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Mention Edmonton, Alberta, and two things quickly come to mind: frigid winters and Wayne Gretzky. Only the winters have been worthy of note since Gretzky, one of the finest ice hockey players of all time, decamped to Los Angeles 18 years ago.
The Edmonton Oilers, the team that Gretzky led to four Stanley Cup victories, have been in the wilderness for more than a decade. In the season just passed, they ended eighth out of 15 in the National Hockey League’s western conference, only just qualifying for the cup play-offs.
But Edmonton and its hockey team have emerged from hibernation. The city is riding an economic boom on the back of the global energy industry’s rush to exploit vast deposits of bitumen-
like oil sands in northern Alberta. House prices have soared and unemployment is among the lowest in Canada.
More important for hockey fans, the Oilers have gone “from nearly missing the play-offs – again – to a club of heroes and giant-slayers”, the Edmonton Journal noted in a recent editorial.
They sprang a huge surprise in the first round of this year’s play-offs by defeating the Detroit Red Wings, the western conference’s top team. The Oilers then went on to eliminate two California teams based in cities – San Jose and Anaheim – once considered far too warm for ice hockey. Police estimated that 20,000 people poured into Edmonton’s bar district last Saturday night after the home team sewed up their series against Anaheim’s Mighty Ducks.
The Oilers will cap their comeback on Monday when they face off against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first game of the Stanley Cup final. Canadians from coast to coast will be cheering them on. If the Oilers win the best-of-seven series, they will become the first Canadian team in 13 years to bring home the cup, named after a late-19th century UK colonial secretary and governor-general of Canada.
Australia’s prime minister John Howard observed during a visit to Ottawa last month that “for reasons that have always escaped my comprehension and understanding, Canadians never embraced cricket”.
Although But while ice hockey is Canada’s national game, all but six of the 30 National Hockey League teams are based south of the border. An attempt to broaden the game’s appeal, and thus boost television revenues, led to teams being transplanted or formed during the 1990s in such un-wintry places as San Jose and Anaheim, not to mention Tampa, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona.
Indeed, the Hurricanes, whom the Oilers face on Monday, are based in sunny Raleigh, North Carolina. Their roots lie much further north in Hartford, Connecticut, where they used to be known as the Whalers.
Oilers fans insist that their team’s resurgence is no fluke. Edmonton and other small-city teams have benefited from changes introduced last year to help hockey recover from a lock-out of players that shut down the NHL for the entire 2004-05 season.
The players ended up taking hefty pay cuts, accepting salary caps and acquiescing to changes in the free agency system that have greatly reduced their bargaining power with team owners. The previous free agency rules encouraged players to move from one team to another and meant that less wealthy teams, such as Edmonton, could not afford the best players.
With the new restrictions on free agency, “I think the cup is going to move around a lot more,” says Ray Turchansky, a local journalist who has written a history of the Oilers. “You’re going to see fewer dynasties.”
Since the Oilers last brought home the cup in 1990, the Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils have each won three times. The last championship, in 2004, went to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Oilers, owned by a group of about three dozen private and corporate investors, have brought in several valuable players this season. At the top of the list is Dwayne Roloson, the team’s 36-year-old goaltender. The Oilers took Roloson from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a first-round draft pick (the chance to recruit a promising newcomer), one of a team’s most prized assets. Prior to Roloson’s arrival, the Oilers typically rotated among three goalies.
“For the play-offs, you have to have a goaltender that the team feels comfortable with,” says Turchansky.
Other newcomers to the team include the 6ft 6in defenceman Chris Pronger, a key member of the Oilers’ “penalty-killing” squad, whose job is to keep opposing forwards from scoring during power plays. (A power play costs the offending team a player for two minutes or until the other team scores.)
Mike Brophy, a senior writer at The Hockey News in Toronto, says the Oilers have also benefited from new rules aimed at adding excitement and speed to the game. Attacking teams are allowed to make longer passes than before. Each goal has been moved back by two feet and the offensive zone has been enlarged.
“The Oilers play a fast-skating attack system,” Brophy says. “Their best players are able to manoeuvre with fewer restrictions.”
The Oilers go into Monday’s game as the underdogs. Debate is raging among fans whether the nine-day break since they eliminated Anaheim will hurt or help them. Some fans in the frozen north (though it can be quite warm at this time of year) may even be quietly rooting for Carolina. Their steady young goalie, Cam Ward, grew up in an Edmonton suburb and is due to be married there later this summer.
Win or lose, the Oilers have at least shown there is life after Wayne Gretzky. He now lives in the US, where he is co-owner and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes ended 12th in the western conference league last season, failing to qualify for the play-offs.
Gretzky, 45, will be cheering for his former team. “Oil is thicker than blood,” he said after Edmonton’s final game against Anaheim. “The fans deserve this. They went through a lot of lean years.”