“The Edmonton Oilers fell bass ackwards into a generational talent and the playoffs. Anything that results from that is pure luck, plain and simple”.
Get used to hearing that.
On April 18th, 2015 a series of randomly selected numbers dramatically altered the path of this forlorn franchise.
For the second time in the organization’s history, a player of sublime skill was gifted to the team and fan base by virtue of chance, fate or divine providence – whichever explanation makes you feel most comfortable.
After an eleven-year hiatus (or self-imposed exile, as some might reasonably describe it) from the playoffs, the Oilers will return to the spring season race for a championship, and to be honest I believe any success they have is going to be immediately met with qualifications from critics about how this is the result of that one fateful day in April two years ago.
They will want to say that credit goes to Connor McDavid, that he rescued a rebuild gone horribly awry (he did, to some extent), and some of the less charitable observers will rush in to say that the team (and understand that in many cases this is meant to imply by association the fans) do not deserve such a reward because of all those years of futility.
Some people are going to be small and bitter and take this moment to exorcise their grudges, real or imagined, at how Lady Luck bestowed her favour that spring day.
What these critics will choose to overlook (and I believe it is a choice in this regard, for a modicum of empathy or circumspection would allow them to see that fans do not choose the direction of their team, but in some cases merely hang on and pray for better days to follow) is that Oiler fans did not embark on a rebuilding process with an addled management group, they did not extend an offer sheet to Dustin Penner, they did not assign a disgruntled Sheldon Souray to Hershey, they did not hire Pat Quinn nor fire Tom Renney, they did not choose Skype as an appropriate method to dismiss Ralph Krueger nor did they make the decision to hire an untested coach in Dallas Eakins.
They chose to support their team through some of its darkest days (they were not the darkest, those are reserved for the post-dynasty 90s when the franchise’s very survival was in doubt from month-to-month).
The fans bear very little blame for these last ten years and anyone who chooses to argue otherwise can settle in because I will go to my grave holding this position.
We have many faults as fans. We run good players out of town for perceived shortcomings that are often unjustified. We inflate the potential of our favourites because, to quote Polonius, their adoption tried, we grapple them unto our soul.
But if you want to talk about “deserve” then I’d argue that over the past ten years no fan base has earned what the Oilers’ fan base has.
There are other, longer-suffering fan bases out there, certainly. And they deserve something good to come their way. But over the last decade there has been no shortage of slings and arrows hurled Edmonton’s way, disparaging remarks on the team, the city, the citizens, the fans and on. When insults were being handed out, when jokes were being made at someone’s expense, Oilers fans and the citizens of Edmonton were often standing at the front of the line.
We’ve earned this the hard way.
“They won a goddamn lottery” – Brian Burke’s words when he was GM of the Leafs and was asked about rebuilding a team through the draft the way Pittsburgh had.
By 5pm Mountain Time on April 18th 2015 a good portion of the NHL passed from comical observers to embittered cynics.
Whatever favour remained after drafting three consecutive 1st overall selections largely evaporated in a haze of “anywhere but there” sentiment from those who felt Edmonton had been given ample chance to deliver themselves from their purgatory and that this gift was entirely unwarranted.
I know in my interactions with fans from other teams, most often those from Calgary or Vancouver, there was a refrain of “you guys should be ashamed of yourselves, you are going to ruin Connor McDavid like you have every other young player your team has been gifted for years now”.
We were supposed to be embarrassed for supporting a team that was this bad and also guilty that something good had come of it through the draft lottery.
There was always something I wanted to say to fans and media members who’d start in on this…
Luck be damned! We’re here just as you would be if you’d won that lottery and no I bloody well won’t apologize for it!
Oilers fans have filled our old, ageing coliseum with the same ardour and commitment that fans in Calgary and Vancouver have during the same decade and more consistently than those in Toronto (per hockeydb attendance). We sat and watched as our team seemed to come unraveled every night, and when things did start to go their way they’d usually find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We welcomed with open arms some wondrously talented players only to see them struggle under the weight of a team too befuddled to provide them any assistance then watched as they seemed to age before our eyes (except Nugent-Hopkins) as that spark of enthusiasm and creativity was slowly suffocated.
So now the Oilers are, in a way, back in the NHL, a threat in the Pacific division and poised to become a team of note for the foreseeable future.
How will the league respond to an Oilers team once again led by a generational talent?
I’d guess it will be a mixed reaction.
We already know how Toronto is dealing post-McDavid. I’ve alluded to Brian Burke’s response to the Crosby lottery, can’t think he’d have a much more positive one regarding Edmonton now that he’s working in Calgary. I’ve referenced Burke’s words on the lottery earlier because he voices a sentiment that I believe is common around the league, especially so amongst those teams who find themselves outside the draft lottery more often than not. I’ve experienced quite a few lotteries now and I would tell any fan that winning one is a mixed blessing – wonderful in the moment but brings with it a harsh gaze from the rest of the league as they scrutinize every movement, every decision, every obstacle for signs of failure.
Edmonton has been under that scrutiny for years now, and it has been magnified over that time because of their unique combination of luck (both good and bad) and management (largely bad).
The list of teams whose media members still harbour deep, painful memories of Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers making a public spectacle of their teams’ shortcomings on a regular basis is still long. There is also a new generation of media members for whom Edmonton has only ever been something of a basket-case small northern town with little to recommend it.
There will be many who will welcome Edmonton back to the playoffs this spring, eager to see another Canadian city vie for the Stanley Cup. They will be enthused at seeing a team too long denied the post-season make a return.
Others will use this opportunity to emphasize luck and blind chance as being the only reason the Oilers made the post-season, and within this repeated charge lies the implication that it was undeserved, that somehow the league was cheated out of an alternate, more justified outcome.
“Come on, Rex. Now you’re just getting defensive like a typical Oilers fan, trying desperately to cover up your insecurities by making it out like the media have it in for your team”.
Maybe Wyshynski is bating us here. Maybe he’s just donning the black hat to play villain for a moment and have some fun. But as with any joke timing is key, and his timing here was very off.
I believe that every day offers you the opportunity to prove to yourself and others the kind of person you really are.
I think this spring we’re going to find out a lot about some people, for better and for worse.
It should be easy to tell them apart and rather than rage and vent at them, just remember who says what and hang on to that for the future. For nothing can so undermine a man’s credibility as his own past.
So when critics outside our city take a moment to censure the Oilers for riding the coattails of McDavid to paper over their myriad flaws and failures, smile quietly and remind yourself that many of them will never appreciate the long history of sacrifices the fans have made for the sake of this frustratingly enchanting team.