JUST DESERTS

NO, EDMONTON OILERS MANAGEMENT DIDN’T DESERVE CONNOR MCDAVID LAST YEAR. BUT THE LONG SUFFERING, OFTEN INSULTED OILERS FAN BASE DID

(This is a revised edition of a story that appeared on Hautnews.com last September)

In the days leading up to 2015’s NHL Draft Lottery, I’d abandoned any notion that my Edmonton Oilers had any chance (or business) winning it’s fourth first overall pick in the span of six years, let alone landing teenage phenom Connor McDavid. I assumed that Buffalo or Arizona or Toronto would win that honour and my Oilers would be drafting third or fourth. Around the time I was wondering if highly touted defenseman Noah Hanifin would be ready to step directly onto the Oilers woeful blue line the following season (and what the odds were that our inept management would rush him if he wasn’t anyway) I checked my phone to see who had won the McDavid sweepstakes.

Forget a double take, I had to do a triple one because I couldn’t believe my eyes the first two times. Somehow the Edmonton Oilers, the team I’d adored since childhood and who had spent the past nine years unapologetically wiping their feet on my exhausted loyalty, had won the biggest hockey lottery in recent memory.

Before I knew it, my social media was filled with complaints and howls of outrage (because I was somehow responsible for the way the lottery balls fell). The Oilers didn’t deserve another first overall pick! they screamed. Edmonton would ruin him, they whined. McDavid needed to pull a Lindros and refuse to play for the Oilers. And while the Oilers improbable victory should have laid the multiple conspiracy theories that the NHL’s draft lottery was fixed to rest, it sparked absurd new ones that the draft was fixed in Edmonton’s favour.

It was a sweet river of salty tears.

video via Jordan Love

It prompted a buffet of jokes, indignation and genuine fear that Edmonton would win the first overall pick in 2016 as well, earning the right to draft Auston Matthews this year (check out the comments to the video above). And I get it. I may be a die-hard fan but I’m also a pragmatist and few were more critical of this team’s horrible management then I was. I could go on for pages listing the Oilers numerous faults and failures, but Craig MacTavish summed it up during his end of season post mortem press conference last April. He predicted that the 2015-2016 season would be another “transitional” season. Translation: another season where the team spun its wheels at the bottom of the standings and were eliminated from the playoff conversation by Halloween (Christmas at the latest). This was virtually two years to the day that he promised bold moves to get the team back to respectability as the team’s new General Manager. In two brief years he had gone from selling long suffering Oilers fans hope to stealing it away.

And all of that after a nine-year playoff drought. It was a rotten time to be an Oilers fan. Until the evening of April 18th 2015, when the lottery balls blessed us with McDavid.

I was initially ecstatic, but that excitement soon gave way to dread. If there was any organization on Earth that could ruin a guaranteed shot at a generational talent, it was Edmonton. But even if they got it right (a rarity for Oilers brass), I was afraid that getting McDavid could hurt the franchise in the long run.

When Craig MacTavish replaced Steve Tambellini in April of 2013, Tambellini was widely considered the worst GM in the NHL. MacTavish (who had zero management experience on his resume) somehow made the team worse. And when team president Kevin Lowe wasn’t insulting Oilers fans, he was presiding over the entire train wreck. Lowe was the one constant during the Oilers nine year playoff drought; different players, coaches, GMs and even different owners came and went, but Kevin Lowe was there for all of it and was allowed to keep making decisions. The problem with the Oilers wasn’t their players, it was their management.

But it seemed like the franchise had finally reached a turning point where fan frustration and relentless on ice humiliation had reached critical mass. Fans who had defended management with their dying breath were now the minority as most of the fan base had turned on the front office. Fans bought billboards and full-page newspaper ads urging the team to fire Lowe and eventually MacTavish. Jerseys were being thrown on the ice, seats were left empty and scalpers couldn’t sell five-dollar tickets to see a team that once sold out night after night. Management had all but lost everyone in the local and national media and some Edmonton sports writers admitted that players were quietly urging them to keep the heat on the faltering management team. But McDavid could have been a get out of jail free card for the Gruesome Twosome, his arrival in Oil town possibly buying Lowe and MacTavish an extra few years where they could continue to harm the team through incompetence and neglect.

When people talk about McDavid saving this franchise in the years to come, they won’t just be talking about the miraculous things he’ll be doing on the ice. Less then 48 hours after winning McDavid, a hurricane of change was sweeping through Oil country with a vengeance.

Bob Nicholson, who built Hockey Canada into the powerhouse it is today, was appointed CEO of hockey operations. One of his first orders of business was to push aside Lowe and demote MacTavish, installing Peter Chiarelli, the architect behind the Boston Bruins (who won the Stanley Cup in 2011, returned to the finals in 2013 and won the Presidents Trophy in 2014) as GM and President. Chiarelli then brought in Todd McLellan, one of the best coaching free agents on the market, to tend the bench and the team continued to revamp its coaching and scouting staff through the summer. Would any of those dominoes have fallen without McDavid? Probably not.

As excited as I was last summer, I still tempered my expectations. There was just too much ground for this team to make up in a single year to return to the playoffs and the non stop parade of severe injuries to big names (which started as early as training camp) not only sabotaged Edmonton’s chances to compete for a playoff berth, but at times felt like karma’s way of punishing the Oilers for winning McDavid (who wasn’t immune to the injury jinx, missing three months to a shattered collar bone). But last September was the first time in years I was looking forward to the beginning of the season, the first time in years I had genuine hope. I even dug out the Oilers jersey that had been exiled in shame to the back of my closet.

So yes, the old regime didn’t deserve McDavid, and I absolutely understood the frustration of other fans. But Oilers fans deserved McDavid, not just for our loyalty or for enduring the years of jokes and insults, but for our faith that one day our beloved copper and blue would be free of the clutches of the incompetent and the reckless. It turns out McDavid was the key to that freedom.

Now let’s see what’s in store for McDavid: Year Two.

Shayne Kempton

Photo Connor Mah Standard Flikr License

 

DRAFT PROOF

There Are Plenty of Ideas on How To Fix The NhL’s Entry Draft To Prevent Awarding Losers-Why Not Try Rewarding Winners?

When the NHL held it’s lottery last weekend to determine which team would own the coveted first overall pick, millions of hockey fans and pundits had their fingers crossed that any team other than the Edmonton Oilers, who had won the first overall selection four times in the past six seasons, would have their name announced as the winner. Once upon a time the NHL awarded a year’s first selection in the entry draft to the team that finished last that season. It eventually changed the process to a lottery system to discourage teams from tanking the season with visions of drafting the next future super star dancing in their heads. The system was still weighted to favour the league’s bottom feeders as the teams that finished at the bottom of the standings had a greater chance of landing the cherished first overall pick, which still attracts criticism that the NHL rewards teams that lose.

The lottery system still hasn’t exorcised the possibility of teams deliberately losing to land the top pick. Last season the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes traded away just about every marketable player they could in an effort to lose as many games as possible and increase their odds of landing generational phenom Connor McDavid. Neither team got their wish though, and they had to settle for the second and third overall picks respectively (still not too shabby).

And while you could say that last year’s lottery proved the system worked, Mr. McDavid fell into the arguably undeserving lap of the perpetually failing and criminally mismanaged Edmonton Oilers (see above). And while the NHL tweaked the rules so that the team that finished dead last had less of a chance at the top pick in 2016, the Oilers were once again in the running for the top prize last weekend and they had a better shot at it this year then they did last spring. The Oilers wound up drawing the fourth pick, but if they had won number one the calls for the NHL to burn the current system to the ground would have been deafening.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to improve the NHL’s lottery system and to prevent teams like Edmonton from constantly feeding at the loser’s trough. And everyone agrees that the current lottery system rewards losing teams (under the current system, the team that finishes last not only has the highest odds of landing the top pick but can also draft no lower than fourth). So what if the NHL changed the system to reward its winning franchises?

Currently, the team that wins the Stanley Cup is rewarded for their victory by drafting last in every round. The team that they defeated in the Stanley Cup final drafts 29th while the two teams that made it to the Conference semi-finals wind up drafting in the bottom four as well. So in essence, the NHL’s most successful teams and its eventual champion are actually punished at the draft. Why not reverse that?

What if, when the NHL’s two top teams battle for the Stanley Cup at the end of an exhaustive, brutal playoff campaign, they were playing for more then the right to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice, but the right to drape their jersey over the League’s next superstar as well?

What if instead of having to host a fire sale of players while the confetti was still falling from their Stanley Cup parades, the Chicago Blackhawks were rewarded with Taylor Hall, Nate Mackinnon and McDavid? What if the Boston Bruins were the ones to agonize over making Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Gabriel Landeskog the top pick in 2011? What if L.A. was rewarded with the number one selection in 2012 and again in 2014 for their brilliant Cup runs? If the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins or St. Louis Blues are the top dog this year, why not reward them for their herculean effort by allowing them to call out Auston Matthews name? The entire landscape of the League would be vastly different.

And why stop there? Award the Stanley Cup runner up the second overall pick. Call it a consolation prize if you like, but coming up a victory or two short of winning it all should also have it’s own reward. Could you imagine Jack Eichel in a Lightning jersey or Alexander Barkov wearing Bruins black and gold? And give the Stanley Cup semi-finalists the third and fourth picks based on their regular season point totals. Then assign the remaining picks to teams based on their regular season performance. That would mean that this year the Toronto Maple Leafs would draft fifth overall, followed by the Oilers at sixth, the Vancouver Canucks at seventh and so on.

Would it hurt teams rebuilding? Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Morgan Reilly, Mark Scheifele, Doug Hamilton, Jacob Trouba and 2011 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner are just a handful of impressive names that have been drafted between slots five and ten in recent years. Ottawa Senators super star Erik Karlsson was drafted 15th in 2008, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evengi Kuznetsov, a pair of young talents that had huge breakout seasons this year, were drafted 16th and 26th respectively in 2010, Jamie Benn, who lead the league in scoring in 2015 and finished second in 2016, was a third round pick in 2007 while goalie Braden Holtby, who will likely win the Vezina trophy this June, was picked up by the Washington Capitals in the fourth round in 2008. Franchise defensemen Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban and Shea Weber were all second round picks and the Detroit Red Wings have made the NHL post season 25 consecutive seasons because they became experts at drafting (and patiently developing) excellent players in later rounds (Pavel Datsyuk was drafted a jaw dropping 171st in 1998). There are plenty of elite, even franchise players available after the top four picks.

This would force teams to be smarter in their drafting, investing more time and resources into scouting and development. Would the Edmonton Oilers be in the sad state they are today if they weren’t allowed to depend on so many first overall picks, but instead had to approach the draft more carefully (that may be a moot point given how horribly mismanaged they were until last May when they finally fired just about everyone)?

It would also make the trade deadline more exciting. The NHL’s deadline has turned into a final opportunity for the teams who think they have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup to scavenge useful parts from the basement dwellers to address any outstanding needs headed into the two month war that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. Contending teams don’t blink twice at parting with their first round pick (the Rangers haven’t had a first round pick since 2012 and won’t until 2017 at the earliest), but what if Chicago or New York or Washington think they have an actual shot at the Cup, would they be willing to part with a pick that could end up in the top four or even first overall? And if so, how much more valuable is that pick and how much more could they get for it? How much of a gamble would the selling team be taking? What if you send a decent player to a contending team in return for their first round pick and nothing else, only to see that team upset in the first round and watch said pick’s value plummet? It would add a dozen more layers of intrigue to last minute deals.

Until the NHL called out the Toronto Maple Leafs name last week, there was a genuine fear that the Oilers would land their fifth first overall pick in seven seasons (Calgary President Brian Burke even promised to beat someone up if that happened). This would end the trend of rewarding mismanaged franchises and force them to improve themselves more efficiently while rewarding the League’s top teams.

And it would change everything.

Shayne Kempton

Photo www.hockeysfuture.com

 

 

 

 

THE NHL’S 2015 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

TEN THINGS GMS, PLAYERS AND FANS FROM THE NHL SHOULD BE WISHING FOR THIS CHRISTMAS

(Originally posted on Hautnews.com on December 24th, 2015)

So here we are on Christmas Eve, and while everyone’s asked jolly old St. Nick for something this year, here are ten suggestions that should appear under some NHL Christmas trees tomorrow morning. If you’re reading this Santa, you might want to take a few of these to heart and hopefully some enterprising GMs and hockey execs will leave out some extra cookies and milk for you.

  1. A hobby for the idiots from Las Vegas who came after me on Twitter. Earlier this year I wrote a story on why the NHL shouldn’t put a franchise in Sin City (you’ll notice the absence of any other major sports league teams as well) and before I knew it I found myself in the crosshairs of some angry Las Vegas fans on Twitter, including the guy who ran the bid’s Twitter account. They apparently had nothing better to do with their time on a summer Saturday evening, so if you could Santa, maybe leave a hobby or two in their stocking. Possibly crochet or Sudoku. Or maybe Crazy 8s because I hear playing cards is a big thing in Vegas. And speaking of Twitter . . .
  1. Some exploding coal for some toxic Chicago Blackhawks fans. When Chicago Blackhawks superstar (and renowned party animal) Patrick Kane was being investigated for allegations of rape during the summer, some Blackhawk fans not only decided that he was innocent, but that anyone in the media who didn’t immediately begin singing songs of his innocence deserved threats. CBSChicago.com reporter (and Sports 670 update anchor) Julie DiCaro actually had to stay home from work after getting threatening Tweets from some Blackhawk fans. Common sense and reason doesn’t enter into the equation with animals like this Big Red, so maybe some hand grenades disguised like coal could get the job done.
  1. Some luck for my fantasy hockey team. I don’t know what it is Santa, but this year my players have been dropping like flies. Not minor injuries mind you, but the kind that sidelines players for weeks and even months at a time. Even the players I’ve drafted to replace my injured superstars have been getting themselves injured. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their legs started falling off. I don’t know how you’d wrap it Big Man, but how about some fantasy health?
  1. A break for Buffalo Sabre fans. Being a Sabre fan these past few years has been a pretty tall order. The team finished dead last in both 2014 and 2015 but they were denied the first overall pick both years (losing out on Connor McDavid last June was especially painful given how Sabre management did everything in its power to finish last). But despite all that, this year was supposed to offer hope for beleaguered Sabres fans. Not a playoff spot mind you, but enough tangible improvement to warrant patient loyalty. Instead, Sabres fans have been treated to a buffet of injury and misfortune. Robin Lehtner, who was supposed to be their goaltender moving forward, has yet to start a game because of injury and Evander Kane, who was supposed to light it up riding shotgun for generational talent Jack Eichel, missed a month with a leg injury (I know, he was on my fantasy team). And speaking of Eichel, while 2015’s second overall pick has been posting pretty good numbers, he isn’t yet in the Calder Trophy conversation, another potential sore point for long suffering Sabres fans.
  1. A do-over for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus lost over 500 man games to injury last season (no other team came close) and even though their non-stop parade of injuries cost them a playoff berth, when the team was healthy it looked mighty fine, ending the season by winning thirteen of its final sixteen games. Adding rising young power forward Brandon Saad over the summer was the icing on the cake and a playoff berth seemed a foregone conclusion for a lot of pundits. No one knows exactly what happened in Ohio but wow did this team fall of the rails at light speed. Mired at the bottom of the standings again with a playoff spot looking like an impossible long shot, Columbus is now stuck with the walking talking temper tantrum known as John Tortorella as it’s coach and the team seems on the verge of dealing away superstar and franchise player Ryan Johansen (one of only two Blue Jackets not to miss any time to injury last season). It’s pretty safe to say Big Red that this was hardly how the Blue Jackets or their fans expected this season to go.
  1. Last year Santa I asked you for some Divine Intervention to save my Edmonton Oilers from themselves. Primarily from horrible management and deliberately blind ownership. Boy did you come through. When we won the right to draft Connor McDavid last April, it set off a chain of events that all fell into place like dominoes from Heaven. Within forty-eight hours our President and General Manager (both the worst in the League) had been demoted and our head coaching position vacated. Over the next few months the proven and competent leadership that replaced them systematically filled the open positions with established names and then went about transforming the roster. But now Santa, I need to ask another monumental favour for my team.

Do you think you could lift the curse that seems to be hanging over this franchise? We     have yet to see what this squad can do since the roster has never been healthy. Jordan Eberle blew his shoulder in training camp, missing the first month of the season. Justin Schultz injured his back just before Halloween, sidelining him a month. The worst has got to be Connor McDavid, the saviour and teenage phenom who was just beginning to bust out after a slow start and dominate games the way few eighteen year olds before him had, when a pair of no talent Philadelphia pylons on skates dragged him into the boards, breaking his left collarbone and putting him on the shelf for several months. And now Oscar Klefbom, arguably our top blue liner, is out an undetermined amount of time after a broken finger somehow became a staff infection in his leg. Perhaps nothing sums up how snake bitten this season has been as much as Nail Yakupov. Finally having a good year (playing alongside McDavid), the embattled Yak has been out for the past few weeks (and will be out a few more) since being dragged down by a falling linesman. Yak sprained his ankle in the fall and will miss approximately a month with the biggest freak injury anyone has ever heard of. But don’t worry Santa, the ref was OK.

  1. A milk carton for the Pittsburgh Penguins offence and the entire Anaheim Ducks organization, since both seem to be missing. When the Penguins stunned the hockey world by acquiring sniper Phil Kessel from the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs last July, adding him to the likes of Sydney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and Kris Letang, everyone thought Pittsburgh was going to be a regular feature on the nightly highlight reels. No one was prepared to hand the Pens the Cup mind you (much was made of the team’s remaining holes on the blue line and questions in net), but the question everyone was asking was how many goals would Pittsburgh score? Now the question going into every game is are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to score at all? Sydney Crosby has spent months mired in a scoring slump and Kessel has yet to light anything resembling a fire under the Pens offence. They’ve been downright mediocre and are miles from being the offensive juggernaut just about every one in the world predicted them to be last September.

Anaheim meanwhile is easily the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season. After falling just short of making the Stanley Cup finals last June, no other team was as aggressive as the Ducks in addressing roster needs while deftly managing the salary cap. The Ducks beefed up at every position and were everyone’s favourite to win the Cup at the beginning of the season. The team’s strength combined with their home in the NHL’s weakest division seemed a perfect recipe for regular season dominance and eventual Stanley Cup glory. But now the Ducks are in very real danger of missing the playoffs altogether, their top players have been called out repeatedly in the media and it’s considered only a matter of time before head coach Bruce Boudreau is fired. How bad has it been Santa? The Ducks won just one game in the entire month of October and fared little better in November. Even if Anaheim begins tearing it up in the New Year, they may not be able to make up the ground they lost in the first few months of the season, and could very well find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

  1. A little more patience from my fellow Oilers fans. If you could Big Man, could you slip a little more resolve into Oilers fans stockings? We’ve been a battered bunch this past decade, saddled with the worst President, the worst GMs and the worst coaches for years, all overseen by an owner whose negligence bordered on criminal. But with Connor McDavid now on the scene and all the necessary front office changes his arrival inspired, we finally had hope-sweet, precious hope. But that hope was tested when we lost our first four games and has been bruised further by a few prolonged losing streaks that have kept us from reaching a .500 record. But if you squint your eyes and turn your head just enough, things are looking up.

The Oilers may have lost a lot of games this season, but they’ve been competitive in just about all of them, something they haven’t been able to say in years. A few more bounces go their way and a few less calls against them and this team could easily be a game or two over the .500 mark right now. They’ve actually come back to win some games, another trait they haven’t displayed since time out of mind, and they’ve managed to steal a few points here and there with some outstanding goaltending (if you would have told an Oilers fan that as recently as last year they would have slapped you in the face with a brick and told you to stop your lies). McDavid’s injury was a big blow, but it allowed the team to recall Leon Draisaitl, who has blown the doors off the NHL and Taylor Hall, who’s spent most of the season among the NHL’s top scorers, is looking every bit like the team’s future captain, both on and off the ice. And when McDavid returns sometime in January, GM Peter Chiarelli will have a surplus of assets he can trade to address other needs.

There’s still a long way to go Santa, but could you just make sure my fellow members of the Copper and Blue Nation stick around just a little longer for the good times? No one should have anticipated a playoff spot this season anyway (though a recent winning streak has put us back in that conversation, a place we haven’t been in December for years), but there would be a certain poetic symbolism if we returned to the post season dance next season, the first in our shiny new home.

  1. A healing factor for Connor McDavid. You know Santa, like the one Wolverine has. And maybe some of those unbreakable Adamantium bones as well. Because if McDavid’s injury in November at the hands of much less talented, slow of foot blue liners, it’s that the young heir apparent has a target on his back. McDavid’s blinding speed coupled with his cat like agility and his sublime puck handling skills proved impossible for most NHL D-men to defend against, so the thug like antics displayed by Flyers blue liners Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning, where they basically gang-tackled him into the boards, are likely going to become more common. And more accepted (the NHL has never been eager to protect its stars).

But there’s one other reason Connor’s going to need an ability to heal fast Big Red, and that’s because of Hockey Trolls. McDavid’s good. Really good. He’s been lauded by everyone from Steven Stamkos to Wayne Gretzky (who described him as the best player to come along in the last thirty years) and his skill set is pure offense (though he’s proven he can use his offensive instincts to protect a lead as well), meaning that there’s a sizeable portion of “traditional” hockey fans who will never respect him. There was no shortage of them on social media before the season began begging for him to fail and they tripped over themselves with glee when he went down with his injury. The Great One had his fair share of detractors back in the day, fans who didn’t consider him a real player because he didn’t fight, but Gretz didn’t have to contend with Twitter and Reddit. So if it isn’t too much trouble Santa, could you wrap up a nice healing X-gene and put it under Connor’s tree?

  1. A big pat on the back to P.K. Subban. Already heavily involved in charity work (P.K. and his family are the faces of Hyundai Hockey Helpers, a non profit organization that assists parents struggling with cost of enrolling their kids in North America’s most expensive sport), the popular (and often controversial) Montreal Canadiens defenseman pledged ten million dollars over the next seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It is by far the biggest single donation a member of the venerated Habs franchise has ever donated to charity. Subban’s contributions on the ice never go unnoticed by his teammates or Habs fans (or their opponents, for that matter), and now, with a wing of the hospital bearing his name, his presence and generosity to the community won’t either.

          An honourable shout out to Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie and Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in this category as well. When the St. Louis Blues traded the popular Oshie to Washington last off-season, five-year-old Libby Lu was so distraught at his departure that she locked herself in a closet crying, refusing to come out. Well, T.J. reached out to little Libby twice, first calling her on a Sportscenter talk show and then by mailing her a crate full of Washington Capitals swag, all of it autographed, ensuring that Libby would not only be a T.J. Oshie fan her entire life, but also a hockey one as well. Meanwhile Carey Price has been heavily involved in a number of youth programs, everything from donating equipment to Aboriginal communities to raffling off his game masks. Price’s community work won him the Jean Beliveau award last October, awarded by the legendary Beliveau’s wife. Good job, gentlemen, good job.

Shayne Kempton

libby-lu-caps-jersey

NORTHERN DRAFT 2015

AFTER THE OILERS SELECT CONNOR MCDAVID FIRST OVERALL, WHICH NAMES DO THE OTHER SIX CANADIAN TEAMS CALL AT THIS YEAR’S NHL ENTRY DRAFT?

As an Edmonton Oilers fan, the only date I’ve had circled on my NHL calendar for the past nine years is the NHL’s annual entry draft. It’s the price you pay for following a team that has innovated new and exciting ways to suck year in and year out. That annual anticipation went through the roof this year though when the Oilers won last April’s draft lottery and the right to drape a copper and blue jersey on phenom Connor McDavid, whose been anointed The Next One by none other then the Great Wayne Gretzky himself. But what about the other six Canadian teams? The 2015 draft is being heralded as possibly the best since the legendary 2003 draft (which is considered the best draft in NHL history), with a pair of generational talents topping the rankings. So here are my armchair predictions for which names Canada’s seven NHL teams should call out at the draft in Tampa Bay this Friday. I went two for seven with my predictions for 2014, and while people may scoff at a success rate of .286, you pull that number off as a batter in baseball and you’ll be pulling down a salary around twenty million a year. Or whatever Donald Trump spends on toupees.   Either way, without further adieu, I present my totally unscientific and unfounded suggestions, recommendations and demands.

Edmonton Oilers: With the 1st overall the pick in this year’s draft, Edmonton will select Connor McDavid. Stop. End of story. TSN analyst (and former Calgary Flames GM) Craig Button perfectly described McDavid’s potential as a player, saying he combines the brilliance of Gretzky, the smooth hands of Mario Lemieux and the speed of Pavel Bure into a player never seen before. McDavid thinks the game at a higher level while skating at Mach speed. He’s been dominating highlight reels since he was 16 and his humility and sportsmanship off the ice has impressed scouts nearly as much as his sublime skills on it. Edmonton hasn’t even drafted McDavid yet and he’s already transformed the franchise, motivating desperately needed change in the most incompetent management and coaching departments in the NHL, and most importantly, getting emotionally exhausted fans excited again. Even Oilers players, who had given up on next season and were secretly hoping to be traded, are happy to be in Edmonton again. A cloud has literally lifted from this organization and its fan base. There is no other choice.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs kick off their picks by choosing 4th overall, and the Buds have plenty of holes in their roster to address. But the one need they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to solve the past few years is their lack of a top pivot. Dylan Strome may be the answer. Big (6’3), defensively capable and good on face offs, the younger brother of New Islanders forward Ryan Strome won the OHL scoring championship last year. And while many people will dismiss his scoring championship, claiming he benefitted from Erie Otters team mate and super prospect Connor McDavid (of course he did, who wouldn’t?), the same critics fail to point out that while McDavid missed twenty games with injury and representing Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championships, Strome was still producing at a one hundred point pace. If the Leafs can grab him (there are rumblings that Arizona may select him 3rd overall), they may be advised to give him a nine game taste of the pros next October before sending him back to junior, where he can dominate the OHL and represent Canada at the 2016 WJC. After next season, the sky may be the limit. Strome and 2014 8th overall pick William Nylander could form a dynamic duo down Toronto’s middle for years to come.

Calgary Flames: The Flames were one of the most surprising teams this year, making the playoffs and even advancing to the second round in a season where most people thought they’d be competing for the first overall pick. And the secret of this seasons’ success lied with a handful of young players they drafted and developed. The Flames attack boasted the likes of 2015 Calder Trophy nominee Johnny Gaudrea, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, as well as a handful of other rising young players. The Flames can also take pride in a cupboard full of promising young forward prospects as well, so with the 15th pick in this year’s draft they could do worse then select a defenseman to begin stockpiling a blue line to compliment their forward corps. And Jakub Zboril just might be the perfect defenceman to begin that process. A fiercely competitive, smooth skating, offensively skilled blue liner, Zboril’s skills in his own end are underrated and while he may not be big, he isn’t small and can be physically aggressive when he needs to be. He could be the first step in building a blue line formidable enough to handle the offensive juggernaut that’s taking shape just a few hours north in Edmonton.

Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is another club that’s managed to build a strong core of young players that was instrumental in their first playoff appearance since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. And adding center Colin White to that mix with the 17th pick would be another step in the right direction. A smart and hard working two-way center with decent offensive instincts and natural leadership abilities, White could well be this teams third line center and top penalty killing forward for years to come. But he also has second line potential and he could be the perfect compliment to Winnipeg’s eventual number one center, Mark Scheifele, for the better part of the next decade. White could be one of the safest, most efficient picks in the first round.

Ottawa Senators: The NHL entry draft has been very good to the Ottawa Senators over their modern history. The Sens have succeeded in finding and developing a wide range of players over the years. They struck gold with current team captain and two time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (2008), blue liner Codi Ceci (2012) and forward Curtis Lazar (2013) in the mid to high teens of the first round, while uncovering 2015 Calder trophy nominee Mark Stone and forward Mike Hoffman in later rounds. The Sens are more then set for young forwards, both now and in the future, and have a crowded crease, so they should use this deep draft as an opportunity to began improving a middling blue line. Taking Swedish prospect Oliver Kylington with the 18th pick would be an excellent start. The super talented young Swede was originally projected to be a top ten pick (some scouts even had him as high as the top five) coming into this season, but a rough couple of months saw his stock drop. But he remains a smooth skating offensive defenceman with no shortage of speed, skill or confidence. Ottawa didn’t do too bad the last time they drafted an offensive minded Swedish defenceman and could you imagine having two Erik Karlssons quarterbacking their power play? Scary.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks roster is getting old fast. The core they’ve relied on for time out of mind is all on the wrong side of thirty (the Sedins will be 35 when the puck drops next October) and Vancouver may have to move out a veteran or two to become cap compliant this summer. While they have a few promising young forwards currently on the roster (Bo Horvat) and a few intriguing ones in the system (Jake Virtanen, Hunter Shinkaruk), their defensive prospects are underwhelming to say the least. That’s why they should take a good long look at Swedish blue liner Gabriel Carlsson when their turn to comes at 23rd. A stay at home behemoth, Carlsson plays with smarts and poise in his own end. Remember that offensive juggernaut we were talking about in Edmonton? Vancouver will be seeing a lot of Connor McDavid and the Oilers over the years and Carlsson could be one of the Canucks best weapons of mass defence. He may be a bit of a project, but Carlsson could one day be a blue line beast that spends thirty minutes a night devouring opposing forwards while anchoring Vancouver’s penalty kill.

Montreal Canadiens: The biggest flaw in the Canadiens roster was exposed during the playoffs when it became painfully apparent that the Habs need a big strong number one center to compete with the likes of Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers in the post season. The problem is that one of those won’t be available when the Canadiens step up to the podium to make the 26th pick. What will be available will be a promising young right winger named Daniel Sprong, who could one day allow the Habs to move promising young forward Alex Galchenyuk back to his natural center position, where he could become the big franchise pivot the Canadiens desperately need to compete in the East. Sprong isn’t big but protects the puck like a villain, is shifty when evading opposing defenders and is downright lethal on the power play. Sprong probably won’t be a first line sniper, but he will provide valuable secondary scoring and could be a fixture on Montreal’s power play for years.

Player To Watch: There is little doubt in the minds of most scouts that Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov is the best goalie available in this draft. While a goaltender hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2012 (when Tampa Bay selected Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall and Boston selected Malcolm Subban 24th), there are plenty who believe that Samsonov is worthy of a first round pick, especially for teams with multiple picks in the first round and those squads looking for help between the pipes (and wouldn’t you know it, Edmonton fits both bills). But the “Russian Factor” is strong with this one, who is signed at least for the next two seasons with his KHL team. And while there are those who think that may be good for his development, spending the next two years playing against men in the world’s second best professional hockey league, the fact that he skipped the draft combine raised as many red flags as it did eyebrows. Samsonov is easily the biggest gamble in this draft.

Shayne Kempton

THE NHL’S 2014 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

WHAT TEAMS AND FANS SHOULD PROBABLY ASK JOLLY OLD SANTA FOR THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON

 Well hello Santa. So good to see you again. How is Mrs. Claus doing? Well I hope (because let’s be honest Big Man, we both know the whole operation comes tumbling down without the Missus). And the elves? The reindeer? Rudolph still getting up to his regular hijinks? That polar scamp. Totally incorrigible.

Y’know Santa, it’s not just Christmas we celebrate at this time of year, but we’re also at the point on the calendar where just about every team in the NHL has played at least a third or more of their current regular season, and there are a few franchises (and in the case of number two, a long suffering and oft ignored fan base) who are probably counting on a goodie or two in your sack to salvage the rest of the campaign. Or at least make life a little more bearable until the mercy of the balmy summer months.   But just in case any have forgotten amidst the hectic hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a list of ten things that teams or fans should ask you for this Yuletide.

10.  Another Hart trophy, scoring championship and First Team All-Star berth for Sidney Crosby. I’m not a Pens fan Santa, or a Crosby one, but Sid the Kid’s critics (and he has many) act like a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves that pounce on any chance to diss or put him down. A Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Sid’s got more personal hardware then any other player currently skating. In the world. But still, there are millions of “fans” who love to hate on him with savage abandon.   He could discover a cure for cancer tomorrow and they’d all flock to Facebook to bash him for not devoting every waking second to hockey and defying nature. A bunch of new awards won’t really silence Sid’s haters, but it will make their absurd, petty rhetoric look even more foolish.

9.  If you could Santa, you might want to consider wrapping super-prospect Connor McDavid in an Ottawa Senators jersey this year, and gifting him, not to Sens fans in general, but the ones who didn’t throw Jason Spezza under the bus last year. Now the Sens don’t have to finish last in in the NHL in order to draft Connor first overall this June (the Oilers had all but wrapped up dead last by Halloween) but the Sens playoff chances this season are looking a little less then 50/50 (far smarter people than yours truly have crunched the numbers using a decade’s worth of data and have determined that Ottawa, who was several spots removed from a playoff spot in early December, has around a twenty-five percent chance to make the post season next spring). Any team that misses the playoffs this season will have at least a 13.5% chance to land The Next Big Thing. Bigger gambles have paid off.

8.  Glasses for the people who apparently didn’t see the Montreal Canadiens 2014 playoff run and refuse to accept that Habs blue liner P.K. Subban is one of the game’s elite defencemen. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner and member of Canada’s Gold Medal winning 2014 Olympic team, Subban was a dominant one man force who, combined with Carey Price’s heroics in net, dragged the Habs to victory over their much bigger, deeper, more skilled and much more favoured Beantown rivals during their second round matchup last spring. Subban got in the Bruins’ face, he never let up and when he wasn’t getting in Boston’s head or under their skin, he was putting pucks in their net. Even after the Big Bad Bruins took a 3-2 series lead and everyone wrote Montreal off, Subban refused to throw in the towel and somehow stepped it up a notch, leading the Bleu et Blanc to victory in seven.  If after all that people weren’t ready to acknowledge P.K.’s place among the game’s current best, there’s something desperately wrong with their eyes. Of course, for a few of these rotten apples (and I’ve tangled with one or two online), their hatred really only runs skin deep. And speaking of skins . . .

7.  A thick one for current Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson. The slick young Swede is superbly skilled, his awesome skill set leans towards the offensive side of the game, he isn’t overly physical and he’s European. In short Big Red, he’s everything Canadian “purists” hate in a hockey player. If the Sens struggle the rest of the way and fail to qualify for the post season, it won’t take long for the Sens Army to turn on Karlsson the way it turned on then captain Jason Spezza last season. Sports fans eat their own like no one else, and Ottawa’s hockey community has proven just as eager to chow down on anyone in a Sens jersey if things don’t go as well as they planned at season’s end.  Karlson will prove no exception.

6.  A huge lump of coal for the pretentious ass hats who run the Hockey Hall of Fame. The late Pat Burns was finally inducted into the Hall this year Santa, four years after he died from cancer. The kicker is he was eligible for admission before his unfortunate death and his wife confided after his passing that he secretly hoped he would be alive to see the day when he’d be inducted. It would have been such a little thing for the brains at the HHoF to bend a rule here or there and induct him while he was alive to see and enjoy it. But no, the walking, talking vials of syphilis that run the Hall couldn’t lower themselves to be actual feeling human beings. And Santa, that coal you put in their stockings? Could you make it the exploding kind? Pretty please?

5.  A lifetime ban from the Canadian Tire Centre for the Sens and Leafs fans that got into a flying brawl last November (during the game where both teams observed a moment of silence for the recently slain Cpl. Cirillo, no less). I don’t know how it started but everyone saw how it ended, with a member of each tribe hugging each other as they hurtled down the concrete stairs. In the days following the video’s Mach speed tour of the Internet, everyone was picking sides. IT WAS THE SENS FAN’S FAULT!  IT WAS THE LEAFS FAN’S FAULT! The truth is Big Red, it was the fault of everyone involved; everyone wearing a jersey during that scuffle was a douchebag, regardless of the logo. And while odds are the idiots who went down the stairs are still feeling it (good), justice will only truly be served if the two of them, Sen and Leafs fan alike, are prevented entry into the CTC (or any other Ottawa arena). For the rest of their lives.

4.  For Martin Brodeur to retire as a New Jersey Devil. The legendary Brodeur is currently doing a fine job holding down the fort in St. Louis crease, but his contract ends in June and once Blues starter Brian Elliot recovers from injury or future franchise goalie Jake Allen is ready to assume the reigns full time, Brodeur will be a 42 year old goalie on the outside looking in. So Santa, I think it only fair (and reasonable), that next September the New Jersey Devils sign Brodeur, who wrote an entire record book during his time manning New Jersey’s net, to a one game contract. Give him a start him against Edmonton or Carolina so he can grab one final win and then retire wearing the Devils jersey on a victorious note.

3.  A case of finger leprosy for the Leafs fans who took to Twitter to criticize, insult and berate Toronto goalie James Reimer’s wife, April. When Reimer struggled last spring (during a meltdown that affected every member of the roster and spelled the end of Toronto’s post season chances) and had a few lack luster games this past fall, some Leafs “fans” thought it would be a good idea to use Twitter to go after the man’s wife. Cause y’know, that’s the bravest and most reasonable thing of all to do. It should be mentioned that Mrs. Reimer handled the situation with grace and there were no shortage of other Leafs fans who rallied to her defense, but the idea they’ll get away with it still ticks in my craw. I made a tweet criticizing the Twidiots who targeted her (and I was completely civilized-I swear!) and found myself in the cross hairs of one or two malicious malcontents. And not only that Santa, even you have to admit that the mental image of a bunch of enraged fans racing to Twitter to voice their angry venom but have to resort to pecking the keyboard with their noses because they shed their diseased fingers is hysterical.

2.  A playoff berth for the Edmonton Oilers. I’m gonna be frank with you on this one Big Red, I, like millions of other Oilers fans, have abandoned hope that we’re ever going to see another meaningful game of hockey played in the month of April without divine intervention. Our coach is a one man blunder factory who ESPN recently named the worst bench boss in the NHL, our current GM doesn’t seem to have a long term plan or know what he’s doing (an affliction also suffered by his two predecessors), we’re saddled with the worst team president in the history of, well, ever, and an owner whose indifference to the strained loyalty of the team’s suffering fans is bordering on being criminally reckless. Even the most hardcore fan and the loudest team apologists have given up. It’s isn’t like we haven’t had opportunities to right the ship that’s been sinking for nine consecutive years Santa, but we seem to have gone out of our way to squander each and every one of them. I fear if you can’t fit a small miracle under Oiler Nation’s collective Christmas tree, the playoffs will become a permanent pipe dream and we’ll be forced to sustain ourselves on the memories of our long distant glory years.

1.  This might be the biggest one of all to ask for Santa, but if you can swing it, how about a few comfortable years of remission for Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray? Things aren’t looking too bright for Mr. Murray as he battles stage four cancer and both he and his doctors have admitted that at this point the best anyone can do is manage the situation. There are few guys out there in professional sports as classy as Mr. Murray, and if anyone in the NHL currently deserves a miracle of this size, it’s him. If you can only pull off one thing on this list Santa, it should be this one and I’ll make you a deal; if you can swing this particular stocking stuffer, I’ll leave out an extra large plate of double stuff Oreos.

Shayne Kempton

NORTHERN DRAFT

MY ARMCHAIR SELECTIONS FOR CANADA’S TEAMS IN TOMORROW’S ANNUAL NHL ENTRY DRAFT

     Has it been a year already? It just seems like yesterday that I was cheering the Edmonton Oilers selection of Darnell Nurse in the first round (as a long-suffering Oilers fan, draft day is about the only I get to look forward to on the NHL calendar).  Tomorrow marks the beginning of yet another busy off-season for the NHL as the league holds the first round of its annual entry draft in Philadelphia (rounds two through seven follow Saturday), and while there are always a few surprises on the draft floor (seriously, did anyone expect Seth Jones would fall to fourth last year?), this year promises a little more intrigue than most.   The teams that finished in the League basement will be looking to pick up a future star or maybe even a franchise player to build around with an eye on a quick (or in the case of the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and New York islanders an eventual) return to respectability while other organizations will focus on collecting assets and potential building blocks for the future. This draft is a little different though, as there’s no definite consensus name that tops the prospect list. Instead, a handful of players have emerged as potential first overall picks, making predictions even tougher. And since there are few things I enjoy more than playing armchair GM, I’ve decided to offer my totally unqualified advice on which young player Canada’s NHL teams should pick up in this weekend’s draft.

Edmonton Oilers: In an ideal world, the perpetually rebuilding Oilers would be able to draft Barrie Colts standout defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but the odds that the top rated d-man in this year’s draft will still be available when Craig MacTavish takes the podium to make the third selection falls somewhere between zero and none (and Florida’s asking price for the first overall pick is apparently stratospheric). But center Leon Draisaitl is a pretty nice consolation prize. He’s been described as the “German Gretzky” and the fact that 67 of his 105 points last season on a weak Prince Albert Raiders team were assists speaks volumes about his skills as a smart, slick playmaker.   Draisaitl isn’t a power forward, but at 6’1 and 208 lbs., he has pretty good size and doesn’t get pushed around. He’s also drawn comparisons to Jaromir Jagr for how well he protects the puck and he looks like the kind of elite playmaking talent that could develop instant chemistry with a pure sniper like Nail Yakupov. Throw Taylor Hall on the left-wing of that line and the Oilers may just start to demand some respect from their opponents’ blue line.

Calgary Flames: With the fourth overall selection, the Flames will draft someone with the first name Sam. What their last name is depends on who’s still available. If Sam Bennett is still on the board, expect the Flames to pounce on the Kingston Frontenacs star, whose combination of skill, speed, tenacity, hockey I.Q. and sheer competitive spirit have drawn comparisons to Doug Gilmour (upon hearing the comparisons, the Hall of Famer replied that he was never as good a skater as Bennett). If Bennett’s gone when Flames GM Brad Treliving announces his pick, expect them to go with Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart. Reinhart’s older brother Max is already in the Flames system and was one of only two prospects to score 100 or more points with his junior team last season (both he and Draisaitl collected 105 last season) A natural center, Reinhart also plays a strong, smart two-way game. But rest assured, whichever Sam the Flames add will form a strong one-two punch with 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan down Calgary’s middle.

Vancouver Canucks: After years dominating the regular season (and only three seasons removed from being a Stanley Cup finalist), the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in uncharted territory with the sixth overall pick. A new regime is calling the shots in Vancouver, as longtime Canuck captain and fan favourite Trevor Linden has taken over the duties as President, Jim Benning has taken over as GM and John Tortorella has been replaced by Willie Desjardins as head coach. The most interesting one of the three is Desjardins, whose been described as a teacher who possesses strong communication skills with young players. And that’s why if I were the Canucks, I might take a chance on Nick Ritchie. The physically imposing right-winger is a beast (6’2, 230 lbs.) with plenty of hockey skill, collecting 74 points in 61 games with the Peterborough Petes last season. There have been some questions about his commitment on a nightly basis, but that’s where the Canucks new player friendly, communicating coach could come in handy. The Canucks need some talented size up front, especially with Ryan Kesler’s inevitable departure, and in a season or two, Ritchie could well be lining up on a line with the Sedins.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Odds are that the Leafs aren’t going to draft anyone with the eighth overall pick that will be able step in right away and be the difference maker they need at any position, but Toronto could do worse than drafting Red Deer Rebel defenseman Haydn Fleury. After Ekblad, Fleury is the next highest rated blue liner in this year’s draft and he’s an efficient combination of size (6’2, 205 lbs.), skill and poise. He’ll need a season or two before he makes the jump to the show, but he’s the kind of defenseman that plays his way into a team’s top four and stays there for years. And if Toronto’s late season implosion proved anything, it’s that defensive stability is something the Leafs are in desperate need of.

Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is in need of some elite scoring up front, especially if this is the summer they decide to trade much-maligned winger Evander Kane. If he’s still available, Willie Nylander (son of long time NHLer Michael Nylander) would fit that bill and then some. Not the biggest player at 5’11 and 170 lbs., Nylander more than makes up for it with his game breaking skill. His skillset is dynamic enough that he can play both center and right-wing at an impact level, making him even more valuable. Even though he spent all season playing against men for various squads in Sweden, he’ll probably need a season of North American hockey to adjust to the difference in speed and style. But once he does, watch out. He’d be the perfect compliment to Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg.

Montreal Canadiens: Not only has Montreal built the foundation of a strong team (they went from drafting third overall in 2012 to playing in the third round of this year’s playoffs), but they’ve guaranteed themselves a bright future by locking up most of their young pieces long-term (you can bet that when P.K. Subban signs on the dotted line of a new contract this summer, it’ll be for seven or eight years), as well as assembling a shiny collection of prospects. And if Red Deer captain Connor Bleackley is still available when the Habs draft twenty-sixth, they should think long and hard about adding him to their prospect cupboard.   A natural leader with character, heart and work ethic, Bleakely is tailor-made to center a contending team’s third line (with second line potential) while wearing the C. This is the type of player teams need to win championships.

Ottawa Senators: As it stands, the Sens don’t have a first round pick this year (it goes to Anaheim as part of last summer’s Bobby Ryan trade) but if Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko is still hanging around when the Sens draft at number forty, they should definitely snap up the highest rated goalie in this year’s draft (remember, last year’s highest rated net minder, Zach Fucale, went 36th to the Montreal Canadiens, so crazier things have happened). If Demko is gone, the Sens should look at Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom or Finn Kaapo Kahkonen. Ottawa looks like they’re on the cusp of a rebuild, and successful rebuilds almost always start from the net out, so getting a strong goalie prospect or two right off the bat can’t hurt. The Sens would have the luxury of giving whichever goalie they draft a season or two of development before taking them pro, which is never a bad thing for any prospect but especially for the game’s masked men.

Shayne Kempton

 

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley Cup graces the front entrance of Edmonton’s Rexall Place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

25 YEARS AGO TODAY, THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADED THE GREAT ONE, WAYNE GRETZKY HIMSELF, TO THE LOS ANGELES KINGS IN A DEAL THAT SHOOK ONE NATION TO ITS VERY FOUNDATION AND BROUGHT HOCKEY ALIVE IN ANOTHER

     It was one of those “where were you” moments that happen a handful of times in a generation, the kind where history slaps you in the face to remind you whose running the show.  It was one of those iconic events where you can tell people for the rest of your life where you were when it happened because your memory preserved every detail with brutal clarity.  One of those moments where you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren exactly what you doing when history hit the fan and the world stopped making sense.  The beginning or end of a war; a president, civil rights leader or musician being assassinated; a space shuttle exploding without warning as it touched the heavens.  For most of the world, August 9th, 1988 passed like any other, but in Canada, people from coast to coast to coast spent most of it glued to their television sets, sitting transfixed and unbelieving as they witnessed our National Passion (a National Obsession for many) became an export, a commodity shipped south of the border to a ravenous American empire, changing our game and indeed our very identity as a country forever.

Sounds a little much, right?  A tad excessive to say the least?  Normally you’d be right and you’d be forgiven if you dismissed the previous paragraph as an extra-large serving of hyperbole tossed in a blender with a generous amount of fresh cow manure; a BS shake, so to speak.  Many would find it justifiably offensive to lump the day the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in with Pearl Harbor or the space Shuttle Discovery Disaster.  And normally I’d agree with you, but the fact is when Gretzky, along with teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, became Los Angeles Kings, Canada’s entire landscape shifted forever.

You have to be able to grasp hockey’s importance to Canada at the time to truly understand the relevance of this date.  Gretzky himself summed up Canadians relationship with hockey perfectly.  “In Canada,” he once remarked, “you go to church and you play hockey.”  That may actually be selling it short; Canada is full of atheists who’ll never set foot in a church but there’s a chance most are hockey fans.  The fact is that it’s impossible to find a metaphor that accurately describes how important hockey is to the Great White North.  Sharing the world’s longest friendly border with the richest, mightiest and loudest super power history has ever seen for the better part of a century and a half has nurtured a healthy humility in Canadians, but it’s also burdened us with a mean inferiority complex.  But nothing is so distinctly Canadian, nothing is bound so tightly with our national sense of self as the sport of hockey is.  During the Super Series against the Soviet Union in 1972, the day of the final game was an unofficial holiday north of the border, businesses closed up shop and teachers wheeled television sets into classrooms so their students could watch.  When Canada and the United States clashed for the gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the CBC reported ratings somewhere in the upper stratosphere.  And when the NHL returned from a year-long lockout in 2005, Canada’s public broadcaster tossed all of their previous records out the window as Canadian viewers rushed back to Hockey Night in Canada with savage enthusiasm.  While less than a quarter of the NHL’s teams currently call Canada home, we supply the league with nearly half its revenue and over half its talent.  And those numbers barely scratch the surface of how important the game is to us Canucks.  Hockey is imprinted on our DNA like few other things are.  Which is why the Gretzky trade rattled us so deeply.

Gretzky wasn’t the only future legend the Oilers boasted in the 1980’s, and while number 99 was a once in a lifetime player, he was the centerpiece of a once in a lifetime collection of talent.  They were known as the Boys on the Bus and they were responsible for more nightmares among NHL goalies than Stephen King, George A. Romero and Cold War paranoia combined.  But if Edmonton was a symphony of divine talent, Gretzky was the maestro, conducting the Oilers with surgical brilliance.  The Great One was often knocked for his lack of size (in the days before personal trainers and home gyms) and his skating was often criticized as being average at best.  But Gretzky’s true gift was his uncanny timing, his innate awareness of where everyone was on the ice at any given moment.  He was once quoted as saying that the secret to his success wasn’t knowing where the puck was, but knowing where it was going to be.  He thought the game at a higher level, the way a grandmaster thinks chess miles beyond his opponents.  Gretzky made a habit out of winning Stanley Cups and re-writing the record book, and he made it look easy.   And not only was he Canadian, but he also played for a small market Canadian team.  He belonged, without a doubt, to Canada.  Until that fateful day, exactly a quarter century ago today.

To add a little extra context to the tale, Canada was in the middle of the fierce Free Trade debate at the time, with millions of Canadians genuinely afraid that the trade agreement with the United States threatened Canada’s economic and cultural sovereignty.  Having fifteen million American greenbacks coming back to Edmonton as part of the return for the Great One ramped up the conspiracy whispers that Gretzky had simply been auctioned off to Big American Business and that the rest of Canada’s national treasures would follow.   The trade dominated the headlines of Canadian papers for weeks afterwards and Kings owner Bruce McNall and Gretzky’s new bride Janet Jones became Canada’s public enemy number one, their names cursed in newspaper editorials and on radio call in shows.  Fans held protests outside Northlands Coliseum and then Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was burned in effigy.  NDP House Leader Nelson Riis even demanded that the Canadian government declare Gretzky a national symbol and block the trade.

It wasn’t the biggest trade in NHL history (that honour goes to the Eric Lindros deal that was completed by the Quebec Nordiques and the Philadelphia Flyers just a few years later), but it is without question the most important.  Up until that time, Gretzky was promoting the NHL from the frozen tundra of Alberta.  Now that he was in L.A. and playing in the shadow of Hollywood, the game’s American popularity exploded like a dying sun.  Celebrity spotting became a new past time at Kings games and overnight hockey had become the new cool thing among Tinseltown’s trend setters.  When Gretzky was traded in 1988, the NHL boasted 14 American clubs.  Twenty-five years later, through expansion and relocation, 23 teams now reside in American zip codes, including two more clubs in California, two in Florida and teams in Dallas, Phoenix, Nashville and Carolina, markets the NHL never dreamt of penetrating before The Trade.  And in the wake of Gretzky’s tearful migration south, the United States various amateur hockey programs have improved so much that Canada’s southern neighbours now challenge the Great White North’s previously unquestioned dominance on a regular basis.   None of that could have happened unless Wayne Gretzky had worn a Kings jersey.

Edmonton still managed to win another Stanley Cup despite trading the Great One, capturing Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice in 1990.  But since then it’s been pretty grim for the Oilers and their fans.  They’ve only qualified for the playoffs seven times in the last 21 seasons.  And while they were the NHL’s Cinderella story the last time they did make the post-season, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, they currently own the longest active playoff drought in the League, missing the playoffs the last seven seasons in a row.  The closest Gretzky came to Stanley Cup glory after the Trade was leading the Kings to the Cup finals in 1993, where they were embarrassed by Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games.  When he retired in 1999, the four Stanley Cup rings in his trophy case were all won as a member of the Oilers.  The Great One captured Canada’s collective heart once again in 2002 when he was the most public architect of Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team in Salt Lake City (ending over half a century without Olympic gold), but being an owner and NHL head coach didn’t work out too well in his post-retirement days and the Great One has been pretty silent hockey-wise the last few years.  He leaves behind a legacy of untouchable records though, and remains the biggest reason why hockey was able to plant roots and grow in the United States.

Volumes have been written about the deal that sent Gretzky and company to L.A., and whenever the Trade celebrates a significant anniversary, magazines, newspapers and sports shows run lengthy pieces commemorating it and examining the impact it had.  The question of which team won the deal has been asked until the question has lost meaning, but the truth is the real winner was the game of hockey.  It’s true that August 9th symbolized the end of one era and the beginning of another, when hockey stopped being just a game and became big business.  It also marked the beginning of the game’s explosion of growth in the United States and what it all boils down to is that if, for whatever rhyme or reason, the Edmonton Oilers hadn’t traded Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings on this day a quarter of a century ago, the game wouldn’t exist today as we know it, a multi billion dollar entertainment empire that spans continents and stretches across generations.  Make no mistake, the game would still exist, but you can bet all the money in your mattress that the financial pie the owners and players wind up squabbling over every seven years or so would be a lot smaller and the game would have to settle for a much smaller stage.

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end, Canada shed a lot of tears with Wayne that steamy August day in ’88 (“I promised Mess I wasn’t going to do this,”), but Canada survived and hockey in the Proud North is doing just fine.  The Trade laid the groundwork that allowed hockey to spread and reach new heights of success and popularity.  There have been plenty of bumps along the way, but it was this deal that built the road in the first place.  And the purists can rest easy, the game of hockey still bears one, undeniable label.  It reads Made in Canada.  And no trade will ever change that.

Shayne Kempton

AN UNTOUCHABLE LEGACY