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Team of the People

June 05, 2006
June 05, 2006

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June 5, 2006

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Team of the People

Back in the finals after 16 years, once-mighty Edmonton has an underdog's appeal and small-market fans who act as if they own the franchise--as some of them do

The green mile inEdmonton is neither green nor a mile. The walk from the Oilers' dressing roomto the ice over a deep-blue rubberized mat scuffed by a thousand skate bladesis precisely 29 paces, passing through a corridor of fans who abandon theadjacent bar in the bowels of the arena--well-oiled, some of them--toscrutinize the team. In a sport that lauds accountability, there is no moreimmediate, and often blunt, feedback than from this mob. "If things aren'tgoing well, there are drunken fans on the Green Mile who'll let you know,"says center Michael Peca, a first-year Oiler. "That's a pretty open forumfor people. Sometimes guys'll get back in the [dressing] room and mention whatthey heard." Of course, Peca adds, "They've been great in theplayoffs." ¶ That's because the selfless, shot-blocking Oilers have reeledoff three straight series upsets to bring the Stanley Cup finals back toEdmonton for the first time since 1990. And this time it's personal. The Oilersplay in the NHL's smallest market, and in no other town does battling for theCup provide so much psychic income. The team hands out playoff pom-poms tofans, and the din in Rexall Place approaches Chicago Stadium loud, but it'sreally not about decibels and whistles. It's about the game. During the WesternConference finals--Edmonton closed out its five-game win by beating the AnaheimMighty Ducks 2-1 last Saturday--the Oilers ran a recurring feature on theirarena video screen called This Day in Playoff History. Rather than sepia-tingedtributes to Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or the five Cups Edmonton won between1984 and '90, the snippets were of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelioson a beach and San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton missing a six-foot putt. Toget the gag, you had to realize immediately 1) what Chelios and Thornton looklike in civvies and 2) that their teams were bumped by the improbable Oilers,the first eighth seed to reach a Cup finals. Candy for the cognoscenti.

This is an article from the June 5, 2006 issue Original Layout

The differencebetween Edmonton and other NHL cities is a pronoun. "When you talk topeople in the street here, it's 'Jeez, we didn't play well last night' or 'Wehad a great game,'" says coach Craig MacTavish, who played on three of theOilers' Cup-winning teams. "In other cities it's 'You guys weren't thatsharp' or 'You guys gotta get it going.' Here it's 'we.' Everybody shares apiece."

The Oilers areindeed community property, owned by 35 local businesses in a model like that ofthe NFL's smallest-market team, the Packers. (Call the NHL's northernmostfranchise Green B'Eh.) If you aren't an owner, you know an owner. Or knowsomeone who does. Almost 70% of the 15,000 season tickets are mom-and-pops,purchased by individuals. Players disappoint the customers at their peril.During the past decade braying fans all but escorted underachieving centerJason Arnott, skittish defenseman Tom Poti and faltering netminder Tommy Saloto the city limits. "They expect a certain type of player," saysgeneral manager Kevin Lowe, an important defenseman on all five Edmonton Cupwinners. "They even expect [skilled right wing] Ales Hemsky to finishchecks and block shots. If he doesn't, he better be awfully good in all otherareas." And if he isn't, Ales won't live here anymore.

"This isabout hockey 24 hours a day. There's nowhere you can go in this city and not bean Edmonton Oiler," says defenseman Steve Staios, who played for three NHLteams before arriving in 2001. "Some people have trouble dealing with that,but some guys thrive."

Within thistight-knit team no one is more delighted to be here than Fernando Pisani, whowould be the face of the Oilers if you could see it under his luxuriant redplayoff beard. The right wing enters the finals with nine playoff goals andthree game-winners--local boy makes excellent. He grew up in Edmonton's LittleItaly (or as locals call it, little Little Italy; you can walk its length andstill have finished only half a cannoli), a 10-minute drive from the Oilers'arena. Pisani scored his first goal in that arena when he was 12, in abetween-periods shootout involving youth teams (he remembers its being duringWayne Gretzky's first game back in Edmonton as a Los Angeles King) and suffusedhimself in Oilers culture. For his father, Cosmo, an immigrant homebuilder,hockey represented a checkpoint into mainstream Canada through which his sonwas the escort. "My dad's never been on skates, but he acts like hehas," Pisani says. "He's always giving me advice." The Oilershistorically have leaned toward local talent; captain Jason Smith andfirst-line left wing Ryan Smyth are also Albertans. As Lowe says, "When indoubt, we take the western Canadian kid. When I went back to play inMontreal"--he grew up an hour from that city--"I was always excited,and that feeling lasted 14 years. [If] you're from here, you understand whatall this means."

That is theOilers' blessing and their curse: They skate with the excess baggage of an eraimpossible to replicate. The Gretzky-Messier--Jari Kurri teams gave the worldOilers Hockey, essentially the old Montreal fire-wagon style leavened withEuropean dandies and a devil-may-care approach to defense. The problem: Sincethe end of Edmonton's hegemony, Oilers Hockey has basically meant doing thingson the cheap and getting whacked by Dallas in the playoffs. The players arecaught between worlds, the compelling present and the one represented by theposters of the Stanley Cups and Messier and Paul Coffey to their left as theystomp the Green Mile to the 16,839 fans awaiting them, a crowd far moreanimated and lubricated--booze was banned in the stands in the 1980s--than itspredecessors. Apparently the trick is to dip your toe in the shimmering watersof the past, a must given the omnipresent reminders, without being sucked inand drowned. For Lowe, a Cup in 2006 would be a useful device "to severourselves from the past, in a good way."

If thesepostlockout playoffs compose a substantial part of NHL commissioner GaryBettman's legacy, his nurturing of the Oilers will be as significant as hissupport of the Buffalo Sabres through their bankruptcy. Canadian franchises inQuebec City and Winnipeg bolted early in his tenure, but he stopped the trend.Whether he wouldn't or simply couldn't move the financially strappedOilers--Houston was a plausible suitor in Peter Pocklington's final years asowner--Bettman stuck with the franchise (and a country), overseeing thetransition to the community-ownership group in 1998. He was rewarded withallies on a personal level (Bettman was signing autographs outside the Oilers'arena before Game 3 against Anaheim) and a professional one, which came inhandy when small-market hard-liners helped him usher in the salary-cap era.Edmonton was staunchly prolockout, viewing a cap as the only possibility itsfranchise had of getting back in the game.

After years ofurging fans to wait until a new economic order was established, the Oilers hada sacred covenant to do something after the lockout. Lowe leaped into themarket immediately, trading last August for franchise defenseman Chris Prongerand Peca, precisely the kind of big-ticket players who over the previous 15years had been preemptively dumped or had gone off in search of more money.Then, at the trading deadline, he acquired dynamic winger Sergei Samsonov andwell-traveled goalie Dwayne Roloson, who stopped 32 of 33 shots against theDucks in Game 5. "Pronger and Peca and Roli brought us to the next level ofcompeting," says assistant coach Craig Simpson, who won two Cups with theOilers. "We had a foundation of getting the most out of our players. Nowwe're not only getting the most out of players, but we have some who haveestablished a higher level."

There has beenthe requisite playoff delirium for the past six weeks, including the fourcelebrants who climbed up and dangled from a traffic-light wire as well as newsreports about a critical beer shortage in some downtown Edmontonestablishments. (This story, which had shaggy-dog shedding all over it, wasreported with a straight face on CBC.) When you almost lose something precious,of course, you hold on to it a little tighter. Even if it's a live wire.

"Underneaththe surface is Edmonton's pent-up need to say to the world, 'We're heretoo,'" says Oilers president Pat LaForge. "There are other cities inCanada, and we know we're down the list in some other comparatives, but when itcomes to this sport, right here, right now, we've got five banners hanging anda history of great players. When we get here, we want to tell the whole world,'We're Edmonton, and we've got a place at the table.'"

SI.COM

For more playoff coverage, including a preview of thefinals and the playoff blog, go to SI.com/nhl.

"This is about HOCKEY 24 HOURS A DAY," saysStaios. "There's nowhere you can go in this city and not be an EdmontonOiler."

 

PHOTODavid E. KluthoTHE WALK On the Green Mile, Oilers like Pisani (front) often get an earful.PHOTOPhotographs by David E. KluthoGOAL-LINE STAND Netminder Roloson, with help from Pronger (44), held the Ducks (including Todd Marchant) to one goal three times.PHOTODavid E. KluthoROOM FOR ONE MORE? The titles of the 1980s still loom large in Edmontonians' minds--and on a wall outside the Oilers' arena.