The latest lump in the truckload of coal the Edmonton Oilers have been shoveling under the Christmas trees of their fans for eight seasons came in Saturday’s 6-0 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. What an ugly, ugly scene it was.
On a utterly forgettable night for a fallen franchise, scenes from Hockey Night in Canada’s telecast showed sections of empty seats with five minutes to play with fans long gone to the parking lot, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe fidgeting with his cellphone and, finally, an Oiler jersey laying on the ice, tossed there by one of the paying customers.
With HNIC’s After Hours segment waiting for Taylor Hall to emerge from a dressing room that remained closed for 10 minutes after the game, the CBC panel filled with a post-mortem on the Oilers, losers of six straight games and dead in the water at 11-24-3.
In the room, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was supposed to have been a sideshow but instead finds himself having joined one, talked about how the Oilers deserved to be booed. Jordan Eberle talked about being sick of what’s happening here. Coach Dallas Eakins, less than half a full season into his tenure behind the bench, said much the same thing.
The blah, blah, blah we’ve heard before, but that shot of the Oiler jersey cast on the ice like so much trash sticks with me. I’ve never seen that before, and I’ve seen a lot in the old rink on Gretzky Drive.
THE WORST OF TIMES?
With the venom being spewed by rightfully frustrated fans and the empty seats I’m seeing, despite more than 300 straight official sell-outs at Rexall Place in the books, this is clearly the worst of times since the oh-so-forgettable early 1990s. Back then, owner Peter Pocklington was selling off what was left of the five-time Stanley Cup champions and letting the rest of the team die on the vine. Lots of crowds under 10,000 back then.
I’m not sure which era was worse – the 1992-93 team captained by current GM Craig MacTavish went 26-50-8 for 60 points – but arguing that is setting the bar woefully low. What I do know is nobody with a functioning brain expected much from the raft of mediocre players on that roster. The expectations now are different, and should be, with the likes of Hall, Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on this edition of the team – any one of them would have been the best player on that pitiful 1992-93 team.
Edmonton’s management and its spinners have been selling hope for four seasons since the tear-it-down rebuild "officially" began. Fans, obviously loyal to a fault, have been buying in, filling the rink, purchasing souvenirs, parking and over-priced beer. All to watch a team that’s won just 45 of its last 123 home games.
Now, paid for or not, empty seats. And no, as team president Patrick LaForge suggested with a straight face, it’s not "brutal weather." Now, that jersey thrown on the ice. Was it deposited there by an over-served patron in a fit of drunken defiance? A long-time season ticket holder sick of what they’ve seen? Both? No matter, it’s trouble.
OVER TO YOU, BOSS
I don’t know if we’ll ever see attendance sink to the levels of the ugly 1990s – I doubt it – but unless something changes drastically, and in a hurry, we’re going to see more empty seats, more jerseys on the ice and, worse, more of the kind of indifference Pocklington cultivated as owner.
Drastic change means starting at the top of hockey operations. That means the dirty deed falls to owner Daryl Katz, who has a management group and coaching and scouting staffs filled with old friends and old Oilers. With his initial investment in the team already showing a tidy profit, according to the latest values published for NHL teams, will Katz be so inclined? Not today or tomorrow – it makes no sense – but this off-season?
I can see an argument for MacTavish and Eakins getting more time to do their jobs. I see no such case for managers, coaches or scouts who have been collecting pay cheques for all or most of this eight-year stretch of futility and frustration. The names we know, and Lowe is the obvious starting point.
Will Katz make those calls this off-season? Will he tell his friends that it’s time for them to move along? Will he shake their hands and wish them well? If Katz, for whatever reason, isn’t inclined to do that – in a city and for a fan base that’s committed to building him a new downtown arena – in the name of finally delivering on the hope he’s been selling, what’s the message?
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.