Like I wrote last week when the Edmonton Oilers announced that Craig MacTavish was leaving the team to take a coaching job in the KHL, I understand why fans applauded the decision and are calling for more changes to an organization that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1990, when Don Getty was Premier of Alberta. It’s also a reminder of how time flies.
Win or lose, change is inevitable and necessary. That’s especially true when you’re talking about a span of 29 years since the Oilers sipped from the Stanley Cup for the fifth time. With each passing year, those five Cups – 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990 – become a more distant speck on the horizon in the rear-view mirror. How many readers here are old enough to have witnessed the last one, let alone the first one?
Had the Oilers continued winning, or at least contending for the Cup in the years since, we’d be talking about tradition when it comes to MacTavish and other players who helped hoist all that silverware. Save for that unexpected trip to the Cup final in 2006, fans have had precious little to cheer about, so we’re instead talking about the Old Boys Club, and how it’s past time that it was dismantled. I’m not going to browbeat or beef with fans who feel that way after decades of failure and futility.
I’ve never cheered for the Oilers – in fact, I loathed them when they’d come into Vancouver and pump my Canucks for fun before I got into the sports writing biz about the same time they were winning that first Cup. What I will say now is I wish the years since 1990 had been better to this organization. First, for the fans, but also so that the people who built the last great hockey dynasty in the first place could bid farewell gracefully instead of getting the bum’s rush. I don’t like to see them go out this way.
TIME AND CONTEXT
As I’ve written before, I wasn’t even in Edmonton for the first four Cup parades, but I got to cover the last one in 1990 after arriving at The Journal in December 1989. That last sip from Stanley was the most unlikely of the five. With Wayne Gretzky already gone and more members of the dynasty days soon to follow as owner Peter Pocklington dismantled his team, fans were about to find out how good they’d had it. Being the age I am, it seems like the blink of an eye ago, even though it wasn’t. Again, time flies.
I thought about that passage of time when MacTavish read the writing on the wall and decided to move on with Ken Holland settling in as POHO and GM. I thought about it again when former equipment manager Barrie Stafford announced last weekend he was retiring after 38 years. I’ve been thinking about it for more than a year, actually, since I got involved with the Mustard Seed and Hockey Helps the Homeless, a charity tournament that raised more than $250,000 earlier this month — a tournament that would not exist without the participation of the Oilers alumni.
Only a few of the players from the great Oilers’ teams, thinner on top and thicker in the middle than in their primes, play in the tournament. Many, for various reasons, don’t. Guys like Glenn Anderson and Craig Muni, not to mention nemesis Bob Bourne from the New York Islanders, were wheeling around – that might be too generous a description. Former coach Ron Low, a driving force in the event, was behind the bench. Then, there was Dave Lumley, now 64. He played in 2018 but watched this year because his aches and pains are catching up with him.
Most of the Oilers alumni at events like HHTH are younger, players who toiled here long after the parades ended and the celebrations faded – guys like Georges Laraque, Ethan Moreau and Dean McAmmond. Laraque is 42, Moreau is 43 and McAmmond is 45, even if he still looks 25. What they hell, boys, you were just kids full of piss and vinegar in the dressing room like 15 minutes ago. Let’s see, if the young ones are in their mid-40’s now, then that makes me . . . nevermind.
Whether they played for the Oilers for eight games or eight years or wore the jersey in the glory days or the forgettable days since then before moving on down the road and eventually retiring, there’s an undeniable connection and kinship at play when they are drawn back together. Lots of stories, lots of BS, lots of laughs. Years, in many cases decades, after their playing days are done, you can see the pride in that brotherhood.
Most of the old Boys on the Bus, of course, are removed from the game in varying degrees. Most move away. Some stay. Either way, they’re out of the spotlight when it comes to the Oilers of today. A few have returned to the team in different capacities within hockey operations and gone again at various times during these difficult years. Kelly Buchberger, Steve Smith, Charlie Huddy and Craig Simpson come to mind.
Others, like original Oiler Kevin Lowe and MacTavish, until last week, have spent more time coaching and working in various capacities in the front office trying to get things right – failing at it more often than not — than they did winning all those Stanley Cups. This is where the rich tradition of teams past and years of failure intersect, where the chorus calling for the end of the Old Boys Club has grown.
Nostalgia has its place and I’m happy to wax on about it all day long, but it’s been 29 years since that last Stanley Cup. Like it or not, it’s time to look ahead rather than back at the good, old days.
WHILE I’M AT IT
The Oilers today parted ways with director of pro scouting Duane Sutter, who was hired in August of 2011, and J.J. Hebert, senior director of communications and media relations.