The Oilers have a rich tradition of paying tribute to the Canadian Military.
Off the ice, the organization has partnered with Cenovus to help benefit the Valour Place Family Fund, a military family support house in Edmonton. For every goal the Oilers score, Cenovus is donating $400.00 to the fund, which helps reduce financial barriers for individuals and families who stay at Valour Place.
In addition, last year the Oilers held their community Hockey Clinic at the Four Wing Cold Lake Military Base in Cold Lake, AB. The team also has a history of hosting members of the military at select games as their way of thanking the Canadian Forces.
This season, first-year Head Coach Dallas Eakins has brought a new tradition to the team’s already long-standing relationship with the military.
"We had been looking for something for our team for kind of the player of the game," said Eakins. "We didn't want to copy anything that was out there. There are teams with hard hats and all these different things going on. One night, I was at the Leafs game and they were honouring the troops. I got in my head, 'we should get a military jacket."
After each Oilers win, the player who is deemed the ‘player of the game’ by his teammates will don a military jacket as a salute to the country’s heroes and as a symbol of their own sacrifice and success.
Once it was determined that would be the item of choice, the long search for the perfect military jacket began.
"I started looking for one,” said Eakins. “We'd be on the road and at surplus stores, couldn't quite find the right one, and then a friend of mine who has great connections with the Canadian Military, and had been over to Afghanistan a couple of times, said he had been given a jacket by a soldier. He took it right off his back. He gave me the jacket for our team, so we started using it."
Once the right jacket was found, Eakins decided to test the waters and see if it was something his team in Edmonton would be open to accepting as a part of their culture.
"It was something that I wanted to continue here with the players' consent and see if they had something going already and luckily they didn’t."
It seems like a trivial thing. Most teams hand out game pucks or accolades to the 'player of the game'. But this tradition is a little more special. The symbolism behind the jacket ties into the philosophy of the head coach and what the organization is trying to achieve.
"There's probably no greater example of sacrifice and commitment and supporting each other than the military," said the Oilers bench boss.
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"That's all the jacket is. It's about who you think performed the best with those same virtues in mind. If you're going to have a good game, you've got to be committed. You've got to have all of these attributes that we talk about all the time. That's where it basically came from and I was lucky enough to get a real jacket off of a Canadian soldier's back who was in Afghanistan."
"That's how I presented it the first time. It wasn't, 'Hey, this is a military jacket, this is what it means.' It actually has very real meaning because it was an actual soldier's jacket that he'd been wearing. I think it's important that it is authentic. I'm sure that you could make a non-authentic jacket mean the same. But I think them knowing that this was worn by one of our soldiers is important."
"Talking to friends that have served over in Afghanistan, hockey is a big part of their day and a big part of what they're doing," said Oilers Captain Andrew Ference. "They gather and watch the games and have a lot of rivalries within their units and it's a great release point for them.
“I think it's more of an honour for us, though. It's clear how much sacrifice they put into their lives and it’s absolutely incredible. A lot of our guys have so much respect for that and it's a way for us to honour them. It's an honour for that guy to get the jacket and wear it with pride."
Adding even more to the tradition is the fact that the coaches play a hands-off role in the choosing of the player. It is an internal matter amongst the athletes, who decide for themselves who is next in line to wear the camouflage, a process that Eakins says is very important.
"It just seemed like a natural progression for me.
"I believe that's their dressing room. That's their locker room and very rarely am I in there after a game, win or lose. If they won the game, that's their time to enjoy it. If the game has been lost, I feel it's important for them to live in it and to experience it.
"I want them to make their own choices. We have an experienced coaching staff here and we're here to direct them. But in the end, they almost have to coach each other. They have to grow with each other and trust each other. I thought it was important that the team picks who’s going to be the guy with the jacket, he's the one that's going to hand it off next and it's an important decision for them. Rather than to put it in our hands every night, I want it to be in theirs."
Having the players pick gives them independence and the responsibility to look beyond the stat sheet.
"I think it's an honour no matter what," said Ference. "You don't want to always just go with the guy who scored the winning goal or gets the first star. A lot more goes into that, like guys who block a shot or take a big hit to get the puck out. Plays like that are the ones that don't go unnoticed by the players and coaches a like.”
Whether it’s through a symbolic jacket or hosting a free hockey clinic at the base, the Oilers continue to honour those who have served our great country, and those who continue to put their lives on the line each and every day.
ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN OIL COUNTRY MAGAZINE VOLUME 2