*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).
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.