Harken back to a time in Oklahoma City where the downtown area was young. Not young in age, but young in foresight. The early nineties revealed a lonely downtown area with stray, dilapidated buildings and only a smattering of local eateries, time-weathered businesses, and very little attraction. Amidst this landscape lay the Myriad Gardens and its nearby Convention Center, the one bright spot in the Bricktown neighborhood that hosted rock concerts, traveling circus acts, and mid-size white collar conferences. But from this pre-MAPS world and the promising downtown rejuvenation emerged an important sporting event - the first and only NHL hockey game played in Oklahoma City.
In December of 1992 the NHL followed through with the "NHL Across North America" plan that was intended to bring awareness of the game to those in the U.S. heartland. With new markets established in Tampa Bay, one on the horizon near Miami and another in Orange County, the league brought a 24 game sked to Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Halifax, Milwaukee, and Oklahoma City to name a few. The NHL game in Oklahoma City would come on the heels of the revised Central League's return of an Oklahoma City team now called the Blazers. The team was the highest form of professional sports that the city had ever seen, and it was a welcome attention grabber amidst an underdeveloped downtown scene.
Call it fate if you will or perhaps karma, but the two teams featured in the only NHL game to be played in the state of Oklahoma were the slumping New York Islanders, and the downtrodden Edmonton Oilers. Two tradition rich franchises on the skids.
The game itself featured names like Bryan Glynn, Craig Simpson, Petr Klima, Craig MacTavish, Luke Richardson and Ron Tugnutt. Behind the bench was Ted Green who had struggled with kidney stones for several weeks and barely made the trip down south. The score was lopsided even after Edmonton jumped out to a 1-0 lead early, as the Islanders would rattle off the final four goals to defeat the Oilers. The Oilers were now at 11-17-4 and only mustered 27 goals in their last 13 games before coming to Oklahoma City. In an interview conducted by the Daily Oklahoman's Staff Writer, Mike Baldwin, Coach Green had this to say of the team, "It's very obvious that we have problems. Were in it for seventy-five percent of the game. We're close. We just need to convert more chances." Likewise, Bryan Glynn who scored the lone goal for Edmonton had this to say, "We got a quick goal early and we played pretty well in the first period. We keep falling into the same trap every game. It seems we don't have enough confidence offensively, but we have to turn it around in a hurry." (Wait, are we sure this isn't a quote from 2011?)
Despite the loss, Edmonton had the two most memorable moments of the evening when Tugnutt slipped while the puck was at the other end of the ice and Greg Hawgood was ejected for instigating a fight. "Yeah, they have a new rule if you're the instigator you get kicked out of the game," said Hawgood to the Daily Oklahoman, "I don't think by me backing up and dropping my gloves first that I had any unfair advantage in the fight".
What seems like a distant memory is indeed just that - a memory. In defeat, the NHL game now coined as the first and only in the state was the springboard to a world full of professional sports in Oklahoma City. 11,110 fans attended the Islanders vs Oilers matchup that night. Tickets ranged from $12 to $35. But the real victory wasn't found in the monetary gain (which was minute), but in the proven success and suddenly forward thinking mantra that Oklahoma City embraced.
Lee Allan Smith, the head of Oklahoma Events told Mike Baldwin at the Daily Oklahoman, "We sold our city. We sold the things that have been here - The PGA, Olympic Festivals, we pitched our hockey history, we even pitched our arena. They got back to us and said OKC wasn't on the list, but they liked our presentation and would like to talk some more. We kept pushing and negotiating. I wanted it so badly for Oklahoma City that we eventually negotiated something financially less than favorable to make it happen."
In the wake of this historic hockey event, Oklahoma City became a talking point in professional sports conversations, but nothing serious. A decade and a half later, the city would unofficially invite the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise to the heartland with little success. Then, in the wake of Katrina the New Orleans Hornets of the NBA would call Oklahoma home for several seasons as the city proved it could host top level pro sports. Eventually the Seattle Supersonics would become the OKC Thunder and the city won a quiet battle that had been going on for years.
Lost in all of this conversation is simply the impact one NHL game had on the sports landscape, and the Oilers historical roots that have come full circle back to Oklahoma City.
New energy has replaced old oil. Run-down buildings in downtown have been restructured as vintage markets. The transformation of a city continues to be birthed by the downtown womb. With the transformation comes a younger, more historically forgetful group of sports fans to the city. For most Oklahoma City sports fans, even those of the hockey variety, this might be the first time they have heard of an NHL game in their state. Not because they willingly hate nostalgia, but because the city has forgotten. A memorable event, sponsored by the NHL, has been swept under the rug. But the underlying importance is impossible to forget.
Digging up the facts on this NHL historic event earned me a trip to the library, and some bonus points from my mother the eternal librarian. Not lost on this fan of Oklahoma City sports is the role that the NHL and the Edmonton Oilers organization have had in shaping hockey in this state, and the sports scene in general.
Some believe it was the CHL Blazers that brought hockey fans out of the wood work in Oklahoma, but like any good book this story has a beginning a middle and a fantastic ending. What started in 1992 as an intentional attempt to boost the NHL's then sagging image turned into a beautiful relationship between two cities; one that needed nurturing, distance, and patience. Because from the Islanders vs. Oilers game in the Myriad has become so much more. A forgotten wrinkle of sports history with many lingering effects.
Would we have the Barons in OKC if it weren't for the Islanders vs. Oilers regular season game of '92? Probably not. What about the Thunder, Redhawks, and NCAA tournaments? Once again, probably not. That game did more for the city than the city could ever do for itself.
So as I conclude my meanderings of old, I say, "Thank You". Thank you to the Islanders and Oilers. Thank you to the NHL. Thank you to the strange CBA that featured an NHL Across America oddity. But as much as I love my city I have to wonder why they've seemingly forgotten the importance of this Oilers game. Call me painfully optimistic or perhaps a hockey homer, but whatever you do, don't call me ignorant. Because a simple game, played on bad ice, in a then ugly downtown area, in front of under 12,000 people was a game changer for the city that I love.