Growing up, I was careful to allot my hard-earned allowance to the things that really mattered, namely Mary-Kate & Ashley mystery books and Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards. One of the most audacious things I splashed out for was a Toronto Maple Leafs flag for the family car-- such was the extent of my affection for this team that, like an obnoxious new couple posting daily selfies on Instagram, I wanted the world to know in the most ostentatious fashion. I would stare out the backseat at the flag billowing in the wind with a borderline unhealthy amount of pride-- the 10-year old me, the hardcore Leafs fan who learned to curse within the context of the Battle of Ontario, would be grossly shocked and ashamed of the level of devotion I now have towards the Edmonton Oilers.
Last month, I was wearing my Oilers cap during a connection at the airport in Detroit, when a random airport employee asked me if I was from Edmonton, clearly expecting a response in the affirmative. When I told him I had never stepped foot in the province of Alberta, let alone Edmonton, the presumed Wings fan looked at me with an expression of confusion and mild pity. It's a team with seemingly no ties to me whatsoever, whose last playoff run I watched passively with no emotional investment and subsequent years have been mired in sub-mediocrity.
I question myself sometimes, and sometimes attempt to trace my love of this team to a tangible point of conversion-- what I discovered is I love the Edmonton Oilers, but it was the team’s legion of heartwarmingly devoted fans who salvaged my love for hockey by perfectly epitomizing and embracing the role of an underdog.
People like to say "everybody loves an underdog," but to cheer for one not during their brief, meteoric rise to glory, but learning to love them when they were at their lowest point with seemingly no hope, is a different matter. You're devoting your heart to a team with the only pain and losing guaranteed, with no promise whatsoever of eventual salvation.
In the past few years, we watched for the sake of watching, knowing nothing would come of this season and likely the next, feeling tenfold the depletion of spirits that emanated from the players. Even after rare wins, the shadow of the future stole with timely sobriety across the radiant present. Frankly, the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness we expected to know.
This season, the glimmer of hope started early and against all odds, flickered but endured beyond expectation. It has become increasingly apparent of late that the Oilers, and its legion of fans, are on the verge of a breakthrough, a new era; we all feel it yet are afraid to acknowledge it, kept in check by years of knowing the pain of hopes dashed, the importance of expectations suppressed. There are definitely still growing pains to come, but now at 28-15-8 and tied for first place in the Pacific Division in late January, the team seems to have entered an unfamiliar new phase in their growth, still slightly unbelievable to many fans. After two decisive victories over the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, back-to-back on the road, I felt an immense sense of pride wash over me and reflected on the journey that took us here.
When we look back to the years when the prominent names associated with this team were Craig MacTavish, Dallas Eakins, Justin Schultz, and Nikita Nikitin, it's like someone with a now better life walking past the ghetto neighborhood of their childhood-- those were some dark times we went through. Even the recently discarded Nail Yakupov and Taylor Hall carry with them the indelible residue of those losing years.
But in a way, the experience of that era is what best defines the very experience of being an Oilers fan-- despite the potential glory that lies ahead, it was the countless inside jokes, nicknames, petty arguing, and self-deprecating remarks from fans that helped all of us get through a remarkably bleak period of time most other fandoms would not have come out of intact.
Looking back, it was precisely this very sarcastic, sardonic, and wonderfully salty group of fans that brought me back into the sport when I had stopped watching it during college, due in combination to moving out of the country and not having access to hockey on TV, the lockout of 2010, and the Leafs becoming almost as hopeless as the Oilers during their darkest times. It had simply become unenjoyable to watch hockey.
After I graduated and discovered belatedly that I could stream games online, I started following the Leafs again. I tuned in to discover a markedly different cast and character from the classy Sundin and dependable Kaberle I grew up watching, a team now captained by the most pissed off-looking man alive, Dion Phaneuf. I continued to watch their games, but without the religious devotion displayed in my childhood, and out of curiosity tuned into an Oilers game in October 2014 to see how Jordan Eberle, gap-toothed wonder whose World Juniors heroics I wrote my college application essay on, was doing.
The Oilers actually won that first game, a very unrealistic representation of the fan experience they would provide for the next two years, but the familiarity of seeing one player I liked led me to first passively, then actively seek out more Oilers games as I began to get to know more of the players on the team and grasp some of the nuances of what the fandom was dealing with. I came to appreciate the heroics of Ryan Smyth, the common man's god; the insane run in 2006, led by Rollie the Goalie; the concept of "Justin Schultz, Norris Potential."
It was also around this time that I discovered the online legion of Oilers fans wherever you went, whether it was Twitter, Reddit, or the astounding collection of high quality blogs dedicated to analyzing every detail of the team, complete with equally active comments section teeming with anger and despair, most of which were absolutely hilarious, and the quantity of which never dipped no matter how poorly the team was playing. In fact, it seemed to increase when the Oilers played a particularly bad game, ensuing in a salubrious ointment called humour that always took the sting out of even the most embarrassing blowout loss.
Other fandoms are active on the internet, no doubt, but I found a remarkable quality of the Oilers blogosphere that stood out-- it felt like a big family. A constantly bickering, highly dysfunctional, exceedingly bizarre family, but one that would always be there for the team, and for each other, in the depths of hockey despair. Back when there was no Connor McDavid, no Todd McLellan, no Leon Draisaitl, this fandom still paid attention to the play of the whole roster and gave their opinion, paralleled by the physical attendance at Rexall Place, which remarkably never dipped throughout the ten years.
Maybe they didn't realize it themselves, but that they even bothered to be angry at all, and sustain that, was amazing. I was blown away by the tenacity and stickiness of this fanbase, and it's what made me become an Oilers fan. When the team started losing profusely, the fans were furious-- but they stuck around, filling the arena night after night and still active online, spewing their anger and frustration but not able to leave this team because they just care so much. I've never seen a team where the fans have been so emotionally involved during such a prolonged slump. They would vent in the most ludicrous, simultaneously disturbing and creative ways possible, but never abandon their team--this was true love if I'd ever seen it, and I kept going back for more of this uniquely odd-tasting pie.
As I became increasingly attached to the team and fandom, the losses started to hurt more-- but somewhere online I could always find another sad Oilers fan whose sentiments mirrored mine exactly, who would not hesitate to engage in sarcastic dialogue with other fans about the spectacular speed of Nikita Nikitin, or the bright future of one Magnus Paajarvi.
There will always be highs and lows. For the Oilers, more often than not, fans stick around through the lows because the team is an indispensable part of their identity, because the fandom is your family. That's your support-- the losses seem more bearable when you can bemoan it together and if you gather enough pain and salty tears, it crosses over an unmarked line and becomes weirdly enjoyable in a slightly sick way, like a bunch of people watching really gross YouTube videos together. The term, I believe, is commiseration, and Oilers fans have perfected this art in the past decade.
The drafting of Connor McDavid sealed the deal, as the almost comical levels of hyperbolic elation pouring out of Oilers fans brought me perhaps more joy than the drafting of the boy himself-- the shameless acknowledgement that we were totally not worthy, the lucid awareness that the rest of the league was simultaneously scornful and envious of us, the ability to laugh while knowing the embarrassments of the past ten years were being brought to the surface for the world to deride. It was absolutely perfect, and the season after, I found myself in November 2015 going to the ACC for the first time, realizing a childhood dream that had been financially out of reach for so long, but cheering for the Oilers instead of the Leafs. Truly a madlad.
The Oilers represent the underdog in all of us-- the true underdog that really sucks, the one without an inevitable redemption story in the works, making it so much sweeter when that light finally shines. It seems that at this moment, we may be on the verge of the next stage of this remarkably ugly underdog story--enjoy it, Oilers fans, because if anyone's earned it, it's you. It's the countless scars of years past, many wounds which have had salt ceaselessly and mercilessly rubbed into them, that will exponentially increase the intensity with which you will feel the joy of meaningful games and playoff wins. It's been so long and we are so emotionally primed for this, I'm not sure this fandom is even prepared to handle the flood of feels that will come gushing out should playoffs be in the cards. Either way, I'm just grateful for having been welcomed into this community with no questions asked, and having wonderful people to suffer with these few years.
So thank you, Oilers fans, for being the wonderfully strange and loyal souls you are. Let’s enjoy whatever the next few years bring, and most importantly, let’s enjoy it together.