I realize the timing of this post might seem strange to some because the Oilers are on what is likely their best stretch of results of the season since handing over the coaching duties to Todd Nelson, but if anyone truly believes that this shuffling of deck chairs is indicative of the Oiler organization actually turning a corner, then I honestly don't know how to have a serious hockey conversation with you.
Whatever the terrible results were during November and December, or how things have looked slightly better throughout January, that's not really what I am writing about today. I had a conversation today that made me consider the things I'd gone without while following the Oilers these last nine years, and I felt compelled to share...
Lord knows there have been endless numbers of excellent articles written about the various poor play, poor coaching, poor management and overall terrible operation of the franchise over these last years. If you've been reading about this team at any point since the fantastic run of the 05/06 post-season, you've no doubt read more than your fair share of them.
Looking beyond the individual issues and failures, I want to take a minute to express my overall frustration with what the inability of the Oilers to figure out how to produce a respectable on ice product has robbed me and countless other Oiler fans of over the better part of the last decade. The list below includes some of the things that I loved most about growing up an Oiler fan. They've been absent for far too long, and I'll never forgive the Oilers for it.
Caring about the result of a game
If you're saying: "What do you mean ‘Caring about the result of a game?'" I'm willing to bet you're not an Oiler fan. NHL games are supposed to mean something. When they are at their best, you can't look away. Every shift, every puck battle, every shot has you riveted. Your heart sings when your favourite team scores a goal and you feel utter despair when the opposition sneaks one past the goaltender. The ebbs and flows of the game are important because at the end of the day, you want those two points for your team.
But when the fate of your chosen team has been decided by Halloween, you basically watch 70 games a year where you're reasonably indifferent to the score and you're forced to look for alternate reasons to watch like the development of young players or playing a drinking game with your buddies every time your team makes that same stupid mistake...again! Whatever the reason, even if you still want to see your team come out on top out of instinct, the points are irrelevant. The highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low, and overall it just doesn't really matter as much.
Watching the NHL standings
Is there anything more fun as a young hockey fan than watching your team's slot in the standings? Back in the pre-internet days (it wasn't really mainstream until I was 10 or 12), we used to get the newspaper and my brother and I would always check the standings and see how many points ahead or behind the closest teams were. We'd look at games-in-hand and check the schedule to see who had tougher opponents coming up. It was an experience to follow along throughout the season.
For nine years now, all that's mattered for Oiler fans is how a win or loss affects the quality of their draft position. Sure, having an off-year or even a few seasons of poor results comes with being a sports fan, but going through that for a decade straight is just demoralizing. I feel terrible for young hockey fans in Edmonton who have never known what it's like to feel like your team even has a chance.
If you're an older Oiler fan (Hi Lowetide!) you think of the Battle of Alberta or the great Islander teams that immediately preceded the Oiler dynasty. But for my generation, the ones that really got me were the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche in the late 1990's. Particularly with the Stars. It felt like they were the team in the way of the Oilers succeeding every season, and I HATED the Stars for it with an absolute passion. I can't think of a first round playoff series I've ever enjoyed more than the 1997 series against Dallas (Though VAN and CHI had an amazing one a few years ago). It was magic. I'll love Curtis Joseph and Todd Marchant forever because of that series, and if it hadn't been against Dallas, it wouldn't have meant quite as much. There isn't a single team in the league that you can possibly feel as strongly about these days as a rival for the Oilers, and that's sad.
The trade deadline
You don't need to go back far before the start of "the dark ages" to remember how much fun the trade deadline used to be. The 05/06 Oiler team is the perfect example. That year (before fancy stats could confirm it for us) you could just feel in your bones that if the Oilers had a goalie that could make a save, they'd have been a real contender. As the trade deadline approached, we spent countless hours scouring over team rosters figuring out who might be available and how much it might cost. Then the day arrives when Dwayne Roloson (bless his soul!) is acquired and you can't help but dream of the possibilities. I was a newlywed at the time Roli came to Edmonton. We're celebrating our 10th anniversary this summer and that's still the last time I had any reason to dream about success for an Oilers season.
The chase for a playoff berth
Every game, every night...everything mattered. If your team was playing, you were glued to the screen (or, at times before every game was televised...radio), if they weren't you spent the night watching the out of town scores wondering how it would affect your team's chances of getting to the post-season. Whether it was chasing the last spot, battling for home ice, trying to win a division, or looking for the best possible match-up, there was always something to look forward to. I can't IMAGINE how much fun this process would be in today's world of increased access with NHL Gamecenter and the new Canadian National TV package. It would be an endless string of great hockey to watch. I still watch it anyway mind you, but the emotional investment of having the Oilers involved would bring it to such a higher level.
I don't know that I really need to explain the thrill of the post-season to anyone who might read this, but it's like watching the Olympics every night for up to two months...only better. Playing a best of 7 against a team and going through the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat only to emerge victorious and then realize you'd have to go through the whole thing three more times before you could watch your team lift the Cup. It's the pinnacle of what NHL hockey is about.
The NHL playoffs are great every year, but nothing compares to the times when you have to clear your evening schedule for the next week because your team advanced to the next round and everything else is secondary. My wife's not really a huge hockey fan (I have no clue how she puts up with me) but even she was along for the ride with the Oilers in 05/06. The playoffs are impossible to resist, they're brilliant, and for Oiler fans they feel like an imaginary goal that just continues to move further and further away.
It's gotten to the point where many of us don't even hope for the post-season anymore because the resignation of the fact that they are unreachable arrives before the puck drop on the opening night of the season.
The belief that better days are coming
I think this is one of the ones that makes all the others harder to take. As I mentioned a bit earlier, it's almost expected that every now and then a franchise will take a step back for a few years (unless you're the Detroit Red Wings) because the roster is turning over, but usually there's the hope that in a few seasons, the team will make it's way back to being competitive.
It's a pretty helpless feeling when you realize that the people running your favourite team have dug themselves a hole they have no idea how to get out of and they refuse to make the necessary changes as an organization to bring in someone who can help get things back on track.
That notion, that the last nine years of despair, anguish and misery could go on for another decade because those in charge are so firmly entrenched at the top of the organization, just compounds every other point I've brought up here. It's one thing to go through a rough patch in a relationship (in this case the one between fan and team) and say "wow, that was rough, but we got through it", but when you look at your partner in the relationship and see that they are primed to make you go through the same problems all over again, it's only natural to question whether it's worth the effort to stay or simply cut your losses.
Wearing an Oilers logo with any kind of a sense of pride
I remember when wearing an Oiler jersey, hat or any other kind of clothing would inspire meaningful conversation about actual hockey. Whether it be something about the team needing a particular kind of player, talking about a love for Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight, or some other player or just having someone say "yeah, they're fun to watch", it inspired a conversation I enjoyed having.
I wear my Oilers hats almost out of habit, but these days any time someone takes note of the Oiler logo and wants to talk hockey, the questions I get are: "Boy, they suck, how do you still follow them?" or "Are they ever going to figure it out? What's wrong with them?" I barely even want to start talking about it anymore. There's only so many ways to say: "Well, the team is run by a group of incompetent people who the Owner refuses to get rid of because they were his childhood heroes." After a while, the response just becomes "Don't get me started..." and then you move on.
Talking Oiler hockey used to be a joy. One of my absolute favourite pastimes, but it's become a chore. Something I have to gather the energy to put myself through. I remember how much fun it used to be and the fact that the exercise now leaves me feeling so hollow is something I think someone should be forced to pay for with their jobs. I'd wager that many Oiler fans feel the same and that's where the anger towards Kevin Lowe stems from and I understand it.
Last but not least...
These things may seem trivial to some of you, and if you're a fan of the Red Wings or the San Jose Sharks, or really most teams around the NHL, you have exposure to some or all of these things every season and really don't go too long without seeing all of them. But there are fans of the Oilers out there who have Children who will be 9 years old this summer and who have never...not even once in their entire lives, seen an Oiler game where the result was important. Not unless you count draft lottery position, and really, you shouldn't...its embarrassing.
That brings me to my last point and the one I'm most upset about...this team has robbed me of the opportunity to rejoice in the process of raising my children to be Oilers fans.
I've got two sons, and while there is still time for the 2nd (he's just a baby), my oldest son is now heading towards his 6th birthday. He LOVES hockey. We watched every minute of the World Juniors together this year and he was on the edge of his seat the whole time. It was magical for me to watch him absorb the thrills of the game.
At some point in the two-week tournament, he said "Dad, wouldn't it be great if we could watch Oiler games like this?" I explained to him that the NHL playoffs were very similar but much longer and maybe even more fun. He asked why we've never sat together and watched the Oilers in the playoffs, and I had to explain to him that it's because they haven't played one in his lifetime. Thanks for that one Oilers. It's not really all that surprising that his favourite team has bounced around from one to another over the last few years. He keeps coming back to the Oilers because we're best buddies and he knows how much Dad loves them, but he doesn't really understand why I put up with all the losing and frequently gets interested in teams that offer a more pleasant prognosis for the future.
I have far more days than I used to where I wonder why I don't join him.
For all of the small joys of being a hockey fan that have been taken from me over the last decade and for soiling the legacy of what it means to both be an Oiler and a fan of the Oilers, I will absolutely never forgive those that run the Oiler franchise.
You should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves, and the part that might hurt the most is that I have serious doubts that you are.