‘Incredible to witness’: Edmonton going wild for Oilers during Cup comeback

Edmonton Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch discusses his team's resiliency throughout the regular season and the playoffs and how those difficult situations have helped them bounce back after dropping the first three games in the Stanley Cup Final.

EDMONTON — All the houses were dark in Imperial, Saskatchewan when the senior Sabres were hosting a big game in the Wheatland Senior Hockey League. The street was empty.

“Everyone was at one location, and it was around the hockey rink,” Imperial native and Edmonton Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch remembers. “All the cars were parked there. Everyone’s there. That’s where the excitement is.”

On Friday night, that’s what Edmonton, Alberta will be.

A metro area of roughly 1.5 million people will quiet down for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final the way Imperial does when the Sabres host the Porcupine Plain Blues in a best-of-five.

It will be Bonnyville, Alta., when the Pontiacs are playing in the North Central Senior League. Or Houston, B.C. when the Luckies hit the ice on a Friday night.

With apologies to the CFL Elks, summer baseball Riverhawks and basketball Stingers, this is a one-horse sports town.

The Oilers are the Dolphins here. They are our Yankees, our Cowboys.

“For us, for our team to be a part of that — playing in that game where so many people are interested in what happens… We’re thrilled,” said Knoblauch. “We’re thrilled to be part of that last game being played in Canada, but we’ll also be very thrilled to be playing that last game — which is going to be a Game 7, hopefully.”

You could hold a poker game in the middle of the Whitemud Drive Friday night, so long as you started at about 6:30 p.m. MT. You could have the run of West Edmonton Mall, assuming it doesn’t close for the night.

But you can’t walk into Kelly’s Pub and get a table.

“The phone’s been ringing off the book. We’re completely booked,” said Scott Krebes, a long-time staffer at this friendly sports pub on 104th Street, a short walk from Rogers Place.

He holds up a seating chart that has been assailed by a Sharpie.  Every table is circled: 152 seats inside, 60 on the patio — all spoken for.

“Everyone hoped we’d get this far, after a couple tough series, especially with Dallas,” Krebes said. “Getting to this point, and then being down 3-0, no one ever really gave up hope. Everyone stayed with the team.

“We knew we were going to win Game 4 here. (Game 5) was unbelievable. Downtown, the streets… Everything was Oiler jerseys, shirts, hats. Everyone and their dog.”

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On Friday, the Oilers will play their last game of the season at home. No matter what, they have extended the 2023-24 home schedule as far as possible — all the way to the summer solstice of June 21, a night when you can hit a golf ball at 11 p.m. here and easily find it.

They say sunrise arrives at about 5 a.m., and sunset at just after 10 p.m. But in reality, the sun dips below the horizon like a ladle skimming the cream off of farm milk. It never gets completely dark before the sun peaks up again.

An Edmonton winter, with darkness from 4:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., is like a solitary confinement. But spring time with a hockey team that is two wins from a Stanley Cup?

There will be more people outside at watch parties on Friday night than the nearly 19,000 inside Rogers Place. And that’s just downtown.

You’ve got to be here to truly get it.

“It’s pretty incredible to witness,” said veteran winger Corey Perry. “Coming in for the playoffs (as a visitor with Anaheim) the two years, you don’t know because you’re not from here. You don’t really pay attention to it.

“But you really see what’s going on around the city here now. All the people outside, the watch parties. You can hear them honking the horns when we’re in our dressing room. It’s pretty special, pretty tremendous to be here.”

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A 40-year-old Edmontonian has grown up on a firehose of Glory Years stories from their dad, and a one-off run in 2006 that was as brief as it was magical. He/she has survived the Decade of Darkness, and had their favourite player dubbed “Captain Canada,” because Ryan Smyth’s Oilers were done so early each year that he was a regular at the world championship.

Today, wearing a Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl jersey comes with both pride and fear that all those other fan bases are right. That they’re going to go somewhere better as soon as they can.

But as the team finds success, and we sense those two are in this thing for the long term, these fans have dug in. It’s their time, and even though a regular-season ticket that set you back $160 now costs $980, the rink will be a costume party on Friday.

Face paint will flow like wine at this, the Last Supper for hockey in Canada this season.

McJesus owns this town, his teammates a band of Apostles.

“I actually went to our community league soccer game yesterday for my son,” said defenceman Mattias Ekholm. “He comes running up to me and he goes, ‘Daddy, my teammate wants to meet you.’ Obviously I’ll go meet them, but there is some tricky things that you’ve got to kind of talk to a six-year-old afterwards and say, well ‘this is why.’”

Young William Ekholm will figure it out one day.

His dad is an Oiler in Edmonton. These days, that’s not far off being Mick Jagger in England, or Cristiano Ronaldo in Lisbon.

“For me, it’s just about enjoying it,” said Stuart Skinner, the local kid who tends goal for the Oilers. “It’s really hard to get into a situation like this, and being able to embrace this moment that you’ve worked so hard is really all you can do.”

Embrace it, Stu.

You’ll never play in a place that cares more than they do here. It might as well be Imperial, Alberta.

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