A Struggling Edmonton Oiler Fanatic Junkie
My name is Stephen Harris, and I am an Edmonton Oiler fanatic.
I feel like making that statement is similar to a line made by someone attending alcoholics anonymous. I really am addicted to a terrible hockey team, and it is difficult.
This is how it came to be…
I was born in 1979 and when I was a little boy of the age of five or six, I knew of the Edmonton Oilers. I remember being at a house of my sister’s friend in Big Beaver, Saskatchewan, and distinctly remember an ‘Edmonton Oilers’ pennant hanging off the door of the kitchen. The image of how that pennant hung and the bright blue and orange colors of the logo still remains vividly ingrained in my brain, like a fresh memory. That is my first conscious awareness of the hockey team, although I remember that I had recognized the symbol at that moment, so they were already subconsciously in my mind before then, likely due to their then reputation. That time would have been around 1984 or 1985 when a family of likely band-wagoners had jumped on for the dynasty ride. You know that type of fan. I am sure whoever’s house I was in are not fans today.
Unfortunately I am not that type of bandwagon fan, although I truly wish I was.
It really began when I was playing 11 years old and playing hockey. All of my friends on my team had NHL teams that they were fans of, but I did not have a team. I was 11 years old, so I decided to choose the last Stanley Cup winner. It was in the summer of 1990.
It was the Wayne Gretzky-less Oilers Stanley Cup Champions lead by Mark Messier and MVP Bill Ranford. Of course, I did not know these things at the time. The cup had just been won when I decided to become a fan, so I would actually miss that entire dynasty by about a month. I would become a team geek, and I would learn everything about them. Hockey was a religion to me from that summer and all through my teens where I would study record books and stats guides. I would order the Oilers Official Guide every year through the mail. I knew everything about that hockey team that a kid could learn. I can still tell you Wayne Gretzky’s playing weight… His stats, nearly season by season… Grant Fuhr’s birthday… Paul Coffey’s junior numbers with the Kitchener Rangers for the year he was drafted and what position he was selected in the draft. I studied the hockey cards I collected. Petr Klima wore jersey #85 because that was the year he left Czechoslovakia. Esa Tikkanen was my hero and had two 78 point seasons. Other kids at school teased me because I was such a big Tikkanen fan that I had liquid papered his name on one of my school binders that I had drawn a massive Oiler symbol on. Jason Arnott was drafted seventh overall in 1993, was only five years older than me and seemed like he could have been a cool older brother. The Oilers were my team. I only wore hats with the Oiler logo on them. When I would buy a new one, I would proudly hang the one I had been wearing on the wall in my room. I had a velcro Oilers wallet until I was about 20. Bouncers in bars would look at my blue children’s wallet and laugh at me when they would check my ID in bars. I had Oiler floor-mats in my car until I was 23. It is amazing that girls liked me.
Just thinking about what I have written in the paragraph above makes me think I sound like I was a super-geek. Maybe I was. All I know is that I was a dedicated Edmonton Oiler hockey fanatic. I had two buddies at school that were in as deep as me. We were a click. Other kids teased us about our hockey team because we showcased our fandom. And they teased us that our hockey team sucked. The problem was that it was true… It takes time to learn enough to become a superfan, and by the time we had it all together it was about 1994 and we were truly cheering for a lousy hockey team. We were cheering for a team in a re-build. I still am.
Now, people talk about the rebuild today, but the truth is that this has been a 21 year rebuild with some lucky bounces along the way. I was following the team when Messier was traded to New York but Steven Rice was going to be a big star and was part of the return package with Bernie Nicholls. Fuhr and Glenn Anderson were traded to Toronto but there was nothing to worry about because Peter Ing and Scott Thorton were going to be my new heroes someday. I have a very old metal table-hockey game from the 1950’s that had Montreal on side and Toronto on the other. I hated Montreal so I took masking tape and made Oiler uniforms to cover up the Canadiens’ uniforms and my starting forward line-up was and still is on that game today – Rice, Thorton, Dean MacAmmond.
We did not need Messier, Anderson, Kurri, or Fuhr. With these new stars we would be right back there again in few years. It was a re-build. It was just a matter of time.
The rebuild today of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov started for me with Rice, Thorton, Tyler Wright, Dean MacAmmond, Nick Stajduhar… Never heard of some of those names? Consider yourself lucky. You have missed extra years of suffering. They were the foundations in the primal stages of this rebuild.
Sergei Gonchar, for example, has played his entire 21 year career against an Edmonton Oiler team that his team was likely to beat. Entire two-decade NHL careers have been played while the Oilers were in a re-build…
Sure 1997 was great. It was my high school pre-graduation class trip was to Edmonton and somehow our principal got 21 tickets for us to game six of the Edmonton Oiler-Dallas Star playoff game 6. It was my first NHL game. I will never forget Mike Grier scoring a goal in that game. The building was silent was he headed for the net. He shot, and then the twine behind Andy Moog shot out. The roof nearly blew off the building as 17,000 people in Northlands Coliseum screamed out in joyous unison.
1998 was another first round upset over another favourite as we took down Colorado. We were David’s killing Goliath’s in those years. The team was just barely squeaking into the playoffs through that time and doing unheralded damage that no one was expecting.
Lean years… Next Year’s… I went through it all. In 2006, I was out of Canada, teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. I said to my friends before I left home, “You watch. I am going to leave this country and the Oilers are going to win the Stanley Cup this year.” I was nearly a prophet. The Oilers hit that run. I working at a school in a suburb of Seoul and I finished work at 8:30pm every night. I would blast very loud Rage Against the Machine into my ears to get myself pumped up on the 45 minute subway ride from that Korean school to a bar called The Rocky Mountain Tavern that played hockey playoff games on delay to a packed house of hockey starved foreigners every evening. I spent those two months of paycheques in that bar in Seoul, South Korea, watching the Edmonton Oilers grind through processed teams all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup final.
I was a ringleader in the bar during that run and I had a nightly ‘Who’s-Gonna-Score-the-Game-Winning-Goal’ pot. I would scream ‘Oh Canada’ with anthem singer Paul Lorieau, and 100 other transplanted mostly-Canadian hockey fans in the bar. Ryan Smyth, Chris Pronger, Dwayne Roloson, Ales Hemsky…they were getting the job done. Everyone I knew at home was following the run and I could not check my email all day long because of game spoilers wanting the share their glee with me, writing about the score of the delayed game I would be going to watch as if it was live. My coworkers were also following the run with me based on my enthusiasm and I had to silence them from telling me any results. The energy in the Rocky Mountain tavern of Seoul was electric for two months and my life as a fan was incredible until that last possible night of the 2006 playoffs. I would watch my Oilers win three series that they were not expected to win be in that bar every second night that they were playing as I watched the games and consumed Korean beer.
The subway in the city of Seoul stopped running at midnight, but I was watching my team so I would miss the last possible train to get myself back to my house. A $35 cab ride home was not feasible so I would party until the end of each game and then head to a local bath-house where I would pay $5 and be given a yoga mat that I would pass-out on until about 8am. Then I would catch a morning subway home and nap until noon. At 1pm I would head to the school to teach English. Then on the following night I would do it all again. That was my routine for two straight months following this team. Two months worth of paycheques… And the team went as far as they possibly could, and they lost in game seven of that Stanley Cup Final. I shared a cab home that night. I will never forget how depressed I was on that drive. I did not talk to the others in the car. The Oilers losing that game seven was like being stabbed in the heart. It was like being in love with a beautiful woman and everything was so perfect and we were so great together and we had said we would be in love forever and then one day she comes home and says, “I do not love you anymore. I love the Carolina Hurricanes.”
It was too much for me. I was so hurt and so crushed. I could not handle the heartache. I wrote to my friends at home and told them I could not handle the emotional stress of worshipping this hockey team so much. I told them I was quitting. I pushed hockey out of my life… for a while. It was the offseason and I was getting comfortable not caring about the sport. I was off of it. Then one day I was on the internet and in the corner of the screen I seen a headline that said, ‘Roberto Luongo traded for Todd Bertuzzi.’ I knew I should not, but I clicked on it anyhow. It was like a movie sequence where a junkie kicks heroin and then one day the relapse happens and the screen blurs and the junkie suddenly finds himself in the same place he was standing in before he decided to kick. That curiosity click on that Luongo/Bertuzzi headline brought me right back in.
I ended up shacked up with a German girl in a van, making a circle of Australia for a year as we worked and travelled the country. We were hippies and internet time was a luxury that we found every few days or so during our journey. Usually the internet was in a library and they would allow us an hour on a computer. I would usually check in on Facebook and Hotmail for 15 minutes, and then I would spend the next 45 minutes on sports websites reading about the NHL and the Oilers. This was how I spent too much of my time in Australia. I was so jealous of the rest of the world how they could be from anywhere and talk about soccer together in any group. Superfans in soccer have it made. Superfans of the NHL are tough to find outside of Canada. Most people do not really know the fine details of the sport except for fellow Canadians, or some hockey nation Europeans. And the hockey Europeans know European hockey and want to talk about the World Championships that Canadians barely care about because the World Championships take in the spring during the NHL playoffs and the NHL playoffs are something which Europeans only follow a little. And it is hard to give any serious respect to American travelling hockey fans. Admit it, you know it is true. Deep inside you know that they have at least three other sports that they probably care about more, even if they say that they are huge hockey fans. So, it puts you in a position where you can only talk to other Canadians about hockey when you find them here and there as a traveller. And when you meet other Canadians abroad who are not hockey fans, you feel betrayed and wonder what went wrong with them. It is tough to be an Edmonton Oiler fanatic both in Canada and abroad for two very different but relatable reasons. It is hard to be an Edmonton Oiler fanatic, anywhere…
I returned to Canada in the summer last year and I was very excited about working close to Edmonton for the hockey season. Rexall Place is my Taj Mahal, but the team started so poorly. Within sixty days of the season opener, the Oilers were already out of the hunt for the year. I moved to London, England, in January 2014. I tried to quit my hockey addiction again. I went so far in 2014 that I forbid myself to look at hockey while I was abroad. I decided that if I could get through the Olympics without paying attention to what was going on, I could probably kick the sport. Then, for the first time ever, I got through the NHL playoffs without paying attention to what was happening. It was driving me crazy to stay away but I did not allow myself to look up what had happened in the playoffs and until late June when I knew the Stanley Cup would have been awarded. I found out then that it was Los Angeles this year…
Half of my brain is occupied by such things as being able to name off every Oilers first round pick from 1979 to 2014, which did not include 2006, and yet I have a hard time remembering someone’s name after I meet them. Half of my brain space is holding hockey statistics while the other half functions to get me through life by reminding me to eat, breath, sleep, control my swearing around elders, run when frightened, and remember vocabulary for communication.
I am back in Canada. I have been here since August. October fever got me and I am completely addicted to the sport again. I have now come to terms with my addiction and realize that the Oilers will always be a part of my life and I will just have to deal with a lifetime of being a fan. And here we are again, terrible, in year 21 of the rebuild that began in 1993. I have never tried heroin, but I am sure I feel something of what a junkie feels being addicted to something that is constantly so awful and hopeless. It is hard to be a superfan.
At the beginning of this, I stated that I became an Oiler fan in 1990. It will never be another way than it is today, but had I been a year younger or had I waited another year to choose an NHL team, it would have been the Pittsburgh Penguins instead. Mario Lemieux would have been my hockey-god instead of Gretzky and I likely would have likely spent the past 20-some years trying to convince the world that Lemieux was the greater player. Of course I do not think this now, but had my history been a little different, I likely would have.
Had I waited until 1991 I would have had an NHL team to cheer for, rather than an NHL feeder team for years. I would have Sidney Crosby to enjoy watching lead my team today, I would have a recent championship, and all I would have had to worry about during this entire time was a bankruptcy that threatened the team. It is not that I resent being an Edmonton Oiler fanatic and wish I was a Penguin fan; I am just saying that choosing a hockey team a year later than 1990 would have been an easier road, would have been a tree to actually bear fruit, and would have been a more comfortable shackle to wear.
Instead I got the Edmonton Oilers who traded away all of their stars in the 1990’s because they could not afford them once they blossomed. I got a hockey team that Peter Pocklington so very nearly sold to Houston, Texas. I got a hockey team that did not draft a worthy first round draft pick from 1982 until 1993. I got a hockey team has had five different coaches in the past seven years. I got a team loaded with first round and first overall picks that are not getting the job done. And I got a team headed for the first overall pick again.
From 1990 until today, the only team I could have picked in the entire NHL that has been worse overall than the Edmonton Oilers is the New York Islanders…the other orange and blue dynasty of the 1980’s… The irony…
My name is Stephen Harris and I am struggling as an Edmonton Oiler fanatic junkie.
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