EDMONTON — There was a time when surviving the first 10 minutes of a playoff game at old Chicago Stadium — and only trailing 1-0 — was a small victory for the visiting team. It was a building that defined home-ice advantage, a bricks-and-mortar intangible that has been passed on to the newer, bigger United Centre, even if somewhat diluted.
A Chicago hockey rink is the only sporting venue in my 30 years in the business where fans are encouraged to make noise all the way through the national anthem, with a hair-raising crescendo when Wayne Messmer, and now giant Jim Cornelison, bellowed, “and the rocket’s RED GLAAARE!”
Meanwhile, back in Edmonton, we are a one-horse sports town. So, as Ken Hitchcock likes to say, the opponent isn’t playing against 20 Oilers players, or 18,000 fans inside an arena. “You’re playing against a million Oiler fans,” Hitchcock used to say.
As the Oilers get their heads around a play-in series against the Blackhawks, the hockey world will have to get used to playoff hockey without the usual fan-infused electricity. Two teams playing in a neutral city with zero fans in the rink.
It’s everything we’ve come to love about playoff hockey, except for the part where the fans shape the momentum.
“Have you watched The Last Dance, with Michael Jordan?” Darnell Nurse queried on a Zoom call Thursday about how the players will create their own electricity. “I think that’s a perfect example — his mindset in a lot of those game of creating your own environment, creating your own fire. That’s a test that everyone who is in this situation is going to have to go through: Having to create your own excitement.”
For a long as I can remember, players would declare that after a couple of shifts, a solid body check given or received, anything happening in the stands fades to a blur. Whether it was the Montreal Forum, old Reunion Arena in Dallas, or the Boston Garden — after a while, the game is simply the game.
But will the opposite energy flow work the same way? Will 18,000 empty seats simply become the same white noise that it did when they were filled with screaming fans?
“There shouldn’t be a whole lot that you need to get you going, because you are still playing for a Stanley Cup,” Nurse said. “Yes, there are no fans there, and you might be in a hub city. But there is an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. That should be enough motivation to get anyone going. There are a lot of challenges, a lot of things that are not ideal that come along with this situation. But, that’s the world. The world is in that position right now.
“So, the Stanley Cup should be all the fire you need. It’s another test. You can look at it as another challenge that makes going through this whole process as hard as it’s going to be. That’s the whole other tier to it.”
It is more impactful when the home team scores, their fans go wild, they score again, and the momentum is taken hostage in an environment that makes a comeback seem so distant and difficult?
Or is it about that old hockey axiom, ‘Takin’ the crowd out of the game’? Is that momentum, earned by 20 against 20,000, even more difficult to create? Even more valuable to hold?
Connor McDavid just knows that a series against the Blackhawks will come without raucous anthems and Chi-Town steakhouses, hockey played at its purest with no outside influences.
“Obviously Chicago is one of the most fun buildings to play in. Their fans are great but I’d like to think our fans are better,” he said. “So there’s definitely going to be some loss of home-ice advantage for sure. All you’ll get is the last change or whatnot. Yeah, it’s not going be the same. There’s no doubt about that.
“It sucks, frankly, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get back playing hockey and I’m sure those fans will be cheering loud in their living rooms or wherever they’re watching from. I think it’ll suck but we’ve got to what we’ve got to do.”
That’s not all that “sucks” from an Edmonton standpoint.
While Boston Bruins president Cam Neely finds the playoff format “somewhat disappointing,” with his league-leading Bruins forced to play a round-robin that will seed the top four teams in each Conference, the Oilers got an even worse break. They are the only NHL team that stood second in their Division to be forced to play a qualifying round series, losing out to the Dallas Stars on point percentage.
McDavid was on the Return to Play Committee. Was it tough to endorse a format that gave the Oilers a bad shake?
“No, it wasn’t tough, honestly,” McDavid said. “Everyone on that committee — everyone around the league — has to take a step back and say, ‘What’s best for the league?’ Not, ‘What’s best for me and my team?’
“We (Oilers) were in a position where we were going to be included in any format, so that was a positive. Unfortunately, we were one of those teams that were on the bubble of being in the top four, or being in the play-ins. We’re not in the top four, and Dallas probably deserves to be there. So we’ll get the job done, and hopefully move on to an exciting playoffs.”
Exciting to watch. But they’ll be weird at the same time.