History provides context, and I got a little of that while thumbing through the Edmonton Oilers’ record book after they returned home from their five-game road swing with a 16-8-3 record after a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday. Sixteen wins in 27 games is pretty good, no? Yes.
The Oilers have managed 16 wins a handful of times – this season, 2001-02 and 1986-87 – but you’ve got to go all the way back to 1985-86 to find a season in which they’ve had more. That edition of the Oilers, with Wayne Gretzky putting up 215 points, Paul Coffey scoring 48 goals and Jari Kurri potting 68 goals, won 19 of 27 games, going 19-4-4. That’s pretty good company.
While a start like that guarantees nothing – the Oilers lost to the Calgary Flames on Steve Smith’s own goal in the 1986 Smythe Division final – the Oilers are today in the playoff chase atop the Western Conference despite that loss in Denver as they prepare to face the Vancouver Canucks in back-to-back games. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but this is damn sure better than the hole they’ve dug themselves early too often in recent seasons.
Just as important, the Oilers don’t sound like a team satisfied with where they’re at. From GM Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett and on down through the players, the talk is about getting better and keeping the hammer down. They’re not having any of the talk about percentages and teams that are in the playoffs as of American Thanksgiving staying there. They’re looking ahead, not back.
WHAT THEY SAY
“Finding ways to win, it can’t always be pretty,” Holland said. “I think every time you can find a way to win and add, the belief grows. The confidence grows. Going into a game and believing your best is good enough to win, I think that we’re in the process of developing that . . . the first order of business is to keep our foot on the pedal. We need to find a way to play our way into the playoffs, and then you have to make some noise in the playoffs.”
“I think the most important thing for us is that we’re still growing as a team, we’re still learning,” Leon Draisaitl said after a team skate Thursday. “I think we played some really good hockey on this road trip and then some hockey we want to stay away from. Again, it’s just a lesson that you have to learn. Even when you’re not playing your best, there’s still a way of winning hockey games and we have to make sure we find those ways.”
The Oilers couldn’t find a way to get it done in Denver in a game where they lost Alex Chiasson and played two defencemen down for a stretch when Adam Larsson was handed a game misconduct and Kris Russell was injured. They’ll have to get along without Chiasson and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is out with a hand injury, against the Canucks. If you go based on the form the Oilers have shown this season, they’ll suck it up and bounce back against the Canucks. I wouldn’t bet against it.
The Oilers are a work in progress without a doubt, but at 16-8-3 they are better than I – and likely you – thought they’d be after their first 27 games. As important in the bigger picture, they don’t sound at all like a group of players easing into being satisfied with where they’re at. Hammer down.
WHILE I’M AT IT
So, Bill Peters is out as the coach of the Calgary Flames – officially, he resigned this morning – for racial slurs he directed at player Akim Aliu 10 years ago in the AHL. That’s as it should be because there is no context and no timeline when saying what Peters said to Aliu is acceptable – not five years ago, not 10 years ago, not 50 years ago. That’s not a grey area.
Being the age I am and thinking about how much what is considered acceptable has changed in these last 50 years, I do wonder about how far we’re willing to go back in the name of righting what is wrong by today’s standards as it relates to the grey areas of decades ago. In many instances, what was deemed within the norm back then is way out of bounds now.
I went to school in an era when rules about corporal punishment allowed teachers to paddle or use a leather strap to strike students on the backside and hands. I went to a private high school where it was within the rules for the headmaster to cane students across the backside. You’d drop your pants, bend down and place your palms on a foot stool and the headmaster would strike you six times. That discipline, known as “six of the best,” would leave welts. I took the leather and the cane more than once.
That kind of discipline would be considered assault now and has not been allowed for decades. That’s unquestionably a good thing. I always thought the cane and the strap were useless. It didn’t make me behave any better, it just made me mad. I wouldn’t, however, want to see a teacher who applied punishment that was deemed acceptable by the standards in place 50 years ago judged by the standards of today.
Back in the early 1970’s, the equipment we had for lacrosse was garbage compared to what it is today. For shoulder pads, you’d buy what was essentially a cloth shell that was stuffed with wadding and add your own stuff to it – bits of hard shell made from cut-up hockey shin pads, makeshift shoulder caps etc. all sewn together. It was hit and miss at best.
My midget year, I showed up for practice with new pads I’d just put together. My coach took one look and said they’d never work. I told him they’d be fine. The coach stubbed out his cigarette, took me out on the floor and spent maybe 30 seconds hacking away at me with his stick, hitting every gap and unprotected area to prove his point. I had welts and bruises on my arms for weeks. Lesson learned, I thought. I fixed them up. I wore long sleeves for a week or so and never told my mom. I was 14. How would cell phone video of that play today?
While I’m it, I bet there’s a lot of 40-60-something guys like me today thanking their lucky stars there weren’t a bank of cellphones and microphones around when things got heated. Trash talk back in the day was ugly. You can’t say that stuff now. Times change. What was the norm back then would get you suspended or worse today. Again, that’s a good thing.
We’re in a better place now, but there’s a lot more more work to do, as the Peters-Aliu incident shows. We can and should expect more from each other. We must. That goes right from the entry level of minor and community sports on up to the highest levels of competition and beyond the world of sports to society as a whole. I’m old enough to know how far we’ve come, but where we’re at is only a step along the way, not the finish line.
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