The days of Wayne and roses may be over, but, yes, there is still hockey in Edmonton. Oh, it's not the scintillating, take-your-breath-away brand that made Edmonton the center of the hockey universe, but its still darn good hockey, as one would expect from a team blessed with the likes of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Kevin Lowe, who among them have 20 Stanley Cup rings.
Yet something is missing from these Oilers, and it's more than number 99. Maybe they lack the sense of history that fuels the inner fire that burns when you play for one of the great hockey clubs of all time, which the Oilers were but are no longer. "The mystique is gone," says Rod Phillips, CFRN radio play-by-play man. "Every night now, the other team believes it can win."
Which is not to say that the Oilers are getting their drill bits handed to them by the rest of the league. After Saturday's 4-2 win over the Hartford Whalers, the Oilers were 19-12-3, the fourth-best record in the NHL and equal to their showing of a year ago after the same number of games. On the other hand, two of the teams Edmonton trails—the Calgary Flames and the Gretzky-inspired Los Angeles Kings—are Smythe Division rivals, against whom the Oilers had a dismal 4-8-1 record at week's end.
"We should be proud of the way we've played the first 34 games," says Messier, who was named captain after Gretzky's departure. "It would have been easy to throw in the towel."
The Stanley Cup champions throwing in the towel? That's exactly how many of Edmonton's veterans felt when the blockbuster trade was announced last summer: Gretzky and forwards Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski for center Jimmy Carson, 18-year-old winger Martin Gelinas, $15 million and the Kings' first-round draft picks in 1989, '91 and '93. Over the objections of general manager and coach Glen Sather, Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington gave up greatness for cash and potential, which left every Oiler to wonder: If Gretzky is no more than a hunk of meat and a chunk of change to management, then what am I?
"They don't have to like it, but they have to accept it and make their own adjustments to it," says Sather. "I'd like to think that they've done that, but how do you know without crawling inside somebody's head? We still have a helluva hockey club."
No argument there. Even without Gretzky, Edmonton has five former 50-goal scorers, and at week's end, the Oilers ranked second in the league (to the Kings) in goals scored, with more this season—161 goals to 157—than at the same point in 1987. Despite criticism that he was too poky to keep up with the speedy Oilers, Carson led the team with 27 goals.
"The knock against his skating has been overplayed," says Edmonton assistant coach Ted Green, who admits that during training camp the coaching staff was concerned. "The bottom line is, he puts the puck in the net."
Not even Carson's play has been as eye-opening as that of the 28-year-old Kurri, who has been proving what Gretzky said all along, mostly to deaf ears, about his former linemate—namely that Kurri is the best right wing in the game. A native of Helsinki who still spends his summers in Finland, Kurri leads the Oilers in points (23 goals and 35 assists through Sunday) and has been killing penalties, working the power play and serving as a deft playmaker for linemates Keith Acton and Esa Tikkanen, who's also from Finland.
Tikkanen, 23, has also emerged as an excellent player, scoring 21 goals, including eight shorthanded ones, in his first 34 games. He had only 23 goals all of last season. "Esa is one of the new breed of Europeans who doesn't give a damn when a hard-nosed Canadian kid tries to intimidate him," says Green. "He gives it right back."
Tikkanen has to. It's every man for himself on the Oilers, one of the few NHL teams without a bona fide enforcer. "We miss McSorley very much," says Green. Adds Messier, "With all the talk about Wayne, you don't hear a lot about us losing McSorley and Krushelnyski. But with them went a lot of experience and character and size."
To help beef up the Oilers, Sather got journeyman tough-guy Glen Cochrane from the Chicago Blackhawks last month. But Cochrane isn't exactly Mike Tyson, either: Lyndon Byers of the Boston Bruins felled Cochrane with one punch—a right uppercut—when they squared off in Edmonton's 4-3 overtime loss in Boston last week.
Indeed, the best fighter the Oilers have now is probably Messier, who has been thrown out of two of Edmonton's three losses to Calgary this season, both times for fighting, and who was given a six-game suspension for hitting Vancouver's Rich Sutter in the mouth with his stick on Oct. 23. "We may still have to make a move between now and the playoffs," says Sather, who cannot afford to have Messier as his sole enforcer if the Oilers are to have any chance of beating the Flames in postseason play.
You would have thought that with the departure of Gretzky, Edmonton would have become more defense-minded and thus lowered its goals-against average. Not so. The Oilers have allowed 11 more goals this season than at the same time in '87, and Fuhr, their five-time All-Star in the nets, has been struggling. "I've had more bad games this season than in my first seven as a pro," said Fuhr after being yanked during a 7-4 loss to Calgary on Dec. 2. "I'm playing like a dog."
After tending goal in an NHL-record 75 of Edmonton's 80 regular-season games and 19 playoff games in 1987-88, Fuhr put his feet up last summer and relaxed. He came to training camp about 10 pounds overweight and hurt his knee while trying to play himself into shape. He has been trying ever since to regain his form. Fuhr's weight is down to where it should be—189 pounds—but his goals-against average has ballooned from 3.43 in 1987-88 to 4.17.
Fuhr wouldn't be the first All-Star goalie to fall into a season-long slump. As of Sunday, the Oilers were 9-10-2 in games he had started, compared with 10-2-1 in games started by his backup, Bill Ranford. "Maybe Grant's head is away from the ice," says Sather. "But he'll be there when it matters. Let the other guys carry the load for a while." One of Fuhr's endorsements is for NuMaid Dairy Products, a competitor of Palm Dairies, which is owned by Pocklington, who's about as popular a figure in Edmonton these days as Ebenezer Scrooge.
"There's been a lot of negativism in Edmonton because of the trade," says Green. "Who can tell how much effect that has on the players? But we're going to surprise some people yet. We have to raise ourselves to another level, but we can do it."
Indeed, Edmonton's talent is comparable with anyone's in the league, but it's no longer intimidating talent. The only way the Oilers can elevate themselves to a championship level is for the players to decide that they are willing to skate through a wall built, owned and paid for by Pocklington. Question is, will they?