The jersey lay there on the ice, crumpled in an unceremonious heap. It had been thrown from the stands and landed at the top of the circle after a 6-0 Edmonton Oilers loss, discarded and left for the rink attendant to toss away.
It was a home blue Oilers jersey. Ales Hemsky’s No. 83, with an alternate captain’s ‘A.’ Likely $250 worth of jersey, abandoned like any hopes for the 2013-14 season, a parting shot from a Rexall Place fan base that can’t stand the losing anymore.
This franchise has given its fans one playoff berth in the past 10 seasons, inheriting the Toronto Maple Leafs record of futility with the longest playoff drought (this will be nine years) in the NHL. There has not been a .500 team here since 2008-09, and this club — in year four of what was supposed to be a rebuild — is the worst edition ever, currently playing .328 hockey. No Oilers team in the 34-year history of the franchise has been this futile.
The Edmonton Oilers — groan — are in 29th place again. The season was over before it started. New coach, new GM, same old laughing stock.
Have your stupid jersey, Kevin Lowe. Craig MacTavish. Daryl Katz. Taylor Hall.
Whoever wore it with pride to the game didn’t want it anymore after watching yet another display of utter inability to compete with one of the NHL’s good teams. Another night when Edmonton knocked on the door a few times, didn’t get invited in by the St. Louis Blues, so it quit and went away.
(Editor’s note: It is not known if that Oilers fan had watched the Calgary Flames effort in Pittsburgh earlier in the day, when the Flames gave the mighty Penguins everything they could handle in a 4-3 loss. But it is quietly killing Oilers fans to see the level of guts and effort being displayed by the Flames, while their own club rolls over so easily. And then MacTavish trades Ladislav Smid to Calgary. Sheesh…)
Inside the organization they chart some marginal progress: A strong first period versus St. Louis; a good game in Anaheim, lost on a late goal; 40 strong minutes where Edmonton outplayed and outscored Boston 2-0, yet lost the game 4-2 on an empty-netter.
Dallas Eakins has only been the head coach here for 38 games, however. MacTavish, despite his long history in the organization, has only been the general manager for this season. And this is where the disconnect begins.
Fans look at their team in the big picture. This year’s losses mount upon last
year’s and the seasons before, whereas hockey men are focused on singular games, or at most, a “segment” of three or five games. Joe the Jersey Thrower doesn’t want to hear about “a strong 40 minutes” when he’s been writing $10,000 checks for season tickets for the past decade, rewarded with one measly playoff run.
The fan’s monetary input is consistent, his love for the jersey everlasting, even now. Eakins’ frustration, meanwhile, is just three months old. It is a dichotomy that can alienate the fan.
“I totally understand that,” Eakins said. “I just came from an organization (Toronto) where I saw that, and I felt it.”
Eakins bit off way more than he thought in taking this job. He has been humbled by an 11-24-3 record, and hears the taunts around town and online.
“Do I see quietly progress in players and in our game? I do. But I understand how the people in this city are saying … ‘You’ve been losing for seven years,’” he said. “They look at the jersey, the colours. They have a great right [to be irate]. It’s a passion in the market. I’d much rather they be really pissed off right now than to not care at all.
“From myself, to Craig, to the players we are trying to grow.... Believe me, there is no stone being unturned right now.”
So, when does it all begin to turn around? Well, Oilers fan, we’ve got bad news, and we’ve got bad news. Which do you want first?
First, your team is as bad as it looks. The defence does not have a legit Top 3 blue-liner among them right now, the roster is way too small, and your best players are trying to learn how to play a proper National Hockey League game without many teammates who really have a clue themselves.
MacTavish isn’t trading Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz or Nail Yakupov unless it’s the kind of deal that brings back Shea Weber. Which is a pipe dream.
Collecting big, good players in the cap system is a painstakingly slow process. At the trading deadline, you collect some draft picks for the Hemskys and Ilya Bryzgalovs, because playoff-bound teams aren’t coughing up Top-2 defencemen. Then you head to the draft, and into free agency, and try to fill one hole at a time.
A rookie GM made some mistakes, particularly on his blue-line, and that will have to change. But even if Craig MacTavish bats 1.000 on his transactions (which he won’t — none do), he’s still got a long ways to go to build a contender here.
Patience is required, still. And an extra jersey or two.