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Remembering the Excellent Ethan Moreau

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There's a lot about professional sports that isn't exactly torn from the pages of fairy tales. Not many sportswriters dare to wax maudlin about the day a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, or the player forecasted to go in the mid-first round whose face drops lower and lower as he falls further down the draft board. When a guy with a seemingly minor injury tweaks it in rehab and misses the rest of the season, the talk will be about how it effects the team. Sometimes the player. Never the person. It's always the same.

Right now is perhaps the most ignominious time of all. Buyout season. Until June 30, NHL teams have the option to release each of their players from their contracts and suffer a reduced but still considerable cap hit as a consequence. It is an option more than a few teams are taking. So goodnight, Georges Laraque, he of 695 NHL games and 153 points, he who a decade ago bagged a hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings and quipped "Glen Sather probably would have put [a bonus clause] in for a million dollars if I'd asked for it, thinking I'd never get one. But I never thought I'd get one either so I never thought of it." Skill, toughness, and humour in equal measure, playing for his hometown team in their centennial year, and he's terminated like a Chinese dissident. No word on whether the Laraque family has been billed for the ammunition.

The Oilers have not bought out a player since Dan Cleary, and look how well that turned out. But there are rumours, and thoughts, and questions, about a player who we acquired with Cleary seemingly a century ago. Everybody says Steve Tambellini tried to shop Ethan Moreau over the trade deadline, and while he managed to flip Steve Staios for actual value in one of his more lucid moments there were no takers for the captain. Now everybody says that the Oilers may just buy Moreau out. Of course, "everybody" says a lot of things, but the mere fact that we are talking about it is condemnation. Ten seasons with the Oilers, forty playoff games on a team with tragically few, and Oiler fans are discussing paying him just to go away. The last Oilers' captain to be pushed out the door so forcefully was Shayne Corson, and he was guilty of offenses far more heinous than merely being bad at hockey.

Moreau is no Corson. Nor is he the simulacrum of his former Blackhawks' teammate, Cleary. Those men came, they saw, and were conquered. But Ethan Moreau, while never for a second a star, spent a long time as a strong player. A popular player. One who rose to the big occasions instead of rising to the top of the Reverse Three Stars. He may be a shade now, slain by age and hubris, strangled rather than strengthened by the "C" he bears on his chest, crushed by the legacies of Jason Smith and Doug Weight rather than elevated by their example. He will never warrant a memorial outside Rexall Place, except perhaps as a warning, but he has earned more fond memories than we have of him today.

If we do get rid of him, I would be the first to rise for the ovation. But there would be a tear in my eye all the same. He's only thirty-four years old. He's younger than many of you readers. My god, what happened to him?

As is the tradition in these parts, I will open affairs by giving the numbers. He scored more than fifteen goals as an Oiler twice: once in his first season when we entertained the fantasy that he might be a scoring forward, and once in 2003-04 when he seemed to entertain the same thought. His career shooting percentage is as close to ten as makes no difference. Over his career, he averages pretty near a point every three games. Advanced statistics for his earlier (and best) seasons as an Oiler are difficult or impossible to come by, but by all accounts he was the quintessential tough minutes player, a Shawn Horcoff of the wing, playing with the dregs against the best and damned near sawing them off.

Yet why do I even bother with the numbers, with trying to make a logical case for a young Moreau? I don't just say this because of my legendary innumeracy, but because what made Ethan Moreau resonate more than, say, Dean McAmmond wasn't the numbers. It was the timing, the flair for scoring the memorable goals rather than the numerous ones, how his play could stick in the mind the way his penalties do now. Call it a small sample size or confirmation bias or whatever you like, and you'll probably be right, and yet it hardly matters to the innumerate fans like me who will simply remember and smile.

Perhaps Moreau is so magnificent because he was at his best when the team wasn't up to matching him. When the Oilers seemed decent but doomed early in his Edmonton career, Moreau was a talented youngster who never quite made it. There was a lot to like - even his injuries were manly, like blowing a knee in a pickup basketball game - but the results never came. Then as Moreau improved the Oilers deteriorated, and the rest, as they say, was misery.

Tragic heroes are much more interesting than the regular kind, and at times Moreau could be one of the most tragic of all. What a pile of useless players Moreau has had the joy of playing with! The 2003-04 Oilers featured Scott Ferguson, Igor Ulanov, Cory Cross, and Alexei Semenov each playing the majority of the season on the blue line. 41-year-old Adam Oates was our big free agent acquisition and may have turned in the most disappointing Oiler campaign since Jiri Dopita (the, er, previous season). Jason Chimera played sixty games as all smoke without the faintest hint of fire. Brad Isbister played fifty-one. Our starting goaltender was an alien who had abducted Tommy Salo the previous year and attempted to take his place despite never having even seen a puck before. Even Mike Bishai got in fourteen games. If you tried to play a lineup like that in NHL 10 you'd be booted off.

But on an occasion so low Ethan Moreau somehow contrived to rise to it. That was the famous Petr Nedved season, of course, when Glen Sather mailed us an aging Czech wrapped up in a bow and he set the very universe aflame, but our third-line plugger managed a career-high twenty goals that year when the Oilers seemed least likely to make use of them. Coming down the stretch Moreau actually didn't score that much, not really, and yet every game (or at least every win) felt like Moreau was in a starring role, loping through centre ice like a wild stallion, firing a perfect wrist shot, and then knocking the puck off some poor, innocent superstar's stick when he had no idea what he was messing with. For once, the old oft-mocked chestnut about will outperforming skill came true: mere brilliance was no match for Moreau's desire.

You'll remember how that story ended. The Oilers came up short of the playoffs, but somehow traded Tommy Salo for Tom Gilbert. Which would surely have guaranteed them a playoff berth and probably the Stanley Cup in the 2004-05 season had there been one. But Gary Bettman, who's never seen a puck without wondering how to open it, decided we all needed more basketball in our lives and canceled the season right when the Oilers ought to have been winning it. Moreau missed a year of his prime, and all of a sudden that brilliance was gone. When the Oilers stormed to the playoffs Moreau more crawled. We noticed his goals less often and his penalties far more. Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, he was made captain. Chief marshal of the penalty parade, commander-in-chief of crap and cretiny, captain of the worst team in the National Hockey League. Now Jim Matheson thinks we might buy him out.

It didn't have to end this way. Hell, he'll only be 35 next year. Maybe it still won't.