Why the Edmonton Oilers?
Around comes 2006. Bored one day at home, I decide to dig out my old friend, NHL 98. Had a couple of weeks bashing buttons, and out of curiosity decided to see what Gretzky was up to then. To Wikipedia! Gretzky had of course retired by then, but I decided to see what his old team, the Edmonton Oilers, were up to. This was mid-March, and they were in the midst of a battle for 8th place in the Western Conference, desperately trying to make the playoffs. Over the next couple of weeks, I occasionally checked in on them and – BAM! – they made the playoffs on the last day of the season. This is exciting stuff, I thought to myself, still never having watched an entire ice hockey game. Checking the TV Guide, I saw that Channel 5 was showing many of the playoff games, and given the Oilers were to play the feared Red Wings in the first round they were given considerable coverage.
Now bare in mind, I was only just turned 18 at this point, and still in school – preparing for my final A-Level exams. Factor in that the games didn’t tend to start here in the UK until 2-3am, and run for 3 hours (damn North American sports having to put adverts in EVERYWHERE!), I couldn’t exactly watch every single minute. But try I did. I believe my first game was Game 3 of the series, with Jarret Stoll scoring in double overtime to give the Oilers a 2-1 series lead. I couldn’t believe my luck! The team I chose to follow scraping in to the playoffs and beating a powerhouse!
Through thick and thin
Now I should stop and point out that I have terrible luck with the teams I follow. Being British, I tend to attach myself to disappointment and have come to expect it at every turn, with sudden, short spikes of success. Bath Rugby? Enormously successful for years. By the time I’m old enough to appreciate them to the present, they have one European Challenge Cup to their name – they even lost in both finals I went to see them in at Twickenham. England Rugby? 2003 World Cup, followed by years of mediocrity, a lucky run to the 2007 Cup Final, and a Six Nations Championship they “won” but they didn’t really “win” (Grand Slam, anybody?). England Cricket? Mediocrity, 2005 Ashes!, Mediocrity, 2009 Ashes!, Mediocrity, 2011 Ashes!, Mediocrity. England football?
Well, they were ok Don’t make me laugh.
Hence, you can see why I didn’t hold out much hope for this plucky Oilers team, despite their current advantage over the Wings.
Game 6, and the Oilers had the Wings on the ropes, leading the series 3-2. All they needed was one more win at home in Rexall Place, which had seen so much success from 1979 to 1992, but then so much failure for 14 years (aside from “The Little Team That Could” years with furious battles against the Dallas Stars in the playoffs).
Third Period. With the Oilers down 2-0, quiet Italian-Canadian 3rd-Line defensive ace Fernando Pisani scores two quick goals against the Wings’ Manny Legace – the first off a clever and deliberate rebound shot by Stoll, and the second 5 minutes later a stunning drive to the net after bursting down the left wing and going five-hole on Legace. The Arena goes mental, not to mention myself sitting on my sofa 4170 miles away. However, with just under 10 minutes to go, Johan “Mule” Franzen, then just a 4th Line NHL rookie, puts the Wings up by one after sitting on the doorstep of recently-acquired Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson, up to that point a rock for the Oilers. As the commentator said, the wind was sucked out of that building.
Step to the plate, No.83, Ales Hemsky – The Prince of Pardubice.
The Pardubice Prince
Four minutes to go. The Oilers on the powerplay. Sergei Samsonov shoots the puck above goal height, Shawn Horcoff bats it down at the right side of the net and it flicks over to Hemsky planted on the other side. A scramble ensues and Hemsky is shoved into the net by the legendary Red Wing Nick Lidstrom. The puck bounces in off Hemsky’s skate, the light goes on, and Rexall (and my living room) erupts with glee (the mood, not the TV show). A video review shows no kicking motion and the goal is ruled legit. Game on.
With 1:14 to go, Hemsky gets the puck in the neutral zone. He proceeds to dance over the blue line, making now-Hall of Famer and all-round superstar hockey player Steve Yzerman almost trip over himself – that was to be his last shift in the NHL – and making Lidstrom look silly. The puck is left in the slot by Hemsky for Samsonov, with No.83 sneaking to the side of the net unnoticed by any Detroit player. Samsonov sends a bullet of a pass to Hemsky, who makes no mistake right on Legace’s doorstep, roofing the puck with 1:07 to go. The place goes nuts, Hemsky and Pisani are instant heroes, and the Oilers ride the rest of the game out (with Ethan “Chopper” Moreau blocking shots) to win their first playoff series in 8 years.
In one period, the Oilers had destroyed Manny Legace’s career, and shocked the entire city of Detroit, not to mention the entire NHL. Detroit had won the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team that season, and had bowed out to the lowly 8th seed, with Chris Pronger as their only superstar player. The Oilers had also gained a new fan for life.
The ensuing two months were an absolute joy to be a part of, albeit following from across the Atlantic Ocean on a crappy internet connection:
- Falling behind 2-0 in the second round to San Jose, only for Raffi Torres’ monster (dirty?) hit on Milan Michalek and Horcoff’s Triple Overtime Goal to change the momentum and the Oilers win the remaining 4 games;
- Winning every game in the Anaheim Ducks’ backyard in the Conference Final and just generally dominating at every turn (much to the dismay of one of my pals, an arrogant Ducks fan);
- The tragedy of seeing goalie Dwayne Roloson, a surefire Conn Smythe candidate that year, leaving G1 of the Stanley Cup Finals with a leg injury, and Ty Conklin allowing a horrendous goal to the Hurricanes to lose that game, only for Jussi Markkanen to play his heart out in Roloson’s spot for the rest of the series;
- Watching Chris Pronger play the game. He is one of probably only 4 defencemen I’ve seen (Weber, Lidstrom, Chara being the others) who can masterfully control a game. He was arrogant, fierce, skillful, dominant, a leader. As a player, I love him for that wonderful run as much as I despise him for his ultimate betrayal of Edmonton. Never forget what he did in those few short months though.
- Watching Hemsky blossom into a dominant skill player in the NHL. A sublime talent, you could argue he has never reached his full potential. However, barring his last two years lost to injury, he has been one of the Top 5 right wingers in the league, scoring an average of 0.92 points per game since the lockout to 2010, whilst playing against the toughest opposition the NHL had to offer (i.e. not putting up points against poor players) with not a lot of help on his team.
- Seeing the heart and soul players flourish in the toughest environment imaginable – Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres, Moreau, Radek Dvorak, Steve Staios, Jason Smith, Mike Peca, Rem Murray. A beautifully built team, it’s a crying shame it all came apart so quickly. It was a team everyone could cheer for.
- Watching Fernando Pisani going on a tear rarely seen by any player, let alone a dedicated defensive winger. After scoring 18 goals the entire 05-06 season, he scored 14 in 24 games that wonderful postseason. He was a beauty, combining strong defensive work with a sniper’s touch – he was deadly. Game 5 against the Hurricanes, was the pinnacle, a stunning steal at the Canes’ blueline whilst shorthanded, in overtime when 1 more goal by Carolina would have won them the Cup that night, breaking in alone on Cam Ward and going top shelf. Unbelievable.
- The heartbreak of seeing the Oilers, after battling back from 3-1 down in the series, lose in Game 7 in Carolina. That team though was not considered a disappointment by it’s City. Edmonton embraced them as heroes afterwards, and heroes they were. Absolutely inspirational, never the most talented but always the most determined, they finally gave Edmonton something to cheer about after 14 years of pain.
Back down to Earth…
Of course, since that magical Spring, the Oiler’s have changed dramatically as a team, with only Horcoff, Smyth and Hemsky remaining. Smyth was actually traded but traded himself back to Edmonton last year. Edmonton has been not just bad since 2006, but historically bad. Like, shit-the-bed, shoot-yourself-before-it-gets-any-worse bad. Since then, I have become something of a walking encyclopaedia on the Oilers, even getting emotional watching the Jersey Retirement Ceremony for Glenn Anderson like I had actually been there during the 80s watching the greatest team ever assembled strut their stuff. That’s what is so great about sports I guess, you get so attached to the team and to the players, it crushes you to see them defeated and brings you up to highs you never thought possible when they win.
However, I chose my team, I witnessed what success could be like, and I vowed to follow this team through thick and thin.