Ryan Smyth always wanted to play his entire career with the Oilers. And he thought it was something he was going to able to do. Now he had always taken the “hometown discount” to stay with the Oilers in the past, but wasn’t it time after 12 seasons that the Oilers finally showed him the kind of money that most other teams in the league would be willing to pay for his services? I mean that was what the new CBA was supposed to do, right? Allow teams like the Oilers the financial ability to be able to keep their good players. Well apparently not.
Now I am not blaming the CBA for the Oilers losing Smyth. And I am not going to blame Kevin Lowe (I have always been a Lowe supporter, and will remain so as long as he is with the Oilers). There are a ton of factors that went into this, and there are none that can be singled out as the only reason. Smyth wanted to stay, and the Oilers wanted to keep him, but this time around Smyth wasn’t going to take the hometown discount. The fact is that when Smyth resigned with the Oilers for $3.5 million per season a few years back, he could have gone to free agency, and made more like $5 million with a lot of the bigger market teams (perhaps even $6-7 million if it was with the Rangers and their astronomical payroll back a few years ago). He chose not to though, he was satisfied to stay with his hometown team, where the fans seemingly loved him more than their own families. He knew eventually he would make the big money, right? Well the Oilers weren’t so sure. They didn’t think, that even after a great performance in the 06 playoff run and again during the 06-07 season, that they could justify the $5.5 million that he wanted. That’s right, $5.5 million. Not 6, not 7, $5.5 million. Didn’t Bobby Holik make something like $11 million a few years back? How could Smyth not be worth $5.5 million? Some look directly at his point production, and say he isn’t worth it, but Smyth brings a lot more to the table than the 36 goals he scored last year and 68 points (in only 71 games, still very good numbers). He brings all the intangibles; the heart, the determination, the grit, the full out effort every shift. He is a team leader.
But despite all of that, Kevin Lowe was still not prepared (or perhaps not able) to offer the face of his franchise that kind of money for one reason or another. So when the trade deadline came and Smyth had still not budged on his demands, which at this point in time look more reasonable than ever, Lowe didn’t think that the two parties would be able to get a deal done before July 1st and so pulled the trigger on a trade to the New York Islanders, to avoid potentially losing Smyth for nothing to unrestricted free agency. The return for Smyth was Robert Nilsson, Ryan O’Marra, and a first round draft choice in 07 (Alex Plante). On paper, it looks like a reasonable enough trade for an impending UFA, a good move for the future. But that doesn’t take into account the collective ripping out of the hearts of over a million people in Edmonton, and Oiler fans everywhere. After 12 seasons fans tend to get a little attached to a player like Smyth. He was absolutely loved in the community and was one of the most popular players ever. I am even going to go as far as to compare his popularity to that of Gretzky and Messier. So it wasn’t just the 36 goals and 68 points that the Oilers were losing, it was the 3 pucks every game in warm-ups that he would toss to kids over the glass, it was the crowd going nuts every single time his name was announced over the PA (if you have been to a game at Rexall Place, you know what I mean), it was his work with the Stollery Children’s Hospital, it was so much more than just hockey. But of course hockey is a business and business doesn’t concern itself with all of that extra stuff it seems. Kevin Lowe did what he felt was best for the hockey club business wise, using the information he had; what the Oilers projected budget and salary cap numbers were, and what he felt Smyth would do come July 1st. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it is now going to come back to haunt him 8 times every season for at least the next 5 years starting on October 23, 2007 as a divisional rival. Lowe has gone on record saying that if he knew back in February what he knew now (about the salary cap and the Oilers budget), Ryan Smyth would most likely still be an Oiler.
But now for my main point, and the reason I am writing this. A lot of people in Edmonton seem to have one-eightied on their views of Ryan Smyth because of this whole situation. They view him as greedy, selfish, and as though he abandoned the team for money. That is simply not the case. This was not Ryan Smyth’s first choice. I’m certain that if you asked him right now, if he could go back and sign with the Oilers in February for $5.5 million or stick with his current situation in Denver at $6.25 million, he would choose the first option. Why? Well because we know that this was no strictly about money, he turned down juicier offers in Montreal and on the Island. Ryan wanted to be in a city where hockey mattered, where he mattered, and he felt appreciated by the team. So if the Oilers would have offered him the $5.5 million, he would still be there because he loves the city, the team, the fans, everything. But those same reasons are why he turned down the Oilers offer of less than $5.5 million, the appreciation thing. It comes down to principle. After all he had done for the team, you would think that they would appreciate him enough to give him that very reasonable raise (like they gave to teammates Fernando Pisani, Steve Staios and Ethan Moreau the previous summer, when Smyth originally wanted to get a deal done). But they didn’t, and that is why he is in Denver; he didn’t feel appreciated by management enough to be rewarded. He felt he deserved what he was asking for, and rightly so.
But it did turn out about as good as it could for Ryan I suppose. If Edmonton had a twin in the United States, it would be Denver. They are very similar cities; both big cities but with the smaller city feel, similar winters, same die-hard hockey fans, and even the same division and thus travel! Denver is the second best fit in the NHL for Ryan Smyth next to Edmonton, and Calgary is probably the third, which is why he said he considered going there as well. He wanted the right fit, the extra money over what he wanted is just a bonus.
Now of course the Oilers did eventually realize their mistake after losing 18 of the last 20 games of the season last year, and were going to try and get Smyth back. But that was too late, Smyth was not coming back. He was insulted to be traded. After 12 years, finally asking for a raise to compare to other players in the league of his caliber, and the team responds with “Oh, well that just doesn’t work for us, good luck on the other side of the continent.” I would be insulted too. No wonder his agent didn’t return Lowe’s call of a contract offer on July 1st. Just think if you got fired, and your old company (realizing their mistake), along with a new, just as good company both offered you jobs, who do you think you would want to work for? I’ll take option #2.
So now to all of the “Oilers fans” out there who have altered their view of Ryan Smyth because of this situation, and are now grouping him in with Ex-Oilers-now-villians Mike Comrie and Chris Pronger, remember this; Ryan Smyth did not ask for this. He dealt with the cards given to him by the Oilers management. And if I am ever crazy enough to spend the $7.50 it takes to get a beer at Rexall place during an Oilers-Avalanche game next season, and you boo Smyth when he comes out (as many say they will), that $7.50 beer of mine will very quickly turn into a $7.50 “oops” shower for yourself. You don’t deserve to be an Oiler fan.
All true Oiler fans say it with me now; Good Luck Ryan, we wish you all the best.