A STORY ON HOW A TEAM FOUNDED ON SUCCESS, IS NOW STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE
In 1998, when 38 investors formed the Edmonton Investors Group, Ltd. to purchase the Edmonton Oilers from Peter Pocklington, all of their efforts were focused on 2004. And now, at a time when its fans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Oilers' second Stanley Cup Championship, there is only apprehension about what the fate of the franchise will be.
The story of the Edmonton Oilers is a success story. At least it was. At least it should be.
When Alberta was incorporated as a Province in 1905, it is said that hockey had been played "across the province" over a decade before. Edmonton's great legacy of winning hockey began after WWII with the formations of the Oil Kings the Flyers, and later in the 70s, the WHA Oilers.
When the Oilers joined the NHL in 1979, they were told they had to forfeit their rosters into a league-wide 'dispersal draft.' Knowing this, Pocklington signed Wayne Gretzky to a 'personal-service contract' so that the NHL could not include #99 in their draft.
The team Edmonton put together for that first NHL season ended up making it to the playoffs, and losing in the first round. Despite a regular season record of 28-39-13, Gretzky scored 51 goals and 137 points in 79 games during that 79-80 season. His 51 goals were 17% of the team's total number (301). Four years later, they lifted their first Stanley Cup and began one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports history.
The last Cup Championship for the Oilers was in 89-90, just ten years after their first NHL season. And they won it that year without Gretzky. In the following two seasons (90-91 and 91-92), they reached the Conference Finals and lost. And then in 93-94, after a total of eight Conference Final appearances in 10 years, Edmonton failed to make the playoffs for the first time ever. They went 26-50-8 that year, 25-45-14 the next year, and 17-27-4 during the strike shortened 94-95 season. By the time the 95-96 season had ended, the Oilers had failed to make the playoffs for four straight seasons.
THE RISE OF THE DOLLAR
Their decline was as natural as it was inevitable. The day Wayne Gretzky was traded for $15 million United States Dollars is easily pointed to as the beginning of the end. Pocklington was in need of cash, so he sent the game's best ever player in a six player package deal that brought Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, and three first round picks to Edmonton.
During this same period of time, the NHL was busy expanding. It started in 91-92 with the San Jose Sharks and ended in 2000-2001 with the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over 10 years, the NHL added nine teams (8 of which were U.S. based) to its stable, giving the league a total of 30 franchises. The NHL also sent south the Minnesota North Stars, the Quebec Nordiques, the Winnepeg Jets, and the Hartford Whalers.
How much did this league wide shift change affect the Oilers? The remaining Canadian franchises were not only facing bigger financial markets like Denver and San Jose, but they were also being forced to offer most of their contracts based on U.S. currency.
In the free agent era, teams without an excess amount of spending cash are forced to build through their drafts. And to the Oilers' fault, their history of first round picks from 1993-1997 was not as successful as they needed them to be. And while they have done a good job at picking top line players in the middle rounds (Miro Satan, Tom Poti, Mike Comrie), the time and talent wasted in first round picks Jason Bonsignore, Steve Kelly, Michel Riesen, and Michael Henrich has hurt Edmonton's ability to turn over quality players.
Edmonton has also tried to scout for players they believe to be loyal to their theme of 'Oiler Hockey.' Edmonton's management clearly saw the writing on the wall and they made an effort to recruit and sign players that they felt would be more loyal to the area, so they wouldn't be so quick to leave.
Nonetheless, a grand parade of talent has followed Gretzky out of Edmonton.
When Mark Messier left in 1991, the Oilers got Louie DeBrusk, Bernie Nicholls, and Steven Rice for #11.
In March of 1993, Esa Tikkanen was moved to New York in exchange for Doug Weight. The Oilers got eight good seasons from Weight before they traded him to St. Louis for Marty Reasoner, Jochen Hecht and Jan Horacek.
They also lost Curtis Joseph in the prime of his career through free agency to Toronto.
And just in the last five years, Edmonton has lost or traded Bill Guerin, Todd Marchant, Luke Richardson, Dan McGillis, Boris Mironov, Janne Niinimaa, and Anson Carter for Ales Hemsky, Radek Dvorak, Brad Isbister, Raffi Torres, and Ethan Moreau.
Some of the players in that list that Edmonton has lost were acquired in deals involving other players listed; as in the case of Guerin for Carter. But Carter was moved for Dvorak, and while that doesn't mean that Guerin was traded for Dvorak (since the Oilers got a few years of service from Carter), it still shows the overall watering down of talent that has gone on in Edmonton over the last decade. Every team loses players, and good teams are able to find a way to maximize value. But what has happened to this franchise goes beyond any model of how a business should be forced to operate.
Ever since their first day in the NHL, when Pocklington signed Gretzky to that unusual contract, the Oilers have had to play money games to win hockey games. Fan support for the team is there. Over the last 15 seasons, the Oilers have averaged 15,643 fans per game, and that's including those lean years following the 93-94 lockout. Their home building, Rexall Place currently lists its capacity for hockey at 17,100. Over the last three seasons, Edmonton has averaged 16,977 fans per game. That number is slightly inflated due to the Heritage Classic; an outdoor game played at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium against the Montreal Canadians that drew 57,167 attendees in minus -19 Celsius weather.
But gate receipts weren't enough to keep this team above water. And to their credit, they used a number of innovative ideas to improve their finances. They teamed up with the rivaled Calgary Flames to produce an Alberta-based, scratch-off lottery game and they became the first hockey team to employ a Pay Per View service for televising a few, select games.
Still, drawing a profit is not the Oilers' number one concern. In their 25 year NHL history, Edmonton has won the Stanley Cup five times- a number that is one more than the four different divisions they've played in and one less than total the number of years they have failed to make the playoffs. This is a franchise that, despite its brief history, is steeped in winning.
The Oilers' 2003-04 team salary number was $33,375,00, just $690,379 below the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning's. There are, in fact, many similarities between those two teams. Despite the 2361.2 miles that separate the two, the Lightning play a fast tempo, attacking style similar to the Oilers. Both teams feature smart, quick forwards and big, puck moving defensemen. Both are in small markets, relative to the NHL, and both use excellent their community relations to drive a loyal fan base.
With all of its history and support from its fans and its community, the NHL cannot leave Edmonton. But if things don't change, it's well known that NHL Hockey won't be able to stay in Edmonton. GM Kevin Lowe has said he'll resign and Chairman Cal Nichols has threatened to suspend or move the franchise if the business isn't changed.
This lockout is about many complex issues. But nothing could be more simpler than this. If the Edmonton Oilers can't get can't their numbers to work out, something is fundamentally wrong. The solution: help the teams that work to help themselves. Edmonton has made every effort to fit in to this new era of NHL Hockey. They don't want anyone's hand outs but they don't want their investments to run to New York or LA every time they turn 30 years old either.
So ff the Lightning can win a Cup under the previous CBA, why can't the Oilers? That would be a better question to ask if we could see what the Lightning would look like three years from now if they had continued to be a part of the old CBA. Where would Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards have been in 2007? How would the fans in Tampa Bay react if they saw their team ripped apart for financial reasons? Instead, the real question should be: Why do teams like Tampa Bay or Edmonton have to catch lightning in a bottle in order to win a championship?
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