Monday, 11 November 2013

Hockey Burnout: **** the Oilers!

The weather has been turning on us lately here in the northern part of the northern country of Canada.  The start of winter in Prince George is usually designated by a first snowfall, or more specifically the first snowfall that stays grounded.  If it snows, like it did late last week, then melts within a few days, is it really "winter"?  I digress.  Hockey in Canada, does not wait for winter.  This year, I was even part of a team through the summer though I struggled to make it to games.  The real season has been underway for a couple of months now, and just the last few games have been played with the feel of winter surrounding them.  The professionals also have been playing for a couple of months.  As the years go by, the coverage of the preseason has increased, couple this with the ability to now see nearly every game played by every team in the league and I have already begun to feel what I have termed "hockey burnout".  Allow me to elaborate.

I support the Edmonton Oilers.  Let's get that out of the way right now.  I have been cheering for the team since 1995, when my former favorite team, the Quebec Nordiques packed up and moved to Denver.  I was 12 years old at the time and I had a thing with cheering for underdogs (this hasn't changed).  I also felt that I should be cheering for a Canadian team, as a Canadian boy.  I never considered the Vancouver Canucks despite spending my entire life in the province where they play.  My aforementioned affinity for losers also would have discounted the Canucks at the time, as they were but 1 year removed from a heartbreaking finals loss to the New York Rangers.  What was so appealing about the Edmonton Oilers at the time? 

Aside from the fact that Edmonton is only 14 kilometers further away than Vancouver, the Oilers had another endearing quality at the time.  You guessed it, they were a bunch of losers.  A sad sack bunch that had little or no hope of winning a playoff spot, let alone a championship.  At that age, I was unaware of coaching or management ineptitude, and with basic cable, I only saw Oilers games when they happened to be on Hockey Night in Canada.  Perhaps it was a case of yearning makes the heart grow fonder, but I would endure losing seasons with pleasure, knowing that like most things in life, hockey is cyclical.  You lose for years, then you win for years.  It's not that any team is entitled to winning seasons, but for nearly any sports team, this is how it works.  In your lean years you stockpile talent and assets for the future until these assets mature and a quality product results.  I would liken it to a roller coaster, except the Edmonton Oiler version of the ride has been quite devoid of ups lately, and so full of downs that the ride is struggling to keep going. 

I missed the golden years of Oilers Stanley Cups, choosing to join up when they were faltering with low revenues and ownership that had little to spend.  The late 90s produced a few memorable moments, i'll never forget Curtis Joseph and "the save" or Todd Marchant and the subsequent goal that led to Edmonton knocking off Dallas in a huge upset.  The season following, Edmonton knocked off heavily favoured Colorado before losing to Dallas in the next round.  As it turns out, Dallas got their revenge not just the year after losing to Edmonton, but again the next year, and the next, and the next.  Dallas eliminated Edmonton 5 times in 6 years, only taking a break because the Oilers didn't qualify in 2002.  Despite the lack of playoff success, these were good years as a fan.  The team battled every night, overcoming a talent void with hard work and aggressive play.  Led by one of the most unassuming stars of the era, Doug Weight and an overworked goalie in the aforementioned Joseph, the team got timely contributions from guys like Mariusz Czerkawski, Mike Grier and Boris Mironov.  After the repeated early exits, a narrow miss followed and it felt like a few lean years were ahead.  Edmonton lacked blue chip prospects, as they have been historically terrible at draft and finding talent.  The lockout of 2005 came and went before the season of 2006 provided some of the most surprising hockey in Oiler history.

The spring of 2006 I was working at Irly Bird selling building supplies and going on the occasional delivery.  I had to rise early to work at 7 am, and Sheila and I were working our tails off to get ahead, or at least stay afloat.  At some point during our struggles we decided to go ahead and shut off the cable.  We still had internet and downloading, and Jasmine who was all of 3 at the time had a pretty extensive VHS collection.  Then, it happened.  Not only did Edmonton squeak their way into the playoffs, they started to win playoff games.  I started itching to see the games, but I worked until 530, not home until closer to 6 and with quite a few starts at 4 pm, I was missing out.  Eventually I got cable back in time for the 3rd round, but without a PVR in those days, I still missed plenty of the action.  It was a glorious run full of overachieving and some of the most determined efforts I will witness in my time.  Chris Pronger was an absolute beast, leading the team with 21 playoff points.  Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth provided secondary scoring.  An unheralded 3rd liner by the name of Fernando Pisani led the entire playoff scoring race with 14.  Truthfully, much of the credit goes to the goalie who they picked up at the trade deadline, Dwayne Roloson.  Of course, heartbreakingly, Roloson would get hurt in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals, leading to the Oilers falling in the 7th and deciding game with a backup between the pipes, Ty Conklin.  Knowing the amount of overachieving that took place during the run, I knew it would be tough to repeat that kind of success.  The team was the 8th seed, they qualified for the playoffs on the last weekend of the season.  During the summer Chris Pronger and his immense talent demanded a trade, and the shine diminished.  Little could anyone have known at the time, but 7 years later the Oilers would still be waiting for their return to the postseason.

Now I say that we as Oiler fans are still waiting, but there is little suspense at this time.  It is a given that the Edmonton hockey club will not be playing in the playoffs in 2014 either.  With only 19 of 82 games having been played so far, it is pretty sad that I can make that statement. The last handful of seasons have begun with me bursting with optimism.  A few years in a row I was foolish enough to make and lose bets to friends based on the teams performance.  This year, I didn't bother with any of that.  I made no heady claims that this team was destined for greatness, or even for that matter, mediocrity.  That hardly makes their shitty play any more palatable.  I have, for the third season running signed up for the Centre Ice package which gives you access to almost every single game played all season.  I have witnessed first hand almost every Oiler game since the start of the 2011-2012 season.  I have access to a number of different news and discussion websites where I can talk and think Oilers without stopping.  Well, with the team sitting at 4 wins, 13 losses and 2 more overtime losses, I think I am ready to stop.  It hurts to think about how bad they are.  It hurts to watch, and due to my loyalty and my access to every broadcast, I still flick the television on when a game is scheduled.  It really has sucked a lot of joy out of the game for me.  Will I still watch?  I want to stop, but the car crash has always been exciting viewing.  Perhaps Wednesday night when they play next I will try it out.  I just won't bother turning on the game.  If the players don't give a damn, why should I?

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