In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
Yes, I realize I just quoted the impeccable F. Scott Fitzgerald in writing this, but the quote seems to apply. Without a hint of arrogance, I suggest that I have lived a privileged life in comparison to other hockey fans. Once in 1985, I caught a piece of hockey tape thrown into the crowd by none other than Wayne Gretzky, who skated a mere 10 feet in front of me. I also had the not-so-pleasant experience of nearly breaking my hip to get out of the way of a fight in the stands between Habs and Oilers fans, on the night where the Oilers abused the visitors 6-0, and Messier scored a hat trick. I was there when an unruly fan dumped his rye and Coke on the head of the coach of the Calgary Flames, only to be rewarded with a criminal record and a banning from future Oiler games. And I was there the night when someone taunted Predators Coach Barry Trotz repeatedly throughout an entire game by calling him a “shovelhead.” I have indeed lived a charmed hockey-fan life.
In typical Canadian smart-ass, know-it-all-in-respect-to-hockey fashion, I often stand at the sidelines, more confused than amused by the antics of my chosen team. Take, for example, the contract given to Shawn Horcoff: The steady and dependable two-way forward, given $2 million more per season than his talent dictates, just because the GM wanted to show the rest of the league that the Oilers will pay big bucks for mediocrity. It has been suggested to me recently that my insane ramblings about the Oilers and the city of Edmonton somehow fuel the fire of negativity. That somehow lil’ ol’ me, and persons of similar description, created and maintain a stereotype that the Oilers are a franchise to be avoided by players at all costs. I laugh at this suggestion, because I realize that players that steer clear of the City of Champions do so because of their own moral questionability. Players, like the odorous Dany Heatley, are better off not playing here. His talent notwithstanding, it is players like Dany; mentally selfish, obviously spoilt, and completely unworthy of the love so granted by fans of the game, can take over the moral fiber of a team and end up souring a situation from within.
What continues to be remarkable about moments in history like the Gretzky-era of the 1980’s was not only how talented the team was, but how completely dedicated those players were to their community. You didn’t hear Gretzky, or Messier, or Kurri moaning and complaining about playing in Edmonton, because they understood what loyalty was, they made it their personal mission to make their team a winner, and they felt personal responsibility to carry themselves on and off the ice in a manner befitting of the royal status so given by the fans. I call the Dany Heatley’s of the world unworthy of wearing the Oilers copper and blue because that is what he truly is. Being an Oiler should be a matter of personal pride; its logo a metal worn to demonstrate their quality not only as players, but as people.
Considering the future of this franchise, the focus has to be on building a winner. Yes, Stanley Cups are important, but having a cup to raise over head is only one victory. The responsibility does not belong to the fans to sell players on the city. The Oilers should be managed as a team with pride; its roster comprised of classy and intelligent individuals who understand the opportunity that the NHL has given them. They will promote the substance of the game within their home community, and to fans around the globe. Perhaps the NHLPA would disagree, but one of the implied roles of a player is to be a champion in their community, regardless where they play. Any die-hard NHL fan will tell you that if they were born with the gift of having NHL-hockey skills, and a chance to play the game on the big stage, money and place of residence would be an afterthought to just being a player.
There exists obsessive admiration for the game in Canada, and fans grow weary of hearing stories about players complaining in any context about the dream they are living. Every Canadian fan wishes to be a part of this game because it means so much more within the fabric of Canadian society than one could imagine or conceptualize. That’s why Canadians are so angry with Gary Bettman: For him this is a business, but for us, this is a lifestyle and unifying element in our society. Canadians would not only like to see their six current teams survive and thrive, but we are all unified in thinking cities like Hamilton, Winnipeg and Quebec should have teams too. People from Saskatchewan, for example, a prairie province hundreds of miles from the closest NHL arena are just as addicted to the NHL as fans from Edmonton, Ottawa or Montreal. This is Canada’s game, and Canada should be the heartland, not the afterthought, of the NHL.
Suffice it to say that there will be continued bitterness and discontent from fans north of the border every time we hear a player like Heatley whine about where he wants to play. Every time we know the league would rather keep a franchise in a losing market instead of placing it in a town where support will be infectious and sustainable. Every time we hear the leader of the NHL say to our face that he has nothing against Canada, and yet, his actions paint a very different picture.
The motivation of the NHL brain trust is not really to support the game, to support the players, or to support the fans – The motivation of owners is money, as it is in any other business. Perhaps it is not as emotionally confusing as it is financially perplexing why the dead horse continues to be beat in cities like Phoenix. Meaning no disrespect to this beautiful city, but hockey is doomed there, just as it is in many other southern American markets. While it’s understood that appealing to the league and ownership’s sense of logic and reason is a collective waste of time, it is pursuit of the almighty dollar that will eventually cause teams to migrate. I suspect the NHLPA, once the effects of a declining salary cap begin to get noticed, will be primary motivators in seeing financially challenged teams relocate to friendlier northern skies.
Speaking of the PA, I keep waiting for the NHLPA to become involved in the Heatley situation. While the PA has no business being involved in matters such as these, surely they realize the damage Dany’s situation is causing to the future of the league. The Edmonton Oilers, thanks to Daryl Katz, have gone from being a Have-Not to a Have, and in the times of economic recession and declining salary caps, owners like Katz, willing to buy a winning team if necessary, are the PA’s new BFF. Should the PA be calling the Heatley’s of the world and be reminding him not to look a gift horse in the mouth? Will it be the players, not the owners, who end up forcing the league to change its philosophy, and begin to care more about placing team in markets where a fan base is ready-made? Time will tell.
And while Jim Balsillie's methods in attempting to gain a franchise for Hamilton could definitely be called into question, any logical fan must be asking the question: Is it really in the best interest of the league to turn away a billionaire willing to save a drowning team? At what point does the long-term financial viability of the league become more important than ego?