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On the way out

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.

A BROTHERHOOD

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.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

    • OilerForLife

      I watch all 5 cups, and the start, which was the Alberta Oilers in the WHA. I hope to witness more and haven’t given up, cut me open and my blue is Blue, White or Orange depending on my mood that day. The Oilers have some really good pieces and I hope KH can build this franchise up again, one trade move, signing or draft pick at a time. I’ll never forget the past, it’s a free country, but would rather see it happen again to inspire a new generation of fans, because they deserve to know what it feels like as well, and I miss how I felt when it happened.

  • Hockeytalkguy

    I was in grade 9 when they won the 1st cup. When they won the 4th cup in 1988, I honestly thought they would win 5 more with that team, then the dismantling started as Pocklington was broke. I don’t like living in the past, but those were some fantastic teams we watched. I guess what I remember the most is how those oiler teams HATED to lose. When the playoffs started it was all hands on deck. It will take a couple years but the Oilers will win a cup again.

  • D

    I was able to live with the team not winning in the 1990s because the Oilers were basically hanging on to survive as a franchise. But their post-salary-cap failures have been unforgiveable.

    • CMG30

      Yes the 90s were a dark time. But for a different reason. Run on a shoestring budget by a group who, while keeping the organization in Edmonton, could not afford the price to keep the top players on the team. Heck for a while they couldn’t even afford a farm team. Still there was a lot of pride to being an Oilers fan then. Those teams were some of the hardest working teams the Oilers ever had. When they lost it wasn’t because they didn’t leave everything on the ice, it was because every year they were stripped of their best horses by the deep pockets elsewhere. If only those teams had been able to ice a McDavid…

      • The EIG didn’t take over until 1998, but point taken. Pocklington not only didn’t have the money to keep the Oilers competitive, he sold off players like Gretzky and cut payroll just to stay afloat. Bad teams and half-empty buildings in the mid-1990’s.

  • Rama Lama

    The Oilers of days gone by always seemed to have balance in their lines………a playmaker, a shooter, and a digger……..how the collective brain trust have forgotten this is lost on me.

    It seems we have no balance anymore…….if Holland can figure this out and restore balance, well all will be good.

  • OilCan2

    My dad took me to the first game in Edmonton’s fabulous new Coliseum on Nov 10 1974. $9.00 per ticket 15 rows off the ice. I still have the stub and certificate. Will two dynasties emerge in the NHL in the next decade? NYI – 4, Oilers – 4, Flames – fore.

  • GM-macT

    Always a pleasure to read your work Brownlee. Watched that entire YouTube clip. I grew up with that team. I was 8 and 10 for their last 2 cups and remember them well. Would love to see one as an adult to truely appreciate it, at the time it seemed like a for gone conclusion that my mighty Oilers would win it all.

  • Kelly Youngblood

    I always hoped to see Ryan Smyth get a role in the organization in player development or director of giving a crap. That’s a guy who bled copper and blue.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    Nice to see you made it back to troll, you must have finally finished picking up all those Lamers jerseys that were thrown on the ice after another first round exit hey…

  • Nellzo

    I’ve been around and old enough to remember watching the Islanders win their last Cup. The Oilers teams in those days were feared. The teams in the mid 90s were awful but they worked hard, (mostly…). The late 90s and early 2000s had barely enough talent to make the playoffs but they had heart and a phenomenal work ethic. It’s been a pretty unremarkable run since ’06. They have to make changes throughout the entire operation and Holland is moving forward with that objective in the hockey ops department. He recognizes the optimal course of action is to revamp and pare down before bringing a coach in. If we’re lucky we’ll see a rebirth instead of a rebuild.

  • 786

    It seems it’s for real this time, but please Lowe has to go. He’s the root problem and has been the protector of all those guys. As long as he remains in the organization there’s a chance for him to orchestrate a come back through some unimaginable way. That’d be a real nightmare come true. This is from a scared and paranoid oilers fan.

  • OilTastic

    I was a young man in the 80’s and had the pleasure of watching all 5 cup wins! I really idolized these guys but for the most part saw them fail as GMs, coaches and upper management here. I also think that the OBC has finally run it’s course here and it really is time to say goodbye to them and get a badly needed fresh start!

    • I’ve been here 11 years and you need to ask that?

      Also, while *you’re here, your comment isn’t aging well:

      “I bet no one in upper management is let go before the start of the season. Prove me wrong Ken Holland.”

      • You are right i was way wrong. Im glad he proved me wrong. I guess now we wait and see about an improved team. Hey if the oilers make the playoffs he can prove me wrong all he likes. Ive been in this city since 1991 not much success since i have lived here. The Katz era is not that great. Prove me wrong on that one.