CBC Edition

From golden years to decades of darkness, Oilers history has become Edmonton's story

- Stephanie Cram

The storied history of the Edmonton Oilers has made it impossible to separate the team from the city, which once dubbed itself City of Champions, that it calls home.

Now, for the first time in 18 years, the Edmonton Oil‐ ers are back in the Stanley Cup final, giving the city and its legion of Oiler fans a chance to revel in the full glo‐ ry of playoff hockey, after getting mere tastes of it dur‐ ing short-lived appearance­s in recent years.

The team's run against the Florida Panthers is bring‐ ing back memories, both of the Oilers dynasty years and its periods of darkness.

Not quite the big league

The Alberta Oilers debuted in the World Hockey Associatio­n in 1972, one of a dozen teams that included the New England Whalers, Los An‐ geles Sharks, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques. In 1979, the WHA folded and the renamed Edmonton Oil‐ ers joined the National Hock‐ ey League.

One of the players on the new Edmonton team was Wayne Gretzky, a 19-year-old who had been playing for the WHA because he was too young for the NHL, which had a minimum age of 20.

"From that point on, the rest is history," said Zach Laing, from Oilers Nation, an Edmonton Oilers-focused group blog.

"Glenn Anderson, Jari Kur‐ ri and Mark Messier and a number of other players were all drafted by the team ... and it took them a couple of years before they really kind of found their stride,"

Laing said.

But find it, they did. In 1984, the Oilers would win their first Stanley Cup. And grounded by that core group of Gretzky, Messier, Anderson and Kurri, the team took home the Cup again in 1985, 1987 and 1988.

"It was a time in hockey when there was a lot of scor‐ ing going on, and so they played a very fast-paced, high offence kind of game," said Laing.

"They had the ability to lock things down defensivel­y as well," he said. "With Grant Fuhr in the net … that was a big reason why they were able to win so much."

By that point, even nonhockey fans knew about the phenomenal­ly talented Gret‐ zky. The combinatio­n of his reputation and the multiple championsh­ips had an im‐ pact on Edmonton as a city, Laing said.

"It really put Edmonton on the map as a premium desti‐ nation in the NHL. You think of dynasties in the NHL, and it's truly few and far be‐ tween."

Laing said other dynasty teams include the New York Islanders, who won the Stan‐ ley Cup four years in a row from 1979 to 1983, and the Montreal Canadiens, who have won the Stanley Cup an impressive 24 times and were the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup in 1993.

WATCH | Oilers fever grips Edmonton as team makes it to 1983 Stanley Cup final:

Former Oiler Jarret Stoll says playing for a team with a winning past was a big draw when he was a young player in the draft.

"You want to go some‐ where with [a] long history," said Stoll.

"You want to play in front of a sold-out crowd that knows the game of hockey, and that cares about the team. And that was definitely what the Edmonton Oilers were all about."

The trade that marked the beginning of the end

But in the midst of this gold‐ en era came the August 1988 trade of Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, a move that rocked Edmontonia­ns and shocked the hockey world.

At the Edmonton news conference where the trade was announced, a tearful Gretzky sat in the back as Oil‐ ers president and general manager Glen Sather ex‐ plained the move.

"We're all trying to do something that's good for Wayne, for the Edmonton Oilers, for the National Hock‐ ey League," said Sather.

"We all like to be proud of what we do to make a living, and I think you can see here today, [that] the reason we've won four Stanley Cups is be‐ cause of the emotion we dis‐ play for each other."

WATCH | 'I promised Mess I wouldn't do this,' says tear‐ ful Gretzky:

Despite losing Gretzky, the team wanted to prove they could still maintain their dynasty title.

"The players that re‐ mained there, led by Mark Messier, really had a goal in mind of being able to prove everybody wrong and prove that they could win the Stan‐ ley Cup without Wayne Gret‐ zky," said Laing.

That gritty determinat­ion ushered in the team's last Stanley Cup win in 1990, where they beat the Boston Bruins in five games.

One year later, Messier was traded to the Canadiens - and the Oilers era of re‐ building began in earnest.

The Oilers lost the confer‐ ence finals in 1991 and 1992 before going into a 12-year

stretch where they couldn't get past the second round, if they made it to playoffs at all.

"The Edmonton Oilers fell on some really lean years in the 1990s and into the early 2000s," Laing said. "They were a franchise … that didn't quite have the budget that they once did."

But fans still stood behind their team.

"There's one thing about Edmonton Oilers fans, it's that they have perpetual hope," said Laing.

The 2006 run for the Cup

Their loyalty was rewarded in 2006 when the team went to the Stanley Cup final. Even though they lost the Cup to the Carolina Hurricanes, ex‐ citement bubbled up over the potential return of a new legacy team.

Stoll, who played with the Oilers for three seasons in‐ cluding 2006, describes that year as "touch and go," say‐ ing the team kept moving up and down the ranks all sea‐ son.

"It was a roller-coaster year for sure," said Stoll. "I don't think anybody ex‐ pected us to make the play‐ offs or be there at the end of the day,"

One of Stoll's highlights of that playoff run was scoring the winning goal in double overtime during Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfin­al.

"I got chills just thinking about it, how crazy that se‐ ries was with the fans right behind us … every step of the way," said Stoll, rememberin­g how loud the crowd was that night, the first home game of the series.

"It was really special in the playoffs to score and realize you won the game and … we took the 2-1 series lead … and ended up winning the series in six games."

Decade of struggle and rebuilding

After Edmonton's last visit to the Stanley Cup final, the team fell on darker times, and many of its top players were traded in the following years.

The 2007 trade of Ryan Smyth, the beloved alternate captain who'd been with the team since 1994, was a key moment, Laing said.

"That was really the big shifting point for the Oilers as a franchise, going from trying to contend, trying to get back into the playoffs … to kind of accepting that things had to change," said Laing.

"The Oilers decided to tear down the franchise and rebuild from the bottom up."

That same year, captain Jason Smith was traded to the Philadelph­ia Flyers, fol‐ lowed in 2008 by the trades of Raffi Torres to the Colum‐ bus Blue Jackets and Georges Laraque to the Canadiens. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson - who Stoll called integral in the team's success in 2006 was traded to the New York Islanders in 2009.

"That's just the way it is, the guys move on … get traded, sign elsewhere, free agency," said Stoll, who was traded to the L.A. Kings in 2008. "There was a lot of movement."

But the team was also bringing in new players, like first-overall draft pick Taylor Hall in 2010 and current Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick at the 2011 draft.

In those years, some fans lost faith in the team, with a few even tossing their jerseys on the ice in protest.

"They were frustrated that the Oilers couldn't find a way through all of this decade of darkness and find a way to break through with all these high draft picks, and young talented players that just never quite seem to get the right mix to click," Laing said.

A few years later, in 2015, the Oilers were able to nab Connor McDavid as a firstovera­ll draft pick.

In the nine seasons since McDavid joined the team, the Oilers have made it to playof‐ fs six times, making it as far as the Western Conference fi‐ nal in 2022.

"When [McDavid] arrived in Edmonton, there was a lot of excitement in the city," said Laing. "This was another player who was going to be a generation­al player to a simi‐ lar ilk of what Wayne Gretzky was in the 1980s.

"The hope was that Mc‐ David was going to be able to lift the Oilers out of the decade of darkness."

For Laing, the Oilers truly are the personific­ation of the city and province where the team is based.

"You think of Edmonton ... it's a hard-working province, an oil-and-gas province, a lace-up-your-boots and bring-your- lunch-pail-towork kind of [province]," said Laing.

That feeling was last cap‐ tured in 2006, in the unlikely team that made it to the Stanley Cup final, he said.

"It was a ragtag group of players that all came togeth‐ er at the right time … all click‐ ing in the right way," said Laing.

"This is kind of that same sort of thing all over again. It's a great opportunit­y now for the fan base to once again build amazing memo‐ ries watching their favourite team."

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada