Wayne Gretzky and for someone who arrived late to the party as a detached observer — I qualify as all three — the relationship between the Oilers and their fans is truly something to behold.
That’s not lost on the youngsters out on the ice, either. While most of them have heard what a hockey-mad fishbowl Edmonton is, and about how passionate the people here are about the game, what they’ve seen this week is still an eye-opener.
"It’s been a lot of fun," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, thrust into the hot spotlight that is Edmonton when the Oilers took him first overall at the 2011 Entry Draft in Minnesota.
"It’s pretty cool seeing all these people here. It’s a just a prospects camp, but every time we come here, it’s pretty packed. It’s really good to see all the people."
If you’ve been out to Millennium Place, where camp concludes with a three-on-three tournament Saturday, you’ve seen the mob. People wearing their jerseys, thumbing their line-up sheets and staring out at the ice, trying to attach a face to the names and the numbers.
Oohs and aahs as a Nugent-Hopkins or an Anton Lander dangles. Eyes on Colten Teubert, who came over in the Dustin Penner trade. I have seen far less interest and buzz in some NHL arenas — Tampa Bay, Florida and Anaheim come to mind — on game nights.
"You can see Edmonton is a great hockey city," said David Musil, who spent some time here as a youngster when his dad Frank was toiling for a long line of mediocre Oiler teams. "It’s amazing here. It just a practice in the middle of summer and people come and watch. It feels awesome coming into an organization where fans love hockey like this."
If this team ever gets good, they’re going to need more parking spots.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.