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Hockey's home in Oklahoma

by Jen Sharpe / Edmonton Oilers
Barons forward Liam Reddox skates into the offensive zone during the team's first-ever game Saturday, October 9, 2010. (Photo by Steve Christy).

After an 18-month hiatus, pro hockey returned to Oklahoma City this past weekend when the Barons dropped the puck at Cox Convention Center.

As Edmonton's American Hockey League affiliate, the Barons are stacked with some of the Oilers most promising prospects along with bonafide AHL stars. Names Edmontonians are familiar with, like Alex Plante, Taylor Chorney, Linus Omark and Johan Motin, took to the ice with experienced leaders like Brad Moran, Alexandre Giroux, and Martin Gerber.

The result was a game that Oklahoma had never seen: flashy, fast, and backed by two NHL organizations, the Oilers and the Minnesota Wild, who's affiliate, the Houston Aeros, filled the role of opponent.

From the facilities to the fans to the first-round picks, Saturday's season-opener confirmed that Oklahoma City will soon be recognized as one of the AHL's most desirable cities to play and watch a game.

According to Oilers General Manager Steve Tambellini, the game was the culmination of years of committed teamwork and the start of a new era of organizational player development.

"From a player development standpoint, this is probably the single-most important thing throughout our organization -- how we draft, how we develop players," Tambellini explained. "We put them in an environment like this that's competitive, that's supportive, that's in a teaching mode, so that one day, by the time they're ready and we feel they're ready, they can walk into an Oiler atmosphere and be ready to go.

"Being able to see our players here in front of a great crowd tonight in a perfect American Hockey League arena, it's a great feeling."

From a Barons perspective, the partnership is a perfect fit.

"It's been unbelievable all the work that's gone into it over the past year with the Oilers and the hockey staff and the players coming in here in the past couple of weeks," Barons GM Bill Scott said. "With the exception of the three rookies (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi) up there in Edmonton, the Oklahoma City Barons are going to be the future of the Oilers."

Being able to see our players here in front of a great crowd tonight in a perfect American Hockey League arena, it's a great feeling. - GM Steve Tambellini
"We've got a lot of the Oilers prospects here with Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, Jeff Petry, a lot of guys like that that are hopefully going to play at the next level and hone their skills here," Scott explained. "85% of the players in the National Hockey League play in the American league first, so it's a great place for them to develop their skills, and this is going to be a great environment with our fan support and the team we have around those rookie players."

The AHL is also pleased with the partnership between Edmonton and Oklahoma City. AHL President & CEO David Andrews attended the weekend games and praised the new team and its fans.

"Oklahoma has quite a history in hockey going back years and years in the Central league, and they've always supported their teams well, so it's no surprise to see that kind of support here," Andrews said. "This is a fantastic building and a great hockey market, with the history. The crowd tonight is into it and this has been a great game so far, so all-in-all a great start."

Although the Barons came out on the wrong end of a 6-1 decision Saturday night, the game wasn't without its thrills. Midway through the contest, Teemu Hartikainen made history by scoring the first-ever Barons goal. In the third period, Shawn Belle and Ben Ondrus fired up the crowd of 9,818 by dropping their gloves vs. Aeros Jarod Palmer and Carson McMillan.

Oklahoma City hockey fans Colton and his dad Glen attended the inaugural Barons game October 9, 2010.l
In Sunday's matinee vs. Chicago, Hartikainen added a second goal to his tally but it wasn't enough to lift the team over the Wolves. The Barons were edged 2-1.

The results weren't desired, but the team has 78 more opportunities impress. Tambellini is confident the OKC crew will succeed.

"They'll have a good team down here," he said. "There's some good veteran players, some exciting young players that are coming to our organization who one day will have a chance to play for the Oilers, so I think this is a wonderful environment.

"From a development standpoint," he added,"it's also a great place to live."

That fact hasn't escaped the players.

"Walking out of the rink every day and having it be sunny, nice weather, it's fun, especially when you're lucky enough to have a job with this much free time so you can go outside," defenceman Taylor Chorney said. "It's definitely a great place to play."

Following Saturday's game, Shawn Belle gushed about the local fans, calling them "unbelievable."

"They're really loud -- they were loud the whole game," he said with a grin. "Every time we had a chance they're screaming and yelling, so it's certainly great to have that here for our inaugural season."

History-maker Hartikainen added that although his first franchise goal didn't propel the team to its first win, it was good to get it out of the way and give the fans something to cheer about.

"It's always tough to get a first goal with a  new team, so I'm happy for that," he said. "This rink has such good noise when the people are cheering. It's a nice feeling."

Barons jerseys with Oilers logos were a common sight this weekend in Oklahoma City.
Despite being understandably disappointed with the weekend's results, Head Coach Todd Nelson is optimistic about the season ahead.

"The feedback from all the public has been really positive, and the people are excited to get hockey back here," he said. "I just wish we could have provided more excitement for them, especially early on because they were raring to go.

"We're going to get better. We have a good bunch of guys in there and they're talented. We just have to get together as a team."

The week ahead should help. After the weekend's back-to-back, the Barons have four days to work on systems and team-building before facing the Aeros again on Friday, Oct. 15.

Oklahoma's passionate hockey community showed its support opening weekend, and Scott is confident more fans -- and wins -- will come as the season progresses.

"To have almost 10,000 people here Saturday night and was incredible," the GM reflected. "It was nice to get that first one out of the way even though we came out on the wrong end of it. It was a lot of build-up to it, so the pressure's kind of off the guys now and they can just go out and play hockey now. We know it will be an exciting place to play all season."

Follow the Oilers prospects in Oklahoma by visiting the Barons official website or catching Future Watch every Thursday right here on
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