THESE WERE NOT THE DARK YEARS

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*Hello. I’m Cory, your friendly neighbourhood Oilersnation editor. Between cleaning up Strud’s articles and begging Gregor for tickets, I occasionally generate my own Oiler-related material. Enjoy!*

I was born at an odd time for an Oiler fan. In 1983, the Oilers achieved league-wide ‘real deal’ status, despite being swept by the Islanders in the finals. A month after my first birthday, they got revenge and brought the cup more north than it had ever been. The hockey world knew there was something big happening, but not the extent. Then they won it again. Then everyone took a year off or something. Then they won twice more. 

Adults knew this was history book stuff, but these were my first memories of life. From my perspective, it was how hockey worked. Wake up in my Oiler jammies, eat my Pro Stars, watch my Boys on the Bus VHS tape for the first time that day, and hope I could stay up late enough to watch the Oilers’ victory that night. It was always a victory. I knew they weren’t going to win every cup, but they clearly had a way better chance than even the other great teams. Messier was the baddest human forward in the league, and Kurri the best European. We also had a Neo, and Gretzky won all the things. They played in front of the greatest closing goalie and the only defenseman to at times look like Orr. I had a vague concept of hockey history, and knew about some guy named Howe who Gretzky would talk about, but I figured that until I died, Edmonton-based Stanley Cup parades would be the norm and the other cities, especially Calgary, could suck it.

Then it happened. I remember walking on the orange shag carpet to the front door where my mom’s tears matched the headline she was holding. She already hated Pocklington for not paying Coffey, her personal favourite. And while the team did prove how unfair the 80’s were by winning one more cup ring for their thumbs without Gretzky, that was the beginning of the actual dark days.

I know, I know – effing ’06. Eight years since playoffs and five since respectability. But the 90’s were so much worse.

Losing the championship in game seven in any sport is something fans remember for the rest of their lives. Losing the actual greatest player, in his prime, becomes part of your identity. The only comparisons are across different sports.

So that was the start.

Have you ever seen Rexall empty? Some games had 6,000 people and there was an average of 12,335 during the ’95-’96 season. That was 23rd out of 26 teams. And they weren’t in the gold seats, which looked awful during the home games that were actually on TV (it was less than all 41 games). Tickets were expensive and fans were broke.

So were the Oilers, and all small market, mostly Canadian teams. Winnipeg and Quebec lost theirs and we were ’06 close to losing ours. The U.S.-dollar NHL payroll discrepancy was more than double*, and the thought of overpaying players to play here was a foreign luxury because the news was just updates on whether the team was moving or not. People forget that.

By half way through the second period of my youth team’s annual Oiler game in the nosebleeds, we could go down to the lower bowl. But we didn’t. We ran around Northlands causing trouble instead of watching another loss. It was always a loss.

In fact, it got so bad I did the unthinkable, almost as bad as defacing the Gretzky statue: I wore a Leafs jersey to an Oiler game.

Before you smash your screen, let me explain. I was 10 years old. And it was a Doug Gilmour jersey, when Gilmour was the best player in the league the way Toews is today. Whatever, I’ll never apologise for wearing a Gilmour jersey. The point is there wasn’t an Oiler worth cheering for. I got it autographed that night too, back when anyone could go down to see the players walk off the ice – a rare bright spot during an otherwise dreary decade (50 losses in ’93).

                                                        GILMOUR

The only other bright spot** was Smytty, who you knew from the beginning was gonna be a ‘beaut. He deserved to play ten years earlier. You could see it in his mullet.

We eventually started making the playoffs, and one round was better than nothing. But ‘NHL Salary Cap’ wasn’t a phrase yet and while the team was feisty and fun to watch, we knew we didn’t have a chance. We were just the poor team who, when we briefly had the best goalie in the league, could pull off one upset each year. It wasn’t nothing, but it was close.

That’s what makes this only the second darkest time in Oiler history: there is legitimate hope. Our team’s owner is so not in business or legal trouble, he’ll threaten to move the team just for fun. We can afford stars and the league is fair. Well, the West is ridiculous, but they’ll get old and slow soon. Meanwhile, our stars have been thrown to the wolves, yet they aren’t getting killed. One skates more powerfully than Mess and another pretzel-ly, like Gretz. None of them has peaked. Yes, these years have seen more losses overall – I’m not saying they’ve been good – but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it has defensemen coming.

It would be tough not to nosedive after the soaring 80’s, and maybe the hockey gods have been humbling us ever since. I know my six-year-old ass deserved it. The cap era is only a decade old, and we’ve mostly shown how bad our bad can be. But ’06 really happened, and inherent league structure won’t stop it from happening again. So let yourself get excited this season. It’s possible to bookend two decades of our worst with two decades of our best. And our best is pretty good.

*Philly gave Chris Gratton 10 million per year in ’97.

**Honourable mention to Doug Weight, but like any skilled player on a small market team, getting better meant he was leaving soon.

@CorySchachtel

  • Admiral Ackbar

    BOO HOO. Older fans make it seem like they had it so rough, how tough it was to take in all those cups and then have a few bad years before settling in as a gritty team always battling for the final playoff spot.

    Key word there is battling, modern oiler fans only know being out of the playoffs by october 31st.

    I remember beating colorado, beating Dallas. 2 upsets in a decade is better then zero anything in a decade imo.

    • Rob...

      “BOO HOO. Older fans make it seem like they had it so rough, how tough it was to take in all those cups and then have a few bad years before settling in as a gritty team always battling for the final playoff spot.”

      Let me ask you: Would it be harder to hump a 3/10 your entire life, or hump a 10/10 for a few years and then have that taken away and being told you get a 3/10 going forward?

  • BloodyEyes13

    Born in 79, just in time to grow up with the Mighty Oilers of the 80’s; good memories.

    I remember back in the autumn of 1988 shortly after the Gretzky trade, we had a “hockey day” at school, where kids were told to wear the jersey of their favorite NHL team to school. Most kids showed up in LA Kings or Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys.

    My dad took me and my brother to the local sports store to get us our first jerseys. At the time, my brother wanted a Kings jersey, and I wanted a Blackhawks jersey, as it was “uncool” to be an Oilers fan at my school. My dad wasn’t having any of it, and forced us both to get Oiler jerseys. At the time both my brother and I were disappointed, but I’ll tell you, that was the very start of my love for the Edmonton Oilers.

    A couple years later the Oilers would go on to win Stanley Cup #5, which to this day is one of my most cherished memories. I was about 10 years old when they won their last cup, but from that day forward I’ve been a diehard Oiler fan.

    Being an Oiler fan in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was brutal. From poorly constructed teams, to constantly losing the few star players we had, it was a tough time. The difference between the teams of the 90’s/early 2000’s and now is that back then we had no hope. We knew we would be lucky to make the playoffs and we also knew that we would see an early exit. It felt like we had no hope. Where as with our current team, I know it’s just a matter of time before this team pops and we start challenging for the cup. The 90’s/early 2000’s is definitely the dark times for this franchise (in my opinion).

    GO OILERS GO!!!! LET’S GET THIS SEASON STARTED!!!! 🙂

  • Admiral Ackbar

    G00d times just around the corner all you gen x eras. New arena that is so wired up you can text in your order for a $15 beer and $9 hotdog as you sit in your $200 seat. How much fun is it going to be watching $9,000,000 hockey players putting in a half ass efforts only to be seen at some cowboy bar at 2 in the morning chasing muf. Never mind you had fun, now on the lrt to your $400,000 0ne bedroom plus den condo for a Stella Artois.

  • BloodyEyes13

    I was born in ’79, and I just wanted to say that this article is bang-on. Did any of you 30-38 year olds remember that we made the Western final in ’90-91 and ’91-92? I actually found that out this year even though I was 12 and 13 at the time. NOTHING other than a Stanley Cup was good enough back then. These days, a run to the NHL’s final four in the playoffs would be considered a miracle! Not back then.

    And you’re lucky that you got the chance to sit in the great seats – my Dad always tried to sneak me & my brother down from the nosebleeds, but even at an *Ottawa* game, the usher guarded the seats as if we were trying to break into Fort Knox! (Ottawa played a roster of beer-leaguers back then).