|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
- Last year at this time, Oilers President of Hockey Operations, Kevin Lowe, delivered a special message to the Edmonton Oil Kings:
‘Do it for the 20-year-olds.'
Less than a week later and in their last kick at the can before going their separate ways, Tyler Maxwell, Jordan Peddle and Rhett Rachinski went out as WHL champions.
This year, since the Canadian Hockey League places a cap of three 20-year-old or ‘overage' players per team, TJ Foster, Dylan Wruck and Trevor Cheek are looking to do the same.
"It's awesome to be a part of all this," said Foster, who made his WHL and Oil Kings debut at age 16. "It's obviously very nice to play longer into the year, and to do it as a 20-year-old and to have the opportunity to defend what we accomplished last season, it's very special."
The product of Slave Lake, AB has appeared in 338 career regular-season games with the Oil Kings and was an instrumental cog in the club's championship run last spring.
At 5-foot-11 and 173 pounds, Foster put up 27 goals and a career-high 47 assists this past regular season.
"I'll always remember my time as an Oil King," said Foster. "You don't forget teams and a group of guys like this. I've been through some rough seasons and those are the ones you want to put behind you and move on, but I can honestly say that in 20 years from now, these past two years will still be the highlight of my career."
More than anyone else on the roster, Foster has been through it all. In his sophomore season (2009-10), the Oil Kings won only 16 of 72 games. Progressively improving in the three seasons since, the club is now only three wins away from capturing back-to-back championship titles over the Portland Winterhawks.
"Being through all the ups and down, I think you appreciate it more like this," said Foster. "When you're a young guy on a struggling team, it's tough and it takes the wind out of you a little bit. It was such a grind to stay positive.
"Given where we are now and how far we've come over the years, I'm really appreciating it. It's a little bit like the Ray Bourque situation. He played 21 seasons in the NHL, never made it to the Stanley Cup Final, and then in that last year, he got it done. It was a special moment and it's something that, even as a fan, I'll always remember.
"It would be nice to go out on a similar note."
"I haven't really had a chance to look back on everything," added Wruck, who painfully missed last season's run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup with a shoulder injury. "As a 15-year-old guy coming to camp and getting the chance to play when I was 17, looking back at everything and how far we've come, it's pretty incredible. At times, you're questioning everything you're doing when you win only 16 games in a season. Now being sure of (our ability), being proud of it and getting to play through all the hard times to get to the good times, it's great.
"Going from a 16-win season to playing for it all in back-to-back years, it's pretty special. It's even more special to go to battle with pretty much the same core group of guys we started with a couple years ago."
Wruck, Foster, Michael St. Croix, Keegan Lowe, Travis Ewanyk, Stephane Legault, Mitch Moroz, Griffin Reinhart and Laurent Brossoit all remain from the 2009-10 roster. Today, they're the nucleus of a championship squad poised to repeat.
"Most of our guys don't know what it's like to be on another team, so it comes natural for us to be as close as we are on and off the ice," said Wruck. "We've brought in some guys over the last little while through trade and whatnot, and they're always raving about how much of a family we are. We all get along so well, we're good buddies and we spend a lot of time together.
"That's a quality that good teams have. You need it to push long into the playoffs, which is exactly what we've done these past couple seasons. We're a special group."
The architect of it all, General Manager Bob Green, has done everything possible to make the Oil Kings a winner once again this season. In addition to acquiring Oilers prospect David Musil on defence earlier in the year, he made it a priority to add some additional scoring.
On Jan. 9, the Oil Kings sent a second-round draft pick to the Vancouver Giants in exchange for Trevor Cheek, filling the last overage spot on the roster.
The former Giant and Calgary Hitmen made an immediate impact, scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 31 regular-season games. To this point in the post-season, he's registered eight goals, 16 points and a +17 rating.
Cheek, a Vancouver, Washington native, has missed the past three games and is still day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
"Even though I'm not playing, it's a pretty awesome experience," he said. "To be here, now, in the WHL Final in my 20-year-old season, it's incredible. It's been as fun as it possibly could be. I'd rather be out there on the ice, though, there's no question about it.
"When I got here in January, right off the hop, I felt like I knew everyone in the dressing room. Everyone was so welcoming in making me feel part of the team. It's a great group of guys all around. Everyone's close and everyone hangs out with each other outside of the rink. I couldn't ask for a better situation to be in right now."
A little more than a month ago, Cheek signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche.
That isn't the case for Wruck and Foster. Undrafted and unsigned, it's possible one or both could follow in the footsteps of Rachinski and another ex-Oil King, Jordan Hickmott, by suiting up with the University of Alberta Golden Bears (CIS) next season.
Both players are career Oil Kings that have progressively gotten better over the course of their combined nine seasons and 600+ games. Producing at more than a point-per-game clip in the regular season and playoffs, a professional career isn't at all out of the question.
Only time will tell.
But for now, it's all about the Oil Kings. The WHL Championship Series is currently tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 on Tuesday night (7:00p.m.) at Rexall Place.
"We still have some work to do here," said Wruck. "We didn't play our best two games in Portland, but we'll be ready to go tomorrow night. We were talking about it on the way back to Edmonton. We can't wait to get back and play in front of our fans at Rexall.
"We haven't shown our best in this series yet, but we absolutely will in Games 3 and 4."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick