The Edmonton Oilers are a professional hockey franchise that currently plays in the Pacific Division of the National Hockey League. Founded in 1971 as the Alberta Oilers, the Oilers were one of the 12 founding franchises of the now defunct World Hockey Association. They played seven seasons in the WHA before joining the NHL along with the Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, and Winnipeg Jets during the 1979 NHL-WHA merger. Since then, the Oilers have played 37 seasons in the NHL, and have won the Stanley Cup five times.
In the early 1970s, two American promoters, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, sought to create a rival league to the NHL in order to capitalize on markets in Canada and the United States without professional hockey teams. The pair travelled across North America recruiting potential owners to start a new league that would be known as the World Hockey Association.
The Alberta Oilers, founded by Bill Hunter, who also owned, managed, and coached the Major Junior Oil Kings and helped found the Western Hockey League, were one of the 12 original teams in the WHA’s inaugural season. The team was originally going to be called the Edmonton Oilers, but when the Broncos, Calgary’s WHA franchise, folded, the team planned to split time between the two major Albertan cities, thus using the Alberta allegiance in their name. The Oilers never ended up playing games in Calgary due to financial and logistic complications and the team was re-named the Edmonton Oilers the following season.
While the WHA was largely comprised of journeymen players and minor leaguers, the league immediately gained notoriety when the Winnipeg Jets signed superstar Bobby Hull to a five-year, $1 million contract with a $1 million signing bonus. At the time, NHL players were paid by far the lowest of the four major North American professional sports. The NHL also had a reserve clause in which a player’s contract was automatically extended by one year after it expired, tying a player to a team so long as the team wanted them. This binding clause coupled with poor salaries made the WHA an attractive option for players, especially after Hull put the league on the map with his cord-breaking contract.
On Oct. 11, 1972, the Oilers defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4 at Ottawa Civic Centre in the league’s first-ever game. The Oilers, while posting mediocre results in the standings, were one of the most financially successful teams in the league. A key part of their success was the construction of the Northlands Coliseum in 1974, a stadium in northern Edmonton with the capacity to hold over 15,000 fans.
PETER POCKLINGTON BUYS IN
In 1976, the Oilers were sold by Hunter to real estate entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania, who later brought on Alberta oil tycoon Peter Pocklington as a 50-50 owner. While Skalbania was bought out by his partner just one year into his ownership of the Oilers, the businessman played a massive role in the future of the franchise. In the summer of 1978, Skalbania signed Canadian hockey prodigy Wayne Gretzky to a personal services contract to play for the Indianapolis Racers, another WHA franchise he purchased soon after being bought out by Pocklington.
Skalbania was known for finding success as a real estate tycoon who flipped properties for profit. This was no different with his sports franchise ownership. While hockey wasn’t thriving in Indianapolis, with the inevitability of the league’s collapse and a merger between the NHL and WHA on the horizon, Skalbania used his prized prospect to start a sweepstakes between successful WHA franchises, the Jets and Oilers, knowing that having Gretzky would massively increase their popularity.
While the legitimacy of this story is questioned, Larry Gordon, the Oilers general manager during their WHA days, claims that Gretzky ended up an Oiler because of a game of backgammon in a private jet. Backgammon is one of the oldest board games in human history, dating back over 5,000 years to ancient Persia. The game is a combination of skill and luck that involves rolling dice and moving tiles across a board and has, throughout modern history, been used for gambling and betting.
According to Gordon, Skalbania offered up hockey players, with Gretzky being the centrepieces his side of the bet, while Pocklington offered up expensive pieces of art. Pocklington won the game and acquired Gretzky and his services contract which wouldn’t necessarily have been of as much value to Skalbania if he didn’t own a hockey team that was being absorbed into the NHL. Subsequently, Pocklington used his newly-acquired prize as a bargaining chip to ensure the Oilers not only got into the NHL, but hit the ground running.
With Gretzky in the fold, the Oilers had far and away their most successful WHA season in 1978-79, posting a 48-30-2 record. Gretzky, who was only 17 at the time, led the way with 43 goals and 61 assists, but the Oilers were stopped in the Avco Trophy Final by the Jets. The championship-clinching sixth game in Winnipeg that the Jets won 7-3 ended up being the final game in WHA history as four of the seven remaining teams, the Oilers, Jets, Quebec Nordiques, and New England Whalers, joined the NHL.
THE WHA/NHL MERGER
Merger talks between the NHL and WHA began shortly after the league was born in 1972. In 1973, Bill Jennings and Ed Snider, who owned the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, offered to have all 12 WHA franchises join the NHL for $4 million each. The league’s President at the time, Clarence Campbell, was aggressively opposed to a merger, claiming “to hell with them” because the WHA tried to destroy the NHL.
In the mid-70s, both leagues were struggling financially, and John Ziegler, who had taken over the role of NHL President for Campbell after he retired in 1977, was more receptive of a merger. After multiple failed proposals, the two leagues reached an agreement in March 1979 to merge. The NHL’s 17 owners voted on the merger, with 12 saying yes and five saying no. The proposal was one vote short of the required three-fourths majority, as the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings, and Vancouver Canucks were opposed.
The Bruins were opposed to sharing New England with the Whalers, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs were uninterested in splitting Hockey Night in Canada with more teams, and the Canucks and Kings, who themselves were relatively new additions to the league, feared having fewer games against large markets from the East which drove ticket sales and TV revenue. Upon hearing that the Canadiens, who were owned and operated by Molson Brewery, voted against allowing the Oilers, Jets, and Nordiques to merge into the NHL, fans in the three cities organized a boycott of Molson products.
The boycott quickly spread nation-wide as fans in Canada wanted the NHL to add more Canadian teams to the league. It gained so much momentum that the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion urging the NHL to reconsider its decision. In another vote, both Vancouver and Montreal changed their stances to in favour of the merger, as both were greatly affected by the Molson boycott.
The aftermath of the agreement resulted in the Oilers, Whalers, Jets, and Nordiques joining the league for the 1979-80 season while the WHA dissolved. The NHL treated each of the four new teams as expansion franchises, having them pay a $6 million fee to enter the league. The new teams also had to release all of their players into a reclamation draft for the established franchises, only being able to protect two skaters and two goaltenders.
In 1979, Pocklington, likely seeing the inevitability of an unfavourable situation for the new WHA clubs in the merger, had signed Gretzky to a 21-year contract. Not only did Pocklington use this as leverage to ensure that the Oilers would be one of the teams allowed into the WHA, he also used it to navigate around Gretzky having to go into the NHL Entry Draft. Pocklington claimed Gretzky’s incredible talent would fill every NHL arena, but since he had the star forward under contract, he would only enter the NHL as a member of the Oilers. The league eventually caved, allowing the Oilers to protect Gretzky rather than having him enter the draft. The Oilers protected Gretzky and goaltenders Eddie Mio and Dave Dryden as they joined the league.
GOOD TIMES AT THE DRAFT TABLE
The 1979 expansion draft between the Jets, Oilers, Whalers, and Nordiques was heavily slanted towards the existing NHL teams, as they were allowed to protect 15 skaters and two goalies. As a result, the talent pool for the new four teams was virtually non-existent. Head coach Glen Sather and general manager Larry Gordon focused on soon-to-be free agent players so that the Oilers would get compensation selections in the NHL Entry Draft.
The Entry Draft in the franchise’s first few years in the NHL was key to its ultimate success throughout the 1980s. In 1979, the Oilers made Kevin Lowe, a defenceman from the Quebec Remparts, their first-ever NHL draft pick with the 21st overall selection. Having lost Dave Semenko, who played the role as Gretzky’s bodyguard on the ice, to the Minnesota North Stars in the player dispersal draft, the Oilers pulled the trigger on a deal, sending Minnesota their second and third round picks in exchange for Semenko and a third round pick. With that third round pick, the Oilers drafted Mark Messier, a local forward who had played in the WHA.
The Oilers saw mediocre results in their first two NHL seasons, but still managed to qualify for the playoffs largely because 16 of the league’s 21 teams did so. The Oilers were dropped in the first round both seasons, but managed to get their young players experience in high-pressure situations while still also getting high selections in the Entry Draft.
With the sixth overall pick in the 1980 draft, the Oilers selected Paul Coffey, a high-flying offensive defenceman from the Kitchener Rangers. In 1981, with the eighth overall pick, the Oilers added a goaltender to the mix, selecting Grant Fuhr from the Victoria Cougars. Within three years, the Oilers added high-calibre talent in Lowe, Coffey, and Fuhr with first round picks, but also made some major under-the-radar selections in Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Steve Smith, Andy Moog, and Mark Messier, all of whom would play major roles for the franchise for years to come.
In 1981-82, things really started to come together for the Oilers. Wayne Gretzky was establishing himself as a legendary talent, setting a record with 92 goals and 212 points in the regular season. Gretzky had already been a force in the NHL before that, winning the NHL’s Hart Trophy for the Most Valuable Player in both 1979-80 and 1980-81, but with the team’s nucleus rounding into form behind him, Gretzky found a brand new gear. In his rookie season, Gretzky failed to win the Art Ross Trophy for league’s leading scorer as Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings won the tiebreaker for having two more goals. Gretzky also wasn’t eligible to win the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year in 1980 as he had played professionally in the WHA, and Raymond Bourque of the Boston Bruins was given the award. But after that, Gretzky began a period of dominance never before seen in professional sports.
THE GLORY DAYS
According to hockey analyst and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden, Gretzky and the Oilers of the 1980s completely changed the way hockey was played, becoming the first North American squad to truly play a team style. Dryden suggested that before the Gretzky days, teams would rely on one superstar player to make a big play, and all of their tactics would go into getting that player the puck. But with Gretzky being smaller, weaker, and slower than your average star player, he utilized his teammates in order to open up the ice. According to Dryden, Gretzky would direct attention away from him so that he could dart into open ice and make plays. Between 1982 and 1985, the Oilers scored an unprecedented amount of goals, averaging 423 goals per season while no other team had eclipsed 400.
This ultimately led to the Oilers becoming a dynasty in the NHL during the 1980s. In 1981-82, the Oilers put up a 48-17-15 record, finishing atop the league’s Western Conference. They ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Kings in a massive upset. The following season, the Oilers finished with a 47-21-12 record while four different players on the team scored over 100 points. They plowed through the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, and Chicago Black Hawks only losing one game en route to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance. There they were stopped by the New York Islanders dynasty, who won their fourth-straight championship.
In 1983-84, Lee Fogolin, the last remaining player selected by the Oilers in the 1979 Expansion Draft, gave up his captaincy to Gretzky. The Oilers had an incredible regular season, going 57-18-5, which is still their highest single season win total. The Oilers also became the first NHL team to have three players score 50 goals in a season, as Gretzky, Kurri, and Anderson each topped the mark, while Coffey became the first defenceman to score 40 goals. Gretzky also reached the 200-point plateau for the second time in his career.
The Oilers navigated through the playoffs, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, taking down the Calgary Flames in seven games in the second round, and sweeping the Minnesota North Stars in the Conference Final. They met with the Islanders again in the Stanley Cup Final, with New York in pursuit of their fifth-straight championship. The teams split the first two games on Long Island, then Edmonton came back home and won three in a row to capture their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Mark Messier was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.
The following season, the Oilers took a step back in terms of their regular season performance. They posted a 49-20-11 record, largely because eight Oilers played for the 1984 Canada Cup team in the summer. Head coach Glen Sather also took a vacation to Hawaii in the middle of the season. Still, they had the second-most points in the NHL, Gretzky became the youngest player to record 1,000 NHL points, Kurri set a career-high with 71 goals, and Coffey again eclipsed the 100-point plateau.
The Oilers mowed their way through the playoffs en route to their second Stanley Cup, taking down the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Gretzky won the Conn Smythe after recording a staggering 48 points in the playoffs, while Kurri tied Reggie Leach’s all-time single-playoff goals record with 19 and Coffey set a new record for points in a playoffs by a defenceman with 37.
In 1985-86, the Oilers tied their franchise-high in points in the regular season with 119, amassing a 56-17-7 record. In the playoffs, their pursuit of a third-straight Stanley Cup was cut short by the Calgary Flames in a famous seven-game Battle of Alberta. The Oilers and Flames went back-and-forth in a physical, heated series before playing Game 7 in Edmonton. In the third period, with the game tied 2-2, rookie defenceman Steve Smith shot a breakout pass from behind the net off of Grant Fuhr’s leg and into the net, giving Calgary a late lead. The Oilers tried to rally, but couldn’t tie the game. It ended up being the only time in the 80s the Flames would beat the Oilers in a playoff series. They ended up losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.
Edmonton again put together a dominant season in 1986-87 with Gretzky, Kurri, and Messier finishing in the top five in league scoring. Mid-way through the season, the Oilers bolstered their roster by acquiring former Calgary Flames legend Kent Nilsson from the Minnesota North Stars to solidify their top-six forward group. The Oilers reached the Stanley Cup Final where they would face the Flyers, who were riding high off of the excellent play of rookie goaltender Ron Hextall. Despite outplaying Philadelphia, Hextall’s great play forced the series to seven games. The Oilers won Game 7 at home 3-1 and Gretzky immediately passed the Stanley Cup to Steve Smith, giving him vindication for the previous year’s infamous own goal.
The 1987-88 season would see the beginning of the unravelling of Edmonton’s talented core. When training camp opened, multiple players didn’t report. Messier missed all of training camp while negotiating a new contract, Paul Coffey didn’t report at all due to frustrations with head coach Glen Sather. Glenn Anderson and forward Mike Krushelnyski also didn’t report to camp, while Nilsson and Reijo Ruotsalainen decided to play a season in Europe instead. Andy Moog didn’t report because he was tired of being Grant Fuhr’s backup. He and defenceman Randy Gregg ended up joining the Canadian Olympic team. Sather pulled the trigger on a couple of big trades, sending Coffey to the Pittsburgh Penguins for former second overall pick Craig Simpson and Moog to the Boston Bruins for promising young goalie Bill Ranford and skilled winger Geoff Courtnall.
Because of the animosity to start the season coupled with many players spending the summer with the Canada Cup team, the Oilers had a mediocre regular season for their standards. Gretzky missed 16 games due to injury, and ultimately ended up not winning the league’ scoring title for the first time in his career, as Mario Lemieux put up 168 points to Gretzky’s 149. The Oilers also failed to win the Smythe Division for the first time since 1980-81. Still, the Oilers plowed through the playoffs, losing only two games and sweeping the Bruins in the Cup Final for their fourth championship. After winning, Gretzky had his teammates and staff join him at centre ice for a photo with the Stanley Cup, beginning a tradition still seen by the Stanley Cup Champion to this day.
Little did anyone know, that series against the Bruins would represent the final time Gretzky suited up as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Earlier in the season, former owner Nelson Skalbania told Walter Gretzky, Wayne’s father, that Pocklington was looking to trade the team’s superstar forward. This largely came down to Pocklington’s other business ventures failing and him wanting to get something for Gretzky rather than risking losing him as a free agent. The previous summer, Gretzky altered his personal services contract with Pocklington to a standard five-year player contract, meaning he would be able to become free agent after the 1988-89 season.
Two hours after winning the Stanley Cup in 1988, Walter Gretzky informed his son of Pocklington’s plans. At first, Gretzky didn’t want to leave Edmonton, but after his honeymoon in Los Angeles, he was approached by Kings owner Bruce McNall regarding a potential trade. Gretzky agreed Los Angeles would be a suitable place to continue his career, and requested that teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski be included in a potential deal. After both sides negotiated and Gretzky agreed to Pocklington to waive his no trade clause, the trade was executed.
On August 9, 1988, the Oilers sent Gretzky, McSorley, and Krushelnyski to the Kings for young star Jimmy Carson, prospect Martin Gelinas, three first round draft picks, and $15 million in cash. In a famous press conference after the trade, a tear-filled Gretzky proclaimed “I promised Mess I wouldn’t do this,” referring to telling teammate Mark Messier he wouldn’t break down. The move was met with massive amounts of angst from not only Oilers fans, but Canadians in general as the country’s prodigy was being shipped to an American market. Pocklington was heavily ostracized for the deal and many were critical of Gretzky for turning him back on the country, suggesting he helped orchestrate the deal to Los Angeles to help further his wife’s acting career.
In his return to Edmonton with the Kings on Oct. 19, 1988, Gretzky received a four-minute standing ovation from the crowd on national television. Cheers erupted when he took the ice for his first shift and when he was hit into the boards by Messier, who had taken over the team’s captaincy. After the game, Gretzky spoke to the advent of him turning his back on Canada, stating “I’m still proud to be a Canadian. I didn’t desert my country. I moved because I was traded and that’s where my job is. But I’m Canadian to the core. I hope Canadians understand that.” After the season, the Oilers erected a life-sized bronze statue of Gretzky lifting the Stanley Cup outside of Northlands Coliseum, one that still stands in Edmonton today at the new Rogers Place arena downtown.
Gretzky finished his Oilers career with 583 goals and 1669 points in 696 games, far and away the most in franchise history. In fact, only eight players have recorded more points in their entire NHL careers than Gretzky did in his nine seasons with the Oilers. Gretzky also won an incredible amount of hardware during his Edmonton career, taking home the Art Ross trophy seven times, the Hart Trophy eight times, and Conn Smythe trophy twice. His records, especially 215 points in a season and 50 goals in 39 games, are viewed as some of the most unbreakable records in all of sports.
The first season in Edmonton post-Gretzky was tumultuous for the Oilers. Many players were furious about the trade, suggesting Pocklington sell the team. The Oilers ended up with a 38-34-8 record, their worst since 1980-81, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Gretzky’s King’s in seven games. After the season, Sather stepped down as head coach, but stayed on as the team’s general manager. He was replaced by John Muckler, who had served as an assistant coach under Sather.
The 1989-90 season was much better for the Oilers, but wasn’t without struggle. During training camp, Fuhr came down with a case of appendicitis and missed the first 10 games of the season. This opened the door for the young Bill Ranford to take the net. Jimmy Carson, a key player in the Gretzky deal and the previous season’s team goal leader, left the team four games into the season because of the intense pressure he felt playing for the team. Carson was eventually dealt to the Detroit Red Wings for Petr Klima, Adam Graves, Joe Murphy, and Jeff Sharples, who was later dealt to the New Jersey Devils to re-acquire Reijo Ruotsalainen.
Murphy, Graves, and Martin Gelinas would form “The Kid Line” while Klima helped provide more offence in the team’s top six and the familiar play of Ruotsalainen helped solidify the blueline. The Oilers ended up finishing the season with a solid 38-28-14 record, good for second in the Smythe Division. They edged the Jets in the first round before sweeping Gretzky’s Kings in a spirited effort in the second round. After downing the Blackhawks in the Conference Final, the underdog Oilers met the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.
The first game of this series went down as one of the most legendary games in hockey history, as the Oilers and Bruins competed in what is still the longest game in Cup Final history. In the third overtime period of Game 1, Klima scored the winning goal despite Boston heavily outshooting Edmonton. While all the other players were exhausted from essentially playing two games in one night, Klima was fresh after spending the majority of the game on the bench. The goal would give Edmonton momentum the rest of the way as the team went on the capture its fifth Stanley Cup and first without Gretzky. Ranford was was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy after an incredible performance in the final.
The 1990 Stanley Cup is the most recent the Oilers have won to date and it marks the end of the team’s incredible dynasty years. Seven players, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jarri Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Randy Gregg, Charlie Huddy, and Grant Fuhr, were members of all five Oilers Stanley Cup teams. Over that seven-year span, the Oilers set many records and ultimately posted a .648 winning percentage as a team, making them arguably the greatest dynasty in NHL history.
The shift into the 1990s saw a massive transition for both the Oilers and the NHL as a whole. The trade of Gretzky to Los Angeles not only affected the Oilers roster by them losing their superstar player, it also created a ripple effect around the league due to the knowledge of his new salary in Los Angeles. The NHL Players’ Association began disclosing player salaries and this, coupled with the growth of the sport in the United States, resulted in massively increasing contracts. This, of course, was difficult for a small market team like Edmonton.
In the summer of 1990, Messier, fresh off of captaining the Oilers to the Stanley Cup and a Hart Trophy win, demanded a salary increase to be higher than anyone in the league other than Gretzky and Mario Lemieux despite the fact he was under contract until 1993. Kurri was also frustrated with his current salary and left the team to play in Europe. Prior to the season, Fuhr was suspended from the NHL for 60 games for drug abuse. The Oilers finished 37-37-6 and met with the Calgary Flames in the first round in a Battle of Alberta is viewed by many as one of the best Stanley Cup playoff series ever played.
The teams split the first two games in Calgary before coming back to Edmonton, where things took a turn for the violent. In Calgary, Messier flattened Flames defenceman Ric Nattress with a vicious elbow, raising tensions for the rest of the series. In Game 4, Edmonton enforcer got into a fight with Flames defenceman Jim Kyte, in which the former tried to pummel the latter into the ice. The Flames fought back to win Game 5 and 6 to force a seventh game in Calgary. The Flames took an early 3-0 lead, prompting Esa Tikkanen to chew his teammates out during a timeout for the effort. The Oilers rallied and eventually won the game in overtime on a Tikkanen wrist shot, a marquee moment in his Oilers career. The Oilers would go on to beat Gretzky’s Kings before getting stopped by the Cinderella Minnesota North Stars in the Western Conference Final.
THE EXODUS OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP CORE
Soon after, it became known that the Oilers were looking to blow up the remainder of their championship core. Adam Graves signed an offer sheet with the New York Rangers, and Sather decided not to match it. Messier was furious that the Oilers were letting key players go and publicly demanded a trade. Midway through training camp, Anderson and Fuhr were sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Vincent Damphousse, Luke Richardson, Scott Thornton, and Peter Ing. Messier held out during camp and Sather started a bidding war between the Flyers and Detroit Red Wings for his services. Both teams balked because they didn’t want to trade young stars Steve Yzerman or Mark Recchi. Messier was eventually dealt to the New York Rangers for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, Louie DeBrusk, and $5 million cash. In other deals, the Oilers moved Steve Smith, Dave Brown, and Jarri Kurri’s rights. Head coach John Muckler also moved on to become the coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.
The Oilers entered the season as a very different team from the dynasty 80s group, but were still a solid team. Kevin Lowe assumed the team’s captaincy from Messier, while Damphousse and Nicholls joined Craig Simpson and Joe Murphy as a formidable forward core. After a 36-34-10 season, the Oilers played the Kings again in the first round. The Kings now featured six former Oilers, including Gretzky and Kurri, but couldn’t prevail over the gritty Oilers. Edmonton beat Vancouver in the second round, but then lost to the Blackhawks in the Conference Final.
The team’s playoff run in 1992 would be the final hurrah for the Oilers before the team entered a period of struggle never before seen by the franchise. Fans were angered by the Gretzky trade and the exodus of star players, and the team’s attendance declined because of it. Furthermore, the Oilers had a difficult time competing with larger markets for talent as player salaries continued to rise. Another key issue for the Oilers was a poor track record of drafting and developing. After having a legendary showing in their first few years at the NHL Entry Draft table, the Oilers didn’t draft many impact players between 1982 and 1992. While Sather was excellent at finding finishing pieces to augment an already good team, he wasn’t successful in developing young talent for the future, and as a result, the Oilers were completely barren by 1992-93.
The Oilers had their worst season in franchise history in 1992-93, posting a 26-50-8 record, missing the playoffs for the first time since entering the NHL. They only scored 242 goals, while Petr Klima led the team in scoring with 48 points. Prior to the start of the season, the Oilers dealt Vincent Damphousse, then they followed that up with an exodus that saw Kevin Lowe, Bernie Nicholls, Joe Murphy, and Esa Tikkanen to contending teams.
The mid-1990s was the first period of darkness the Oilers had seen as an NHL franchise. Between 1992 and 1996, the Oilers never finished with a record over .500 and failed to make the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. But during that time, they began to develop a new core of talented young players, led by Doug Weight who was acquired from the New York Rangers in the Tikkanen deal. With top draft picks in 1993, 1994, and 1995, the Oilers selected Jason Arnott, Ryan Smyth, Jason Bonsignore, and Steve Kelly. The former two became key players on an improving Oilers team, while the latter two were eventually used to acquire stud defenceman Roman Hamrlik from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sensing the team was close to taking a step back into contention, the Oilers dealt two first round picks to the St. Louis Blues to acquire Curtis Joseph, who had finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist the previous few seasons.
A RETURN TO THE PLAYOFFS
The Oilers returned to the playoffs in 1996-97 with a gritty team that boasted solid scoring depth. In the playoffs, Joseph put up a tremendous performance to help the Oilers upset the heavily-favoured Dallas Stars in seven games. Momentum shifted massively in Game 3 at home, as the Oilers rallied from down 3-0 with just four minutes to go in the game before captain Kelly Buchberger, one of the only players left on the team who had been around for a Stanley Cup win, scored the winner in overtime. The marquee moment of the series came in Game 7, when the speedy Todd Marchant took a pass from Dough Weight and burst down the wing and shot the overtime winner past former Oiler Andy Moog to clinch the series. The Oilers would lose to the Colorado Avalanche, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, in the second round, but the gritty Cinderella win over Dallas brought excitement back to the city of the first time in half a decade.
Curtis Joseph helped the Oilers to another major upset in 1997-98 when the Oilers, who finished with a sub-.500 record, defeated the Avalanche in the first round in seven games. Colorado, led by future Hall of Famers Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, and Peter Forsberg, took a 3-1 series lead, but the Oilers battled back, winning the final three games of the series. At one point, Joseph and the Oilers held the high-flying Avs to no goals for eight periods. The Oilers would eventually bow out to the Stars in the second round.
Despite their moderate success the previous two seasons and the buzz around the team that manifested from it, the Oilers were struggling off the ice. Peter Pocklington wasn’t interested in using money from his other business ventures to help prop up the Oilers, who were bleeding financially. The team’s woes were largely due to an economic recession that had plagued the city. In 1998, Pocklington nearly sold the Oilers to Leslie Alexander, a businessman in Texas who owned the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Alexander planned to move the Oilers to Houston, but hours before the deal was struck, a group of businesspeople known as the Edmonton Investors Group led by Cal Nichols, bought the team for $70 million. The EIG stopped the Oilers from relocating like two of their WHA cousins had in previous years, as the Winnipeg Jets packed up and moved to Phoenix in 1995 and the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1996. The Hartford Whalers would eventually move to Carolina in 1997, thus leaving the Oilers as the only team from the merger still in their original location.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Oilers made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. During that period, star players came and went as the Oilers were consistently a low-budget team. Joseph left the team as a free agent and Jason Arnott, Doug Weight, and Roman Hamrlik were traded for younger, cheaper players. Throughout all the shuffle, the constant on the team was Ryan Smyth, who forged himself a cult hero in Edmonton for both his solid production and gritty, hard working play style.
In 2001, the Oilers introduced their first alternate third jersey. It was designed by Todd McFarlane, a Canadian-American comic book creator and entrepreneur who, at the time, as a minority owner in the Investors Group. The jersey featured a silver comet with an oil drop in the middle and gears that represented the franchise’s five Stanley Cup victories. It was a complete change from the standard circular logo that said OILERS with an oil drop. In 2007, though, when the league transitioned to Reebok jerseys, the “Spawn” alternates were discontinued.
On Nov. 22, 2003, the Oilers hosted the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium, which was the first regular season outdoor hockey game to be played in NHL history. The Heritage Classic was modelled after the tremendously successful “Cold War” game played between the University of Michigan and Michigan State in 2001. 57,167 fans packed into the stadium to witness the spectacle despite temperatures reaching as low as −18 °C, −30 °C (−22 °F) with wind chill. Before the actual game between the Oilers and Canadiens, the MegaStars exhibition game was played between former stars from both franchises, including Mark Messier, who was still playing for the New York Rangers at the time. The Oilers would lose the game 4-3.
A SALARY CAP AND A NEW ERA
In 2004-05, the entire NHL season was wiped out due to lockout when the NHL and NHLPA weren’t able to reach a Collective Bargaining Agreement. It would be the first time since 1919 that the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded and the first time in major North American sports that a championship trophy wasn’t awarded since Major League Baseball’s strike mid-way through the 1994 resulted in there being no World Series that year. On July 13, 2005, the sides came to an agreement that had major ramifications on the league. Beginning that year, the NHL implemented a salary cap for the first time in its history, which was the most major change in the new CBA. Other more minor changes were the implementation of a shootout and the removal of ties, the end of the two line pass offside rule, and an increased crackdown on clutching and grabbing penalties to open up the speed of the game.
While the salary cap was a difficult pill to swallow for teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers with massive payrolls, it was a blessing for the small market Oilers who had a difficult time paying a premium for talent. General manager Kevin Lowe quickly took advantage of other teams with cap difficulties, pulling the trigger on a trade for superstar defenceman and former Hart and Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger from the St. Louis Blues and stud two-way forward Michael Peca from the New York Islanders.
Despite their strong roster, the Oilers were disappointing during the first part of the season. The issues for the team came down largely to poor goaltending as career backups Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen weren’t able to find consistent success splitting the duties for Edmonton. But at the trade deadline, Lowe massively augmented the roster in the latter half of the season, acquiring starting goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild, defencemen Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom from the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins respectively, and star forward Sergei Samsonov from the Boston Bruins. The new acquisitions along with breakout performances from youngsters Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Jarret Stoll, and Raffi Torres helped the Oilers qualify for the playoffs with a 41-28-13 record.
Despite the fact they were the eighth seed, the Oilers boasted a very solid roster heading into the playoffs. In the first round, they matched up with the Detroit Red Wings, who won a whopping 58 games that season with multiple future Hall of Famers on their roster. Head coach Craig MacTavish had the Oilers implement a neutral zone trap, shutting down Detroit’s relentless core of scorers. The Oilers would go on to upset the Red Wings in six games despite being outshot in each of the games. It would be the first playoff series the Oilers had won since 1998 and to this day is the greatest upset in team playoff history.
Interestingly enough, all of the higher seeded teams in the Western Conference were knocked out in the first round, giving the Oilers a clear path to the Stanley Cup Final they would take advantage of. In the second round, they took down the San Jose Sharks, who had caught fire after acquiring superstar Joe Thornton a month into the season, in six games. They took down the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in five games after that, booking a ticket to the Cup Final for the first time since winning it in 1990. In the process, the Oilers became the first eighth seed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final in NHL history.
The Oilers found success with gritty play and MacTavish’s trap system, but also because of an incredible performance from Fernando Pisani, a local hero who potted 14 goals during the playoff run, and excellent goaltending from Roloson. In the Final, the Oilers matched up against the Carolina Hurricanes, who used to be their WHA merger cousins, the Hartford Whalers. The Whalers/Hurricanes franchise was looking for its first Stanley Cup in franchise history after upsetting the favoured Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Final.
Despite heavily outplaying Carolina in Game 1, defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron knocked Hurricanes winger Andrew Ladd into Roloson, resulting in the goaltender tearing his MCL. The Hurricanes would come back and win the game and would then destroy a dejected Oilers team 5-0 to take a 2-0 series lead. The teams split the second and third games in Edmonton to give the Canes a commanding 3-1 lead. In Game 5, Pisani scored a clutch shortened overtime goal to keep the series alive and the Oilers went home and forced a Game 7 with a massive 4-0 win in front of a wild crowd at Rexall Place. In Game 7 in Carolina, though, the Hurricanes would take the series with a tight 3-1 win.
The losses didn’t stop there for the Oilers. Just a few days after their loss in the Cup Final, Pronger shocked Oilers fans and management when he requested a trade for personal reasons. Key players Spacek, Peca, Samsonov, and Radek Dvorak along with fan favourite Georges Laraque would all leave the team in free agency, and Pronger was eventually dealt to the Anaheim Ducks.
Despite those losses, the Oilers did manage to lock up playoff heroes Pisani and Roloson along with young star Ales Hemsky to long-term contracts. With an interest young core of talent along with free agent acquisition Petr Sykora, it was expected the Oilers would still be able to contend in the Western Conference. The Oilers were disappointing though, and when the trade deadline rolled around, Lowe pulled the trigger on a trade that would send Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders for a package of prospects and a draft pick. While Smyth didn’t have the same magnitude as Gretzky, his farewell press conference had a similar heartbreaking tone to it as the fan favourite broke down into tears.
Fans were furious with Lowe for getting rid of Smyth, who was viewed as the heart and soul of the team. Lowe’s reasoning was that Smyth was a free agent at the end of the season and didn’t want to lose the star winger for nothing. But Smyth and the Oilers were reportedly only $100,000 off in negotiations, leading to the fans’ frustrations. On the same night of the trade, the Oilers retired Mark Messier’s No. 11, but Lowe, his longtime teammate, was absent from the ceremony.
When they dealt Smyth, the Oilers had a decent 30-27-6 record, but after the trade, the team fell into a complete tailspin. They immediately went on an 11-game losing streak and ultimately only won two of their final 19 games without Smyth, as he went on to help the Islanders squeeze into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
THE DECADE OF DARKNESS
The Oilers had the sixth overall pick in the draft, their highest since drafting Boyd Devereaux sixth overall in 1996, along with two other first round picks from the Smyth and Pronger trades. This draft of in Edmonton would eventually be looked back on as the beginning of Oil Change 1.0 and ultimately as the beginning of the Decade of Darkness.
Despite the impending disaster on the horizon, the Oilers gave fans a reason to be optimistic in 2007-08. In the off-season, the team inked star defenceman Sheldon Souray to a five-year contract. The Oilers also made an offer sheet to star winger Thomas Vanek, but the Buffalo Sabres matched it. They ended up signing promising winger Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks to an offer sheet, sparking controversy between Kevin Lowe and Ducks’ general manager Brian Burke.
Their sixth overall pick Sam Gagner along with other youngsters Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, and Robert Nilsson made the Oilers an exciting and competitive team. In May, Cogliano became the first NHL player to three overtime game winning goals in a row, helping the Oilers climb into a late-season playoff race. The Oilers ended up missing the playoffs by just three points, but considering nine of the team’s top-10 scorers were aged 25 or younger, there was reason to be excited.
On Feb. 5, 2008, local pharmaceutical and business tycoon Daryl Katz purchased the Oilers from the Edmonton Investors Group. Katz owned the pharmaceutical franchise Rexall, which had owned the naming rights of Edmonton’s arena since 2004. With the change in ownership from a small market group of investors to a wealthy single-party owner, the Oilers immediately shifted from a low-cost team to one that could push around weight in the free agent market.
In the offseason, Kevin Lowe made a flurry of moves, dealing Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, and Raffi Torres, key young players from the team’s 2006 playoff run, for solid defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky and former top pick Gilbert Brule. He also made stabs at top free agents Marian Hossa and Jaromir Jagr in free agency. Also that summer, long-time general manager Kevin Lowe was promoted to President of Hockey Operations and Steve Tambellini, who had spent time with the Vancouver Canucks organization and Hockey Canada, was named general manager.
But like the seasons before, the Oilers failed to live up to the hype, ultimately finishing 38-35-9 and on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Gagner, Cogliano, and Nilsson each took a step backwards, while the team’s defence and goaltending was mediocre. As a result, the Oilers fired head coach Craig MacTavish and long-time assistants Billy Moores and Charlie Huddy. Legendary coach Pat Quinn was brought in as a replacement, along with Tom Renney who had coached the Rangers.
The Oilers had yet another aggressive offseason in 2009. They drafted highly touted Swedish winger Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson with the 10th overall pick in the draft and dealt fan favourite Kyle Brodziak to the Minnesota Wild for more draft picks. Dwayne Roloson walked in free agency and the Oilers replaced him with former Stanley Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin, who signed a four-year contract. The Oilers also had a deal in place to deal Penner, Cogliano, and Ladislav Smid to the Ottawa Senators for Dany Heatley, but the star winger refused to come to Edmonton and was ultimately dealt to the San Jose Sharks.
The 2009-10 season was a complete disaster for the Oilers. The team was plagued by injuries to Khabibulin and Hemsky among others, and ultimately set a new franchise record with 530 man games lost to injury. The Oilers would go on to post a 27-47-8 record, with their 62 points being their lowest total since the early 90s. For their trouble, the Oilers earned the first overall pick in the NHL draft for the first time in franchise history. They used it on back-to-back Memorial Cup MVP Taylor Hall, which ultimately began Oil Change 2.0 as the franchise began to tank and build through the draft.
The Oilers were terrible again in 2010-11, posting a 25-45-12 record, good for 62 points for the second season in a row. During the season, the Oilers continued on their rebuilding path by trading Dustin Penner to the Los Angeles Kings for prospect Colten Teubert and a first round draft pick. They were awarded the first overall pick for the second consecutive draft, and used it to select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. They used Los Angeles’ pick on Oscar Klefbom, a skilled defenceman from Sweden. In the offseason, the Oilers reacquired franchise legend Ryan Smyth in a deal with the Los Angeles Kings, which was met with major excitement from the fanbase.
2011-12 was a slight improvement, as young forward Jordan Eberle enjoyed a breakout 76-point performance while Hall and Nugent-Hopkins each had strong seasons that were shortened due to injury. The team finished with a 32-40-10 record and 74 points, leaving them out of the league’s basement for the first time in three years. Despite not finishing last, the Oilers won the draft lottery and selected skilled Russian forward Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick. They also signed highly-touted NCAA free agent defenceman Justin Schultz in free agency.
That summer, the Oilers chose not to renew the contract of head coach Tom Renney despite the improvement in the standings. Associate coach Ralph Krueger was promoted to the head coach role a few days later. The 2012-13 season was delayed by 48 games due to a lockout, but resumed on Jan. 13, 2013. A few weeks later, the City of Edmonton council voted 10-3 in favour of a new arena project to be built in the city’s downtown core. Prior to the deal being struck, owner Daryl Katz and the city fought over how much public money would be spent on the project, which ultimately led Katz to consider moving the team to Seattle if a deal couldn’t be reached. Katz ended up taking out an advertisement in the Edmonton Journal, the city’s local newspaper, to apologize to Oilers fans about the saga.
The shortened 2013 season was a relatively successful one for the Oilers as the team finished with a 19-22-7 record. Unlike most previous seasons in recent memory, the Oilers were actually in playoff contention down the stretch. But after ultimately missing out for a seventh-straight season, Tambellini was fired as general manager and was replaced by former coach Craig MacTavish. Despite Edmonton’s young core of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Sam Gagner, Yakupov, and Schultz having strong seasons, MacTavish fired Krueger and replaced him with Toronto Marlies (AHL) coach Dallas Eakins. He would become Edmonton’s fifth coach in six seasons.
In his first offseason at the helm, MacTavish massively overhauled the team’s roster. He signed local defenceman Andrew Ference to a four-year contract, traded long-time Oiler and captain Shawn Horcoff, and traded Magnus Paajarvi to St. Louis for pesky winger David Perron. Despite the additions, the Oilers took a massive step backwards, ultimately posting a 29-44-9 record. During the season, MacTavish dealt Hemsky and goalie Devan Dubnyk and the team took a nosedive. They ended up with the third overall pick in the draft and used it on big, skilled centre Leon Draisaitl, a German-born forward who played for Prince Albert of the WHL.
Prior to the 2014-15 season, MacTavish had another aggressive offseason, signing Benoit Pouliot, Mark Fayne, and Nikita Nikitin while also trading Gagner to Tampa Bay for Teddy Purcell. That summer, the Oilers also hired Toronto lawyer and prominent hockey analytics writer Tyler Dellow to head the organization’s advanced statistics movement. Like the previous year, despite the additions, the team struggled mightily. After 31 games Dallas Eakins was relieved of his duties and Todd Nelson, the head coach of the team’s AHL affiliate, took over behind the bench. The Oilers would go on to finish with a 24-44-14 record, good for 28th in the NHL.
A NEW HOPE IN CONNOR MCDAVID
That season, multiple teams put a major effort into tanking because the 2015 featured Connor McDavid, the best prospect to come along since Sidney Crosby 10 years earlier. The Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, and Toronto Maple Leafs all appeared to be actively trying to lose games in order to get the first overall pick. But at the draft lottery, the Oilers, who had the third-best odds to get the first overall pick, had their name called. Soon after, MacTavish was removed from his position and was replaced by former Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. Todd McLellan, the bench boss of the San Jose Sharks for many years, took over as the team’s head coach. At the draft, to the surprise of nobody, the Oilers selected McDavid with the first overall pick. McDavid and the subsequent front office shift became known as Oil Change 3.0
Despite adding a superstar prospect in McDavid, the Oilers came out flat again in 2015-16. They ultimately finished with a 31-43-8 record, last in the Western Conference and 28th in the league. McDavid himself had a strong rookie showing, posting 48 points in 45 games, but his season was derailed after he suffered a broken clavicle in a November win over the Philadelphia Flyers. In the off-season, the Oilers dealt Taylor Hall, who was the face of Oil Change 2.0, to New Jersey for shutdown defenceman Adam Larsson and made McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years of age.
The Oilers came flying out of the gates in 2016-17, winning seven of their first eight games. They also won their first-ever game at Rogers Place, the city’s new downtown stadium, by a score of 7-4 over the Calgary Flames with forward Zack Kassian scoring the first goal at the new arena. With a revamped blueline, a 100-point season from a healthy McDavid, and an excellent season from goalie Cam Talbot, the Oilers managed to qualify for the playoffs with a 47-26-9 record, their highest point total since the 1980s glory days. In making the playoffs, the Oilers snapped the league’s longest playoff drought of 10 seasons, putting an end to the Decade of Darkness.
The Oilers matched up with the San Jose Sharks in the first round and won a tightly-contested series 4-2. After that, the Oilers went up against the Anaheim Ducks. Despite winning the first two games on the road in Anaheim, the Oilers dropped three games in a row, including back-to-back overtime heartbreakers. They ended up losing the series in seven games.
At the NHL Awards, Connor McDavid earned the 2016-17 Art Ross Trophy for the league’s highest scorer, the Hart Trophy for the league’s Most Valuable Player, and the Lester B. Pearson Award for Most Outstanding Player as voted on by members of the NHL Players’ Association. In doing so, McDavid joined Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier as the only Oilers to win the Hart and Pearson, and joined Gretzky as the only Oiler ever to win the Art Ross.
Compiled by Cam Lewis