It's hard to believe we've probably seen the last of Fernando Pisani in an Oiler uniform.
He played nearly 300 fewer Oiler games than Todd Marchant. Scored almost a hundred points fewer than even Kelly Buchberger. He wasn't here forever and he was never a superstar when he was. He came, he saw, he didn't particularly conquer.
Yet it would be a mistake to let him leave without expressing some appreciation for what he did. The playoff run of 2006, when Pisani found a gear we didn't know he had and scored fourteen goals in twenty-four games. His rookie campaign in 2002-03, coming out of nowhere to score eight goals in the regular season, one more in the playoffs, and even snaring a hat trick against the Washington Capitals. Or the way he went from the picture of consistency to the picture of frustration: one snap of the ankle November 17, 2008 against the Red Wings that knocked him out just long enough for ulcerative colitis to bring him down the next two years.
He never had a Cup, never had an individual award, never even won a team skills competition. He never had a nickname; at least, not one that stuck: "Pisser" was too irreverant, "San Fernando" perhaps too much the opposite. A nickname was not necessary, in the same way that an Oilers fan would never refer to "the Great One" or "Moose" before they became memories rather than players. He was Fernando Pisani. Any further term of affection would be redundant.
Even the most devout lovers of the splendid #34 would call him a terrific, if not quite elite two-way forward, somebody who could shut down another team's best players and pop the occasional goal himself but aside from one glorious spring never the finest player on his team. But he resonated in the way that a mere star never can, more than Dustin Penner or Ales Hemsky possibly could, partially because of that mortality and partially because of that Glenn Anderson-esque performance when the team needed him most.
The word "clutch" is an epithet in these parts sometimes, dismissed as the result of small sample sizes and misremembered moments blown up into trends. To hell with that. Fernando Pisani was clutch. I don't know what else to tell you.
What was it that drew us to Pisani? A soft-spoken man, seldom making himself known off the ice, not a big scorer, not a big checker, not the sort of flashy player overpaid and underthinking commentators make into MONSTERS and designate for idolatry? He was us. Only 6'1" and 201 pounds pre-colitis he was no linebacker. Drafted so late the round he was picked in no longer exists. Spent four years at Providence College after coming up from the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Many of us have known guys with Pisani's career path until his early twenties. Some of you had it.
But most people grow up and abandon dreams for reality. Fernando didn't. He got those little ghosts of a chance, and each time he seized them. Three years as a Hamilton Bulldog, playing on some solid teams and making his bones as a reliable, no-frills, two-way forward. He never for a second stopped working hard, never got out of the style of play that made him successful. Unlike too many defensive forwards before him, a flush of success never convinced him that he was really a scorer and he never made the mistake of playing a style he wasn't suited to. Even the blunders, such as Craig MacTavish's ill-fated attempt to make him a third-line centre, were forced on him by circumstance.
If I somehow got super powers and became a professional athlete, that's the sort of athlete I like to think I'd be.
For three years, Pisani ground out the third line minutes against the best opponents Craig MacTavish could get him up against. Shawn Horcoff, Michael Peca, Georges Laraque, Ethan Moreau, Marty Reasoner... who didn't Pisani play with? Another non-sticking nickname in those glorious days was "Instant Chemistry", for he could turn lead into gold like few Oilers since Kurri. Even Marty Sakic looked like he could earn his forty minutes of ice time a night when Pisani was on his right wing, and Ethan Moreau didn't look so much "young and enthusiastic" as "like Keith Tkachuk on horse steroids".
Like any modern hero, Pisani also had moments where he transcended mere flesh and blood, when this seeming everyman was weighed in the balances and found exceptional. His scoring rampage in the 2006 playoffs does not need to be recounted here, for any Oiler fan knows what I'm talking about without being introduced to it. Todd Marchant became a hero to a generation for scoring once in 1997 when nobody could have expected it. Pisani did him thirteen better. And, unnecessary though it is, let's look at one of them anyway.
(so many names in that video long gone, and soon one more.)
In the manner of so many heroes, as well, the rise was accompanied by a crashing fall. Introducing the phrase "ulcerative colitis" to the vocabularies of a million Oiler fans is an achievement of sorts but nothing to match his earlier victories. Alexander of Macedon wept salt tears that there were no more worlds to conquer: Fernando Pisani had one game left for victory, but fate would snatch from him the chance to take it.
Well, why not? Ray Bourque was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a chance to win his Stanley Cup, but Ray Bourque was just a Hall of Famer. Fernando Pisani was the common man, and the common man doesn't usually win the lottery or hit the big time or catch the lucky break that leads to fame and fortune. Instead his success is marked by integrity, skill, and determination.
If this is it for Fernando as an Edmonton Oiler, by that measurement he's one of the most successful we've ever had.