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Oiler fans crave re-appearance of spring playoff rituals

by Robin Brownlee
EDMONTON -- While Paul Lorieau remembers when Stanley Cup parades on Jasper Avenue seemed a rite of spring for fans of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, he'd happily settle for a chance to rekindle another tradition in a hockey town known as the City of Champions.

With parades marking five Stanley Cups in a span of seven seasons ending in 1990 and all the players who sipped from those Cups during those Dynasty Days -- led by Hall-of-Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr -- long since retired, Lorieau longs for the opportunity to thrust his right arm in the air and listen to Oilers fans sing "O Canada" again.

In idiosyncratic homage to those five Stanley Cup wins, the Edmonton Oilers fans spent the final five home games of the team's Cinderella run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 doing a rousing rendition of O'Canada, threatening to make Lorieau, Edmonton's anthem singer since 1981, almost irrelevant.

Not that Lorieau was complaining. With Edmonton missing the playoffs the past four seasons, Lorieau has had little company in singing the Canadian anthem before Oilers games at Rexall Place. He is just waiting for the chance to let fans take over again.

"I was overwhelmed," said Lorieau, who first raised his microphone May 23 during the 2006 Western Conference Finals against Anaheim at a rowdy and sold-out Rexall Place. "I never dreamed we would have that kind of response."

The tradition of Lorieau letting the fans carry his tune began when Anaheim fans booed during the Canadian anthem in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Final. When the series returned to Edmonton with the Oilers leading the series 2-0, fans responded.

"They treated us in a negative fashion and that was part of the equation," said Lorieau.

Edmonton fans aren't the first to take over the microphone. Vancouver anthem singer Mark Donnelly turned his duties over to Canucks fans during the 2003 playoffs against the Minnesota Wild.

Fans at Rexall Place might have done them one better, though, as they not only belted out "O Canada," but took a good run at the "Star-Spangled Banner" as well, which surprised several Anaheim players. At the time, there was an image of Anaheim goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov grinning at the spectacle on the video replay screen over center ice.

"It was pretty cool," said Shawn Horcoff. "If it makes it more exciting for the fans who come to the games, I'm all for it."

The 2006 playoffs saw the start of another short-lived tradition for Edmonton fans -- flinging Alberta beef at Oilers games home and away.

It began before the first game of the Oilers' first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. As an answer to octopus-throwing Red Wings fans, Edmonton backers came to The Joe packing beef. By the time Karen Newman finished "O Canada," two slabs of Alberta Grade A had skidded onto the ice.

"They're the greatest fans. You look at last year when we went through as much as we did. I can't remember any games where the people don't come."
-- Shawn Horcoff

When the eighth-seeded Oilers shocked the Red Wings by getting a split with a 4-2 Game 2 win after an opening 3-2 double-overtime loss in Game 1, the steak-throwers had all the momentum they needed. Beef found its way onto the ice in all 24 games the Oilers played that postseason.

"They threw the beef in Detroit and we won. I think it's an awesome idea," former Oiler Georges Laraque said when the team returned to face the Red Wings at Rexall Place for Game 3. "Edmonton has better fans than Detroit. What better way to rub it in their faces than by throwing a big Alberta steak onto the ice? It gets people revved up."

There have been other fan traditions in Edmonton, of course, with most of them linked to the playoffs, particularly that 2006 roller-coaster ride.

While Jasper Avenue and the downtown area was the party place of choice for fans in the 1980s, most of the action shifted to trendy Whyte Avenue as the Oilers beat the Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and the Ducks to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Some of the celebrating went way over the top, as huge crowds got out of hand and had clashes with police more than once, with the riotous acts of a small percentage of revelers drawing national attention.

The other tradition born during the 2005-06 season and the playoffs of that campaign was the sell-out. Even with the anthem singing and the beef throwing on hold with the Oilers out of the playoffs four seasons in a row, the Oilers have played in front of 200 consecutive crowds of 16,839, dating to Nov. 29, 2005.

"They're the greatest fans," Horcoff said. "You look at last year when we went through as much as we did. I can't remember any games where the people don't come.

"You look around the League and you see teams that weren't doing half as bad as we were and they don't have anyone in there."

This brings the matter of tradition back to Lorieau, who admits he's longing to hear another sold-out rink belt out the anthem for him.

"We haven't done it since 2006," Lorieau said. "We decided it should just be for the playoffs. If the team gets back into the playoffs, we'll see it again."
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