Reason #99 of '101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton'

The Oilers

By Emil Tiedemann

Peter Pocklington was intent on bringing a National Hockey League franchise to Edmonton, no matter the cost. When the NHL refused to merge with the struggling WHL back in the mid-’70s, Regina-born Pocklington went to work, putting together a behind-the-scenes team that would allow him to realize his dream for his adopted hometown. 

In 1978, Pocklington hired Larry Gordon as general manager, and then brought on Alberta’s own Glen Sather (as vice president and coach), who had actually played on the Edmonton Oilers WHL team for the 1976-77 season, before leading the team to a championship the following year as their coach. 

Gretzky and Messier were the cream of the crop during the Oilers' 'Dynasty Days.'

In November of 1978, Pocklington paid $850,000 to sign on 17-year-old Brantford, Ontario phenom Wayne Gretzky (an Oiler from 1979-88) (as well as forward Peter Driscoll and goaltender Eddie Mio), who had just inked a deal with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. 

Finally, on June 22, 1979, the Edmonton Oilers were granted a franchise with the National Hockey League, alongside other WHA teams the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques, and the Hartford Whalers. All three of those teams were all relocated and renamed during the ‘90s, though the Oilers stayed put right here in Edmonton. 

During the 1979 NHL entry draft in Toronto, the Oilers picked up defenseman Kevin Lowe (1979-92, 1996-98), right winger Glenn Anderson (1980-91, 1995-96), and 17-year-old future superstar Mark Messier (1979-91), who was raised in neighbouring St. Albert. They faced off against the Blackhawks in Chicago for their very first NHL game on October 10, 1979, with Ron Chipperfield at the helm as captain, and Dave Dryden in net. They lost 4-2, with Lowe scoring the team’s first-ever goal halfway through the first period. 

Three days later, they tied the Detroit Red Wings 3-3 in their first hometown game at what was then the Northlands Coliseum. Their first win was against the Nordiques when they scored six goals on October 19. Gretzky, now known to the world as “the Great One,” wrapped up the season as the highest scorer, tying the L.A. Kings’ Marcel Dionne’s 137 points for first place, although it was Dionne who took home that season’s Art Ross Trophy. 

The Oilers celebrating one of their five Stanley Cup championship wins.

The Oilers placed 16th overall for that very first season, and then 14th for their second, and for the 1981-82 season, they lost to the Kings in the division semifinals. In season four, they made their way all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the New York Islanders. 

By their fifth season in the NHL, 1983-84, the team included originals Gretzky, Messier, Lowe, and Anderson, but now also had winger Jari Kurri (1980-90), defensemen Paul Coffey (1980-87) and Charlie Huddy (1980-81, 1981-91), and goaltenders Grant Fuhr (1981-91) and Andy Moog (1980-87). It was a dream team, the envy of the entire league, and the Oilers were about to prove why. 

This was the beginning of the “Dynasty years,” in which the Oilers ruled the game. During the 1983-84 season, the team won a franchise record 57 games and earned 119 points, 15 points ahead of the second place Islanders! They dominated the Islanders in the Finals 4-1 to win their first of five Stanley Cup championships, in one of the most impressive streaks in all of the North American professional sports franchises. 

With the addition of Finnish winger Esa Tikkanen (1984-93), the Oilers won a second consecutive Stanley Cup, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 in the Finals. The Montreal Canadiens temporarily interrupted the Oilers’ winning streak during the 1985-86 season, but the Oilers captured two more back-to-back Stanley Cups shortly after (1986-87, 1987-88), besting the Flyers and the Bruins in the Finals, respectively. 

By that time, the Oilers had added a few more now legendary players to the roster, including centre Craig MacTavish (1985-94), winger Kelly Buchberger (1987-99), defenseman Steve Smith (1985-91), and goalie Bill Ranford (1987-96, 1999-2000). And then it happened. 

It was known simply as “the Trade,” a move that saw the Oilers lose their star player, Wayne Gretzky (as well as Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski), to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988, in exchange for Martin Gelinas, Jimmy Carson, the Kings’ first-round draft picks for 1989, 1991, and 1993, and $15 million. 

The big trade, when Gretzky left Edmonton for L.A.

“I promised Mark I wouldn’t cry,” a teary-eyed Gretzky said at the press announcement that shattered the hearts of countless hockey fans in Edmonton, as well as Edmontonians who never really even followed the game. Gretzky had become a part of our humble hometown, the single reason why millions of people from around the world had even heard of Edmonton. 

He helped put our town on the map, and led our hockey team to four Stanley Cup championships along the way. Gretzky had become an international superstar during his run with the Oilers, with endless endorsements, magazine covers, TV appearances, and later even his own cartoon series (ProStars). And just a few weeks before his trade announcement, on July 16, 1988, he married Hollywood actress Janet Jones (Annie, Police Academy 5) during a lavish million-dollar ceremony at Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s Basilica, broadcast live throughout the country. 

And now, that legacy had come to an end, as did the hopes of many local hockey fans who were worried that our precious Oilers would never win a Cup again. To add insult to injury, it was Gretzky and the Kings who knocked the Oilers out of the playoffs for the very next season, though it was the Calgary Flames who brought home Stanley that year. 

With new head coach John Muckler (Sather had become the Oilers’ President & GM, but returned as coach from 1993-94) and Messier as captain, the Oilers surprised the hockey world again when, in 1990, they won their fifth Stanley Cup championship, and their first without “the Great One,” taking it 4-1 over the Bruins in the Finals. 

They made the playoffs two more years in a row, but by then had lost most of their “dynasty” players, including Messier, Kurri, Fuhr, Anderson, Huddy, and Steve Smith. And then, for the first time in the history of the franchise, the Oilers failed to qualify for the playoffs, for four straight seasons (1992-96). 

It was a rough patch for the Oilers and for the fans who had been reveling in five Stanley Cup wins thanks mostly to the leadership of the greatest player in the history of the game. And now, the Oilers couldn’t even make the playoffs, and there were no longer any iconic players left on the roster. But, Edmonton fans are loyal, and although hope dwindled, it never disappeared for good. 

Ryan Smyth has become one of the most beloved players to ever wear the Oilers jersey.

There was a resurgence of hope for the 1996-97 season that saw a brand new Oilers team, made up of stars like Doug Weight (1992-01), Curtis “CuJo” Joseph (1995-98), Jason Arnott (1993-98), and of course, Ryan Smyth (1994-2007, 2011-14). They made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, from 1996 to 2001, and again during 2002-03. And after the 2004-05 lockout, which saw the cancellation of the whole NHL season, the Oilers once again made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. 

There was an electricity in the air that took over the whole city, which had come alive with excitement for our underdogs. They made it all the way to game seven of the Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, and just when we thought Edmonton would bring home a sixth Cup, the championship slipped out of our grip. The Hurricanes won 3-1 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, squashing any dreams Edmontonians had of their new Oilers hoisting that elusive Cup. 

Unfortunately, it was the last time the Oilers would make it to the Finals, or the playoffs for that matter. Their reputation for losing only intensified as the years went by, the team falling further and further back in the standings, and were even named the worst team in the entire league on more than one occasion. 

In fact, the Oilers had the #1 draft pick in 2010 (Taylor Hall), 2011 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), and 2012 (Nail Yakupov), as a result of their placement near the bottom of the league’s standings during these three seasons. And even with these bright young players on the roster - and others like Jordan Eberle (2010-17) and Edmonton-born Andrew Ference (2013-15) - the Oilers couldn’t turn things around. 

In this last decade of absence from the playoffs, the Oilers went through many changes that failed to result in regaining any sort of glory from their long-gone dynasty days. There was a change in ownership (Daryl Katz bought the team in 2008 for $200 million from the Edmonton Investors Group), numerous changes in management, and a steady stream of new head coaches, including Craig MacTavish (2000-09), Pat Quinn (2009-10), Tom Renney (2010-12), Ralph Krueger (2012-13), Dallas Eakins (2013-15), and Todd Nelson (2014-15). 

But, after all these years of unanswered prayers from Oilers devotees, there was a shift in enthusiasm once again. With the new home of the Oilers - Rogers Place - under construction in downtown’s Ice District, the team rearranged management and hired a new head coach, Todd McLellan of the San Jose Sharks. But, most importantly was their #1 draft pick win in 18-year-old centre Connor McDavid, praised as the next big thing. 

In fact, the last time there was so much buzz centered around one player was Wayne Gretzky’s early days with the Oilers. And so here we were again, as though history had repeated itself, assembling what could very well be our team’s second dynasty (despite the fact that we missed the playoffs again in 2016). Only time will tell. #oilers

The new hope...Connor McDavid, #97.

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