I've been following professional hockey for nearly 20 years now, and for most of that time, I've been persistently hit with disappointment after disappointment, as good teams falter just short of eternal glory, management deals off star players for pennies on the dollar (if anything at all) due to money or incompetence, and ownership groups with their own agendas hypocritically threaten to take my team away from me. Yet despite the fact that the last 15 years have almost uniformly sucked for my teams in one fashion or another, and despite all the doom and gloom around the 'sphere this time of year, I can't entirely get down on these Oilers. There are a couple of reasons for this, one being that we haven't played any meaningful games under the new staff yet, so it's hard to get more than a theoretical read on the team. But there's another discovery that I made very recently that's reinforced my desire to believe, or at the very least not doubt so much, even though I'm probably setting myself up for disappointment once again.
First, I should note that the Oilers are not the only once-dynastic-now-mediocre hockey club I root for. As many regulars around here know, I'm also a Montreal Canadiens fan, so not only did I get to watch Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Doug Weight, Chris Pronger, and Ryan Smyth leave town for either poor return or poor reason (and often both), I also got to see the same done with, among others, Chris Chelios, Patrick Roy, Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider, Mark Recchi, and more recently, Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev. While no one would dare move the venerated Canadiens, despite whatever scares the French media might try to conjure up, they did experience a good decade or so of wild incompetence under Ronald Corey's reign of error as president, as he demanded the trade of any player he deemed to be bad for the "image" of the Canadiens. In fact, it was his interference with hockey operations, along with Todd Marchant's famous overtime goal, that led to me giving up on the Habs as my primary team in favour of the Oilers. Yet in spite of all this, and having only the '93 Stanley Cup -- when I was a wee lad, not yet seven -- and the '06 Western pennant as rewards for my years of dedication, I'm content to be patient this time around.
The epiphany I experienced came during the Calgary Hitmen home opener this past Sunday. After posting the second-best record in WHL history, behind only the '79 Brandon Wheat Kings, they breezed through the Eastern Conference playoffs to the tune of 12-0 before running headlong into a brick wall in the League final against the Kelowna Rockets, dropping the first three games en route to a six-game loss. It was a bittersweet moment watching those three banners -- Central Division, Eastern Conference, regular-season title -- rise to the rafters, because everyone in the arena, especially the players, had hoped for and expected at least one, possibly two, more. This year is supposed to be something of a reloading year: the team lost a tremendous amount of talent, especially off the blueline, during the offseason, so reasonable expectations would probably be a mid-pack playoff seed, maybe the division title, but probably not the regular-season conference title, which they've won the last two years. It will be a step back, and there'll need to be a corresponding change in expectations. (Yes, we said all this last year, too, before they came out of nowhere to post that 59-win season, but I digress.)
And yet as I sat there watching the game, wondering if the Hitmen would be able to come back from a 2-1 deficit to the Red Deer Rebels (they did), it occurred to me that in the end, this team was going to be just fine. No one can contend every year (other than the Detroit Red Wings), but the Hitmen are at least competitive nearly every year: they've made the playoffs twelve straight seasons, only once while finishing below .500, and there's no good reason to think they won't make it thirteen. Kelly Kisio's been running this show since 1998, they've never missed the playoffs under his watch, and they've made two WHL Finals and one Memorial Cup Final in that time. Despite seldom if ever having access to high Bantam or Import draft picks, Kisio's managed to get a hold of guys like Ryan Getzlaf and Karl Alzner. Yet as recently as last year, I was extremely nervous going into the playoffs, despite the record, because the Hitmen had a history of blowing it when they were expected to go all the way in recent years. Now, however, I understand that sometimes shit happens, and that so long as you're in the mix every year, you have a chance. Nothing was expected of the team in 2007, after they finished in the middle of the pack, but they made the Eastern Conference Final nonetheless. That realization was liberating, and it suddenly got much easier to just watch and enjoy the game without worrying about the new faces, the third coach in as many years, or the fact that three out of the top four D from last year are now AHLers. In fact, I think I enjoyed that game more than I did much of last year, as I perpetually waited for the other shoe to drop and for the inconsistent work habits to finally defeat the superior talent, or for the team to just come back to Earth.
And so we return to the Oilers. While the Hitmen have been a good team for most of the past ten years, and the Oilers have not, I think the ultimate lesson here, that we shouldn't get too worked up over what might be or could have been, instead of what is and was, applies just the same. Are they in for a rough go of it this season? Probably. Will there be at least some short-term pain before a substantial move is made? Probably. But really, this isn't a lottery team. We're not the Colorado Avalanche or the Phoenix Coyotes. Even as constructed, I honestly feel that this team's chances are as good as those of about a half-dozen other teams, and that they'll still have a realistic shot at the playoffs come the first of April. Maybe they finish 7th, maybe they finish 11th -- is there really that much of a difference anymore? -- but either way, the fact that Pat Quinn has swiftly identified the same problems we've all been howling over for years at least tells me that management is now keenly aware of them, too, if they weren't already, and should be doing something about them in order to address the long-term future of the franchise. While you certainly could call Tambellini's moves to this point a mixed bag, he hasn't yet proven to me that he can't handle the job, as Kevin Lowe did in his waning years, so in accordance with my new philosophy, I'm not going to worry about it right now. Obviously, if we're 15-26 at the dawn of 2010 and there's been no movement on any of the team's weaknesses, I will most certainly freak out and get upset and willfully join any lynching party the 'sphere cares to organize, but until then, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the hockey as best as I can. It may not be the most interesting thing to write about, without the roller-coaster of fury and elation, but if the hockey is more enjoyable as a result, then that's what really matters, isn't it?