Sunday, February 19, 2012
Ales Hemsky's time as an Oiler is almost done. He will be traded any day now and the reaction from most fans, the media and the organization that drafted him ranges from a collective shrug to happiness that he will soon be out the door.
I don't live in Edmonton so I can only guess at the mindset there. Every fanbase is the same for the most part. The idea that Oiler fans are smarter or nicer or more knowledgeable about hockey than other groups of fans is untrue of course. As an Oilers' fan its nice to think so, to think that the collective that we belong to is something special but one only has to check the comments' page in any online newspaper or TSN or go on Twitter or any other social media site or, for that matter, attend a game or watch one in a sports' bar to find out the truth. There are smart Oiler fans and there are stupid ones. Ones who you'd gladly sit down with and have a pint or six, who you might become friends with and ones who you would never want anything to do with. Read any comments session as I said (I don't anymore, whether its sports or not, its too depressing to see the hatred and stupidity there) and you will see what I mean.
Now there are a few things that make the Oilers different. There are generic franchises in the NHL as there are in any league but the Oilers have a rich and, at times, tortured, history, and I think that this informs what we see in fans' reactions to various situations.
What separates the Oilers from other franchises?
1/ For just over a decade they were the greatest team the sport has ever known. Five Cups in seven years despite shedding talent along the way and playing in a far larger league than any of the great teams of old. If the Oilers had existed in a time where players were tied to the same club for their entire careers they would have won double the amount of Cups they did, of that I have no doubt.
2/ Starting with Andy Moog and Paul Coffey the Oilers have always moved out their quality players, quite often in their prime. Despite their rich history the closest the Oilers have come to having players spend their entire careers in Edmonton are Randy Gregg and Fernando Pisani.
3/ Probably no other city has been threatened with the loss of their franchise as much as Edmonton. Despite external and objective sources showing the club to be one of the top money makers in the NHL billionaire Daryl Katz's henchmen as well as his mouthpieces in the media made veiled threats to this same possibility in the recent arena debate. One of the best markets in the league and still the threat is there. Gary Bettman referred to it recently. And people believe it.
I think these are all truths about the Edmonton Oilers, right? I'm not making crazy leaps of logic in this.
So if the Edmonton Oilers' fanbase is impacted by this history then what does it mean when it comes to Ales Hemsky?
First of all Oiler fans are tough on their players, tougher than most fanbases. A lot of this is fuelled by the media, the Sun being particularly ridiculous with the narrative that the fan base is blue collar and the millionaire players are soft and lazy. A lot of it also comes from the fact that when your club used to have Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey on it then the present collection of players is always going to fall short. Thus Ryan Smyth who made three best on best collections of talent for Team Canada, winning Olympic and WOrld Cup gold, is not a true first line winger. Every player is flawed of course but Oiler fans seem to have a tougher time accepting this than most. I think it was Bruce McCurdy who said a few weeks ago that Doug Weight, a fantastic player who had a great career, had a bit of a rough ride beacue fans could not help but compare him to the two guys who played centre in the eighties.
Secondly Oiler fans are used to seeing guys moved down the road. When Wayne Gretzky can be traded then anyone can be traded and of course every star from the dynasty was moved and then the guys brought in for them were moved and so it continued. For many years money was the issue and so when guys got too expensive they were moved and then suddenly there was a cap and the Oilers became the buyers. They had a beautiful run in 2006 and while Pronger left along with the hired guns like Spacek and Samsonov and Peca Edmonton was able to pay the core of that 2006 club. Hemsky and Horcoff and Pisani and Moreau and Staios and Stoll and Torres and Roloson all got new contracts, for better or worse, and as an Edmonton fan it was wonderful to see ownership spending money to keep an Oilers' club together.
But there was one exception to this and that was Ryan Smyth. Smyth was the face of the franchise, the blue collar guy who was a star, the best comparable I can think of is Wendel Clark, not in terms of how he played but in how he was regarded by the fanbase. Smyth was the guy who was going to be the guy, the first Oiler to go wire to wire in Edmonton.
And then he didn't.
And this bring us to our third point. And this would be a touchy one with a lot of fans but I believe it to be true. We saw it in the arena debate and we see it in the acceptance of this rebuild and in the sold out games despite the poor product and in the online defence of the worst management in the NHL.
A lot of Oiler fans, should we say, defer to authority quite easily. We saw it with Smyth. A franchise icon unsigned but as that season wore on the whispers from the media and the club and so when Smyth was dealt the majority of fans were BEHIND the move. Smyth was not that good. He was greedy. Good riddance to him. Never mind that he would have left not 500000 on the table if he had signed the Oilers' offer but actually over four million dollars based on what he got as a UFA. Never mind that Lowe, in one of his typical weird public self immolations that summer, admitted that he had screwed up with Smyth, that he should have signed him.
The narrative had been written and so it had been accepted and so the heart and soul of the franchise was gone. For some there was rage and bitterness and sorrow and that in itself tells you how beloved Smyth was. But for many these was indifference and from many more there was applause for the move.
And that was telling.
Posted by Black Dog at 2:00 PM