EDMONTON — It is a cliché to say that one team has the best fans in the National Hockey League, or that one city loves its hockey team more than another. What does differ, however, is what a team’s success means to its town.
How many of the citizens are invested, and how deeply?
Example: The atmosphere inside the SAP Center in San Jose is fantastic, but in a city of just over one million people, how many are hockey fans first?
How many are Sharks fanatics, as opposed to flipping channels between the Sharks and the Golden State Warriors? Maybe 50,000? One hundred thousand?
Now, let’s compare that to a Western Canadian city hat has filled its building for years, yet has not witnessed its team play a playoff game since 2006.
As the San Jose Sharks arrived in Edmonton Tuesday afternoon to begin their Round 1 series against the Oilers, they would have passed the homes of 100,000 Oilers fans before the bus was one-third of the way from the airport to the hotel.
“You can feel it when you come in from the airport,” said displaced Edmontonian Ken Hitchcock, the Dallas Stars head coach whose teams met the Oilers in the playoffs in six of the seven springs between 1997 and 2003.
The Oilers won their first meeting when Todd Marchant scored in Game 7 at old Reunion Arena in Dallas, but the Stars never again dropped a series to Edmonton. Somehow playing Edmonton was a bigger struggle than it should have been for those talent-laden Stars, perhaps because of what those series meant to the local populace.
“When you come to play playoff hockey in Canada, in particular in the West,” Hitchcock began, “you have to have a clear understanding that you’re not just playing against 20 other players. You’re playing against a whole city, and you’d better understand that or you’re going to get overwhelmed by it.
“I was not ready for it my first year (1997), when we lost in overtime of Game 7. But I sure as hell was ready for it the next four years,” he said. “At times it was almost overwhelming. I had good friends who wouldn’t speak to me. People I grew up with who wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“I was born and raised in Edmonton, and it was uncomfortable just to go out and get a coffee. They weren’t honking to say hello, and I’ve never got so many one-fingered salutes in my life… Nothing in the regular season, but as soon as the playoffs started, it was ‘Game on.’”
Here, when little known Oilers winger Fernando Pisani went on his “Chris Kontos-like” run in the 2006 playoffs, you simply had to stroll down 95th street, past Giovanni Caboto Park and the Spinelli’s Italian Centre Shop, to find an uncle or cousin of Pisani talking hockey, having cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe.
With a $75,000 holdover from an unclaimed prize in March, the 50/50 at Game 1 will likely exceed a quarter of a million dollars, with free-spending folks reaching into their cups and feeling lucky. Meanwhile, if Raptors-Cavaliers means anything to you on Wednesday night, you’re staying home. There isn’t a bar in the 780 area code that would devote a screen to basketball with the Oilers in the playoffs.
With apologies to the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, this a one-horse sports town — in a one-horse sports country, some might say.
There are over a million people in Edmonton’s metro area and, we would venture, more than 900,000 Oilers fans, with no NFL, NBA, MLB or NCAA teams to split the pie.
“It’s not only that,” said Edmonton winger Jordan Eberle. “I’m from Saskatchewan and I grew up as a huge Oilers fan. They don’t have NHL hockey, so you get to kind of pick your team there.”
Although the oil patch brought Canadians in to Northern Alberta from coast to coast, Edmonton is still very much a town full of Edmontonians. More so than Calgary, with its proximity to the Rockies, Edmonton is a place you either stay in or you leave — not so much a city people come to.
As such, the blue and orange runs deep here. Every bit as deeply as the blue and white does in Toronto or the red, blanc et bleu in Montreal.
“Oiler fans are passionate, they’re faithful,” Eberle said, with a grin that belied he was making a pretty obvious statement. “They’ve been with us even though it’s been a struggle.
“It’s Canada. Hockey is a religion here.”
It is a religion indeed, and after 11 years away this hockey town can’t wait to get to church.