The big cities usually dominate the professional sports markets. If there's a smaller town lucky enough to be blessed with a major league team, it's a given the team is just a bone thrown to appease people and make a few fans. The usual fate of that team is to become bottom rung fodder for the glamor teams to beat up in their perpetual climb to the top, fattening a winning percentage that's already obscene. Sure, sometimes the small places are able to break free of their rut. There's a small market which will come along every couple of years to steal a division title, and if they're lucky, make a run at a conference championship, maybe even winning the league. But after that, it's time for them to take their places at the back of the line once again.
Even under a salary cap, the small markets can't do it. They can't attract the top free agents, because what do they have to offer? The cities themselves are dull, bigotry plays a big role sometimes, and some of the teams just don't have any stability. So it's difficult for a small market to top the league just one time, let alone multiple times. The NFL's Green Bay Packers are an exception to the rule - they've managed to play at a sustained level of excellence throughout the vast majority of their existence, and they have more NFL titles than any other team. In the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers were almost an exception. They've pretty much fallen into the status of the typical small market themselves, but in their heyday, man, they were a wrecking ball of a team no one wanted to face.
The Edmonton Oilers were founded in 1971, but didn't actually begin playing hockey until 1972. They were one of the twelve founding members of the World Hockey Association, a league founded in 1971 to challenge the NHL's stranglehold on the hockey market. It came about in large part because the NHL kept passing over Canadian markets and other traditional hockey markets in its expansions. Edmonton was a small market in Canada craving a hockey team, and the NHL kept on rebuffing it. So when the WHA came calling, Edmonton was all ears. The original team owner was a man named Bill Hunter, who chose the name "Oilers" in part because Alberta is a known oil-drillin' province and they had a minor league team once called the Edmonton Oil Kings. Before the league played its first season, though, the Oilers changed their original plans around a little bit. Another city in Alberta, Calgary, was also given a team which was called the Broncos, but they were folded before anything at all happened. So the Oilers were quickly given a name change to the Alberta Oilers with the plan to split home games between Edmonton and Calgary. The home game split plan never got off the ground. Costs, you know, Canadian provinces tend to be quite large and Edmonton is a bit of a ways away from Calgary. Also, if the WHA ever decided to return to Calgary, keeping the Oilers as the Edmonton Oilers would mean a lot less legal wrangling.
The Oilers were pretty popular. They drew fans because they were, you know, playing hockey in Canada, and because they had players like Al Hamilton, Dave Dryden, Blair MacDonald, and Bill Flett. But it was in 1976 that they made their big-move player acquisition, who was a forward named Glen Sather. No one knew it was such a big move back then, though, because Sather was an unremarkable journeyman who first year as an Oiler was also his last year as an actual player. But the Oilers needed a coach late in the season, so they named Sather as a player-coach, beginning a 23-year relationship between Sather and the Oilers which saw him coach full time and general manage as well. In 1978, the Oilers got a new owner named Peter Pocklington. But there was a bigger move the Oilers made in 1978 as well. Around that time, there was a little kid from Brantford, Ontario, running around destroying all the junior leagues. This kid wasn't a prototypical athlete. He wasn't a physically imposing monster, and his strength and speed were second to, well, a lot of people in the league. Had he been born and bred in the United States, every scout on Earth would have ignored him. There was, however, one thing this kid did have going for him, and it was a big one: He had a supernatural knack for always being where the puck was going to be, and then scooping it into the net, or at the very least finding the next guy who was in the best position to scoop it into the net. He was good at it.
I mean, he was really, Really, REALLY good at it.
He was so good that the Indianapolis Racers signed him to a contract worth between $1.1 million and $1.7 million for four to seven years. Unfortunately, the owner of the Racers had a habit of flipping sports teams for money, and he badly mismanaged an otherwise promising market in Indianapolis. It forced him to liquidate the kid after eight games, and fold 17 games after that. Pocklington also took goalie Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll, but it was this special kid, one Wayne Gretzky, who took the Edmonton Oilers to first place in the standings and the WHA Finals in the final season of the WHA in 1979. They lost to the Winnipeg Jets, but when the merger was hammered out, both the Jets and the Oilers were allowed entry into the NHL, along with the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques.
Since the NHL wanted the n00bs at the back of the line, they held a reclamation draft to get their old talent back. Each new team was only allowed to protect two goalies and two skill guys. Gretzky wasn't supposed to be protected no matter what under the rules of the time, and who wouldn't want him? Pocklington used the force of the 21-year contract he had signed Gretzky to in order to get the league to admit Edmonton at all, promising he would fill the arenas, and since he was under a personal service contract, the only way he was getting into the NHL was as an Oiler. As all the expansion teams did, the Oilers played terrible hockey, but people filled arenas to see Gretzky, who was shattering records everywhere he went. And since this is the NHL and NHL teams make the playoffs because the league brass keeps misplacing commas, the Oilers made it into the playoffs their first two years despite not really being any good. However, this was getting their kids playoff experience, which is important because the one thing that can be said for the NHL's method of playoffs is that they're a gauntlet. It's like March Madness: There are wonderful Cinderella stories and upsets, but by the end, the truly bad teams are usually weeded out so you can trust the Finals are between two teams who are worthy of the Stanley Cup. In the 1981 season, the Oilers upset the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs, and no matter what, they had awesome draft positions. It only took three years for Glen Sather to gather a core of talent comparable to Gretzky: Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, and Andy Moog.
In 1982, Gretzky broke the record for fastest 50 goals in a season when he scored 50 goals in just 39 games, breaking the 50 goals in 50 games set by Maurice Richard. He completed the season with an incredible 92 goals, crushing Phil Esposito's previous record of 76. Grant Fuhr set a record of his own by going undefeated in 23 straight games. The Oilers became the first team to score 400 goals in one season. By 1983 the Oilers were in the Finals, where they fell to the New York Islanders in four games. After the last game of the Finals, the Oilers players were walking by the Isles' locker room, and upon peering inside, they were surprised to see the Islanders in a rather subdued state, more concerned about licking their wounds than celebrating their fourth straight Stanley Cup. Many of the Oilers of those days say that's when they knew their time was beginning. In the 1984 season, the Oilers stormed through the league, putting a record 446 goals into the net, and finishing with the best record in the NHL. Upon quickly disposing of the Jets in the first round of the playoffs, the Oilers then faced the Calgary Flames, the only team to be a real challenge to the Oilers during the 80's. Edmonton prevailed in seven, then returned to easy street to beat up the hapless Minnesota North Stars to return to the Finals and set up a grudge match against the Isles. The Oilers and Islanders split the first two games, but the rest of the series was a cakewalk for Edmonton as they polished off New York in three straight, winning their first Stanley Cup.
The Oilers were now so good that they could afford to let go of the throttle a little. Since eight of their players were selected to compete for Canada at the 1984 Canada Cup, that's just what they did. They didn't play as hard in the regular season because they wanted to stay fresh. Glen Sather even took a vacation in Hawaii in the middle of the season! So, how good were the Oilers that they STILL managed to finish the year second in the standings to the Philadelphia Flyers? And storming through the playoffs in a streak which saw them win their first nine games in the postseason? And, even in the conference finals series in which they lost two games, still score a record 44 goals in the whole thing? And then, to top it all off, return to the Finals and win again, beating the Flyers in five? Who, lest you need reminding, were the one team in the NHL that year better than Edmonton?
The dynasty was broken for a moment the next year. In the 1986 playoffs, the Flames rose to the moment in a classic series against the Oilers which was bitter and dirty. It wasn't decided until the seventh game, and the Flames were helped by a stroke of great luck. The Oilers had a rookie named Steve Smith on the team. Smith made an epic blunder when he tried to make a breakout pass which ended up banking off the skate of Grant Fuhr - who, if you remember, was Edmonton's goalie - and falling into the Oilers' own net. One could argue the series might have gone Edmonton's way if they hadn't been distracted with image issues: Dave Hunter picked up a charge of impaired driving, serving a week in jail in the middle of the season. Mark Messier was also having car trouble - he lost control of it at one point and smashed into three parked cars. Sports Illustrated also alleged the team was full of rampant druggies and alkies. So in 1987, the Oilers decided to respond by coming together and extending a big fuck you finger to everyone who attacked them. They dominated the regular season, captured their second Presidents' Trophy in a row, and won the Stanley Cup again, beating the Flyers in the Finals again. They repeated yet again as champions in 1988, sweeping the Boston Bruins in the Finals with Gretzky putting 13 points on the board in that series alone.
There comes a point in every sports dynasty in which the team starts getting a little egotistical and individualistic. Sports dynasties frequently tend to start with an unselfish attitude, sometimes born of a giant chip on their collective shoulders. In 1983, when the Oilers first made the Finals and lost to the New York Islanders, that happened. But by the end of the 1988 season, the Oilers had appeared in the Finals five times and were now four-time Stanley Cup Champions. Hell, even before the 1988 season started, a lot of players were holding out for more money. The Oilers were a small market team in Canada at a time when the value of the Canadian dollar was going down and the league didn't have a salary cap. The team couldn't afford to play ball, and started running into financial trouble. So rumors started going around that Wayne Gretzky, the very centerpiece of the Oilers, was going to be traded because the team needed to unload. Gretzky would be a free agent soon, and long story short, the Oilers knew he was going one way or the other and didn't want to risk losing him and getting nothing back. On August 9, 1988, Gretzky - now universally known across the sports landscape as The Great One, a nickname which hardly does him justice - was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He would continue to dominate the NHL for the next decade, getting the Kings to the Finals for the first time, and playing brief stints with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers, but he would never again hoist The Holy Grail or reach the same heights he had with Edmonton.
The Oilers were naturally weakened and shocked. The 1989 season saw the Calgary Flames, the only team good enough to regularly give the Oilers fits, win the Stanley Cup themselves. The Flames were the team that broke through during the only two years in the late 80's the Oilers didn't reach the Finals. However, the Oilers were still a powerful team, as they proved in 1990 when they returned to the Finals, taking home the Stanley Cup upon beating the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins. In the 1991 playoffs, the Oilers prevailed in another one of their thunderdome deathmatches against the Flames, a series which many fans consider the greatest hockey playoff series ever played. They moved on, but lost the conference finals to the Minnesota North Stars. The dynasty in Edmonton was now effectively closed, but it wasn't quite over just yet. Naturally, there was a mass exodus from the Oilers because they couldn't match the demands of a lot of their best players, and those players dispersed to the various teams who had money. Now, unlike previous dynasties which had been done in in large part because of age, a lot of the players from Edmonton left through free agency, for monetary reasons, while they still had plenty of good hockey left in them. Fate and chance are sometimes odd business partners, and in 1994, a funny thing happened. A significant number of players who had been key cogs with the great dynasty in Edmonton found themselves reunited, except now they were wearing the uniforms of the New York Rangers. Knowing each others' moves and styles in full, and led by Messier, the old Edmonton players proved they had one final Stanley Cup in them and, for a fanbase going through a 54-year Stanley Cup drought during which their total number of Stanley Cups was surpassed by an upstart team formed in 1972, they gave the Edmonton dynasty of the 80's a final, fantastic hurrah by winning the Stanley Cup for the Rangers that year. Among puckheads, the Rangers' 1994 Cup is frequently referred to as the Oilers' sixth Cup. And that wasn't the last thing the Rangers had to do with the dynasty's remnants: In 1996, they signed Wayne Gretzky, who stayed a Ranger until his retirement in 1999. In addition, Paul Coffey went to the Pittsburgh Penguins and won the Stanley Cup with them in 1991, and helped the Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in later Finals runs.
In the immediate aftermath of Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles, the Kings and Oilers played against each other in the playoffs four times. The Oilers won three of those meetings. They weren't what they used to be, though, and the fanbase was still pissed about the Gretzky trade. So that made it REALLY bad in 1991 when Edmonton decided to unload Mark Messier and trade him to the Rangers. Now fans were PISSED, stopped buying tickets, and talk about the team leaving started getting loud. As the Oilers started to get bad, a lot of dirt on the team started surfacing. Not dirt like the misbehavior in the 80's; player misbehavior is easily dealt with. No, this time it was things like the owner's business empire sinking under corruption, and deficiencies in the team's development system. See, the thing with dynasties is that they tend to draft late every year, and their consistent players and records mask bad drafts. With the key players of the dynasty now gone, the Oilers were now forced to play a series of draft picks who weren't able to fill the shoes of the legends they replaced. Well, Doug Weight and Jason Arnott did alright, but being surrounded with kids who were called up before they were ready resulted in the Oilers actually falling out of contention. Starting in 1993, they missed the playoffs every year until 1997.
In 1997, the Oilers were back in the playoffs, where they upset the Dallas Stars in the first round. In 1998, they pulled the same trick against the Colorado Avalanche, and that was after spotting them a 3-1 series lead. The Oilers started making the playoffs consistently, and in 2003, they hosted the first Heritage Classic, the forerunner to what is now the Winter Classic. They still struggled to compete as a small market, though, but that began to change after the 2005 lockout. By then, the Oilers were already competitive, but now with even the big markets being forced to face a budget, Edmonton finally had a real chance again. And in the 2006 season, they took it almost to the very, very end. They hit the free agent market and grabbed Michael Peca, but were wracked with inconsistency in goal and on offense. During the season, though, they traded for Dwayne Roloson to shore up the net, and forward Sergei Samsonov, among others. The trades paid off, Edmonton squeaked into the last playoff spot, and upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, who had won the Presidents' Trophy. The second round saw the San Jose Sharks performing one of their always-popular tank jobs against Edmonton, and won the Conference Championship against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. This put them back in the Finals for the first time since the dynasty, against the Carolina Hurricanes. This was the first time two former WHA teams were ever meeting in the Finals - the Hurricanes were the relocated Hartford Whalers. The Hurricanes were the definite favorite; they had posted a 112-point season, for fourth overall in the NHL and second in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Ottawa Senators. On the other hand, the Oilers had cruised to a five-game victory in the conference finals. The 'Canes were seriously beaten, battered, and bruised after a seven-game war against the Buffalo Sabres, the last of which had required a furious third period comeback. For the first four games, it looked like Edmonton was going to win that sixth Cup which would give them validation outside the dynasty, as they were spotted a 3-1 series lead. After that, though, the Hurricanes morphed back into the team they had been through the rest of the season and took the next three, winning the Stanley Cup.
The Edmonton Oilers have been pretty spotty since then. They were great in the 2008 season and very good in 2009, but 2010 and 2011 brought them below 30 wins, and 2012 put them at 32 wins. They haven't been to the playoffs in any of them. Methinks a return to any kind of Stanley Cup glory will be awhile coming, and we certainly won't see anything like the dynasty again, ever.
The seven numbers retired by the Oilers are those of Al Hamilton, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr…. And Wayne Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky. The Great One. If people who don't know anything at all about hockey know the name of one single hockey player, that player is almost definitely Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky made his greatest impact on the league as an Oiler, and the Oilers did more for and with him than any of his other teams. After being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Gretzky made the Finals once more, but lost to the Montreal Canadiens. He was given the Hart Trophy nine times, including eight years in a row. Those eight years in a row were all with Edmonton. As an individual, Gretzky holds pretty much every record in NHL history that means anything, as well as a million of the ones that don't. When he retired, he held the record for overall points at 2857. To get a sense of just how incredible that total is, consider the runner-up is his old teammate Mark Messier, who has 1887. In other words, you could axe all 894 goals Gretzky scored from his point total, and he would still be the all-time NHL leader. When hockey fans argue over the greatest player in hockey history, we have no illusions about what we're REALLY fighting about. The player we're campaigning for is only second best. It's such a given that Gretzky is the best ever that there's no sense whatsoever in even trying to argue it. Anyone who even tries to argue it isn't a hockey fan, and that's that. (Or they're from Boston - Bruins fans are always ready to lobby for their legendary defenseman, Bobby Orr. To be fair to them, Orr might have been the most physically gifted player in NHL history, or the most well-rounded. But still, given a choice, everyone would still take The Great One.)
Let me expound on this a bit more. Not only is Gretzky the league's greatest player ever, he was a Canadian icon. When he was traded to the Kings, the owner of the Oilers was actually burned in effigy. The federal New Democratic Party in Canada thought this was important enough to actually ask the Canadian government to act and block the trade. Obviously the Canadian government didn't do anything (as well they shouldn't have). This trade had a giant impact on the league because once the people of Los Angeles started buying Kings tickets to see what all the hype over this Gretzky character was about, the NHL TOOK IT AS LICENSE TO BEGIN EXPANDING INTO THE AMERICAN SOUTH.
As documented, the Oilers have a mighty rivalry with the Calgary Flames. The two teams are each others' avatars in a number of ways - both small markets in Alberta. They both rose to power at the same time, fell from it at the same time, and returned to it at the same time. They met in the playoffs a lot, and during the dynasty years in Edmonton, the Flames were the only team in the league capable of repeatedly dueling head to head with the Oilers. The Oilers' 2006 run to the Finals came right after Calgary's 2004 run.
There's a reason I've been writing so much about the dynasty: It's because it looms such an incredible shadow over the history of both the team and the NHL. We're loose about the word "dynasty" these days, because the idea seems to have been almost completely wiped out. From 1997 to 2008, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup four times, and are easily the most consistent team in the NHL through that time span. But the Oilers dynasty is the last real, full out, official dynasty officially recognized by the NHL (which actually hands down a special status reserved for dominant teams). From 1983 to 1990, the Edmonton Oilers visited the Finals six times, winning five. It had some of the greatest hockey players ever, playing like a goddamned machine. I try to never say never, but the chances of such an incredible collection of talent coming together at one time, in one place, ever again are so staggeringly against odds that if I ever bet one dollar on the Vegas line in favor of it, and it happens, I'll be part of the One Percent instantly.
If we were further into history before I wrote this, I might be giving the Oilers a negative grade. But the reverberations and shadows left by their mighty dynasty are still showing. They left a real crater on the NHL, and they set such an example that other teams, and the league itself, are still trying to measure up to what the Edmonton Oilers were able to do in the 80's. It's no wonder the Oilers have inspired such a hardcore following across both the United States and Canada, and no wonder players today are still inspired by the old stories of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, and the rest of those greats.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.