With two black eyes and an adhesive pad the size of a dinner place mat covering the 30 sutures in his swollen jug, Taylor Hall was on his knees in the goal crease Tuesday throwing himself in front of a Sami Salo slapshot and trying to win a game the Edmonton Oilers would eventually lose 3-2 in a shootout to the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena.
"My God," I said, not even meaning to verbalize what I was thinking when Hall yanked the words out of my head as he scrambled around beside Devan Dubnyk with Salo, who just had his slapshot clocked at 105 mph in a skills contest, hammering a puck at Edmonton’s net from 30 feet or so away.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and there have been a few in the almost 30 years I’ve spent watching and writing about hockey for a living. A defining split second that tells me all I need to know about Hall and the kind of stuff he’s made of. Is it just me? I doubt it.
All I know is this: whether I’m a fan of the Oilers or Daryl Katz, the guy who signs the cheques as the owner of the team, Hall, a bizarre combination of Rocky Raccoon and Frankenstein’s monster with those twin shiners and all that needlework in his forehead, is the face of my franchise.
That’s the player, with no disrespect to the gloriously gifted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the sublime Jordan Eberle or the next young talent that will arrive with another lottery pick, I’m hitching my wagon to. That’s what I’m selling to the people who buy tickets.
That’s what a winner looks like.
WHATEVER IT TAKES
What we saw in the loss to the Canucks, one that sends the Oilers to the all-star break with an 18-26-5 record and 41 points after 49 games, is what Hall is and what will make him the cornerstone player this franchise has lacked in six mostly miserable seasons since Chris Pronger blew town after the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
With his stitches still fresh after Corey Potter stepped on his face Jan. 17 during the warm-up in Columbus, Hall had a goal and an assist against the Canucks in his third game back from that hideous incident. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what sticks with me.
Hall, 20, was up and down the ice all night, taking on defenders and charging after pucks. It was as if he was trying to carry the team on his back, hell-bent on willing a win as an encore to an unexpected victory over the San Jose Sharks to send the Oilers to the break on a much-needed high.
Granted, all that roaring around like a house on fire isn’t in the game plan, it’s not the way coach Tom Renney and his staff draw it up, but so be it. I’m guessing fans don’t mind his deviation from the X’s and O’s a bit. Then, that sequence in the goal crease. "My God," indeed.
"Our compete level, you know, our passion, our determination is going to have to be on every night," Hall said matter-of-factly after the game.
"That’s not that hard, you know? If you’re hurt or if you’re not feeling good, you can always bring passion to the game. That’s just something that has to be mandatory with our team and the last two games are a sign of that."
If the Oilers are going to pull themselves up off the floor after six straight years of defeat, ineptitude and frustration and give their long-suffering fans reason to believe, it’ll take more than just the blood and guts approach of a Jason Smith type.
It’ll take more than just the stunning skills of a Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle or Ales Hemsky. It’ll take all the above, all the right pieces, and a whole bunch more to get it right. It will take time and patience. The foundation to this rebuild, to any rebuild, though, was laid out for all to see by Hall Tuesday.
That’s what a winner looks like.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.