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IN DEPTH: True Blue & Orange

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers
George Henderson, better known as Krazy George is a professional cheerleader and pivotal figure in the history of sports.


With his signature drum and gravelly voice, Krazy George knew how to work up a crowd that would create an atmosphere of fun and excitement, feeding off fan energy and delivering an experience that fans would remember, long after the final whistle or buzzer blew.

Krazy George warming up the Edmonton Oilers crowd. Photo provided.
“Back then, people mostly just sat and watched pro sports,” said the 71-year-old. “The attitude of professional sports [was that] people were paying those players big bucks to entertain us. They were getting paid to play great so there wasn’t a [perceived] need to cheer them on. Why would they need to be cheered on when they’re getting paid a salary every year to play?”

Now a motivational corporate speaker, having semi-retired from the cheerleading game - throwing in the occasional San Jose Earthquakes soccer and minor league baseball game - Krazy Georgehas worked with and performed for fans at over 100 professional sports teams.   

The Napa, California native is most notably known as the inventor of “the wave”, a routine he perfected with sports teams over the years and was captured on TV for the first time on October 15, 1981, while at a nationally televised Oakland Athletics American League Championship Series game against the New York Yankees.

“I had already been doing it at the [NHL’s] Colorado Rockies games and that’s how I actually got the first wave going, coming from a three-section cheer I used to do,” said Krazy.

“That was the nucleus, the thread that started me thinking about the wave…when I got to Colorado I started ‘Go Rockies Go’ as a three-section cheer. From there is when I tried to change it and it took off and kept going around the stadium.”

Prior to its nationally televised debut, Krazy worked on moulding and shaping the wave
at Rockies games while entertaining the masses and creating an energetic atmosphere that fans would never forget. Hired by Edmonton one night in 1980, after having seen him work a Rockies-Oilers game, the unforgettable cheerleader found himself at Northlands Coliseum, working up a new set of fans.

“When I would go into a game I would go in unknown,” he said. “Nobody knew who I was. But halfway through the first period I had everybody cheering. That’s when I sprung on the wave.”

There stood a character before them with sweat dripping from his brow, drum in hand and a bellowing voice that followed, commanding attention and spectator inclusion. He’s a figure that to this day, original Oilers Season Seat Holder Ron Landry says he will never forget.

“Krazy George was a real character,” laughed Landry, a Season Seat Holder since the team was founded in 1972 as part of the World Hockey Association (WHA). “He would run around and he would come down to the lower bowl the odd time, but most times he was sort of at the railing entranceway in the blues [section] in the aisle-way, pounding that little drum.”

“He wasn’t annoying, or anything like that. He was a real cheerleader. He was Krazy George, he would just get everybody going, running around and getting the fans going. He was a special fixture for sure.”

“Let's go Oilers.” It starts as a whisper, it grows into a chant and then explodes into a deafening cheer. It was here that Oilers fans would experience the wave for the first time, having one side of the arena jump and cheer and then having the opposite side respond.

“I knew what a spectacular thing [the wave] was down in Colorado,” said Krazy. “I started it and it went over so well and the place just became nuts. Nobody had ever seen the wave before that because I did it only a few times in Colorado, there were no nationally televised games.”

From extreme sports cheerleader Krazy George to the Green Men of the Vancouver Canucks to the Lumberjoes of the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Ottawa REDBLACKS to the National Football League’s (NFL) 12th Man in Seattle, fans have become and remain a pivotal piece in the history of sport.

“They’re a huge part,” said Oilers forward Jordan Eberle. “When we’re down a goal and we need to score and we’re trying to find that energy and motivation, the crowd’s doing the wave or there’s a TV timeout and they’re telling them to get loud, you feed off of that energy. It kind of brings you up a little bit. I tend to think it brings you back into the game.”

Months before the 2015-16 season began, there was a wave of excitement that washed over Oil Country. Whether you were an Oilers fan-fanatic or supporter of the hometown team, two words were on the cusp of everyone’s lips: Connor McDavid. When the NHL Draft Lottery confirmed that Edmonton would have first pick, McDavid would quickly become the Oilers future and instantly a fan-favourite.

Season seat holder Ron Landy attends an Oilers game with his son. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.
The anticipation of McDavid’s arrival in Edmonton started long before Oilers General Manager and President of Hockey Operations Peter Chiarelli uttered McDavid’s name on June 26, 2015. After a disappointing season the year prior, the Oilers were looking for a fresh start and maybe this would be it.

The city could feel the excitement. Rexall Place opened its doors for one of the biggest parties in Oil Country, where hockey fans could come and watch an exclusive live satellite feed of the first round of the NHL Draft. The crowd roared, the goal buzzer boomed and a flood of orange, blue and white streamers filled the arena as McDavid was officially welcomed to the Oilers family.

It’s one of many Oilers fan memories that have made a pivotal mark in the NHL franchise’s history. For Eberle, who holds a number of Rexall Place memories of his own, Oilers fans are just as much a part of the game as a player is with the puck.

“I remember games where you kind of sit back and you’re kind of wowed at how loud they are,” he said. “My first game I remember scoring my first goal, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a crowd that loud, or Sam Gagner when he had eight points - those are two times in my head that they went nuts.”   

When McDavid arrived in Edmonton, the city began to buzz.

In an instant, a new, dynamic player rejuvenated and created a new, dynamic group of Oilers fans. The season had yet to begin and already it saw devoted fans return and newly acquired fans appear, but regardless of their tenure of support for the team, their passion and excitement spread like wildfire.

It was as though a sleeping giant suddenly woke. There was a stirring, and then, fan pandemonium. It was all so familiar, especially for Landry — a Season Seat Holder since the team was founded in 1972 as one of 12 founding franchises of the major professional World Hockey Association (WHA). Landry was a passionate hockey player himself and, to this day, is a dedicated Oilers fan.

“When we were younger we would go to the Edmonton Oil Kings games and the Edmonton Flyers, which was the senior hockey team we had [and] the farm team for the Detroit Red Wings,” said the 67-year-old.

“[When the Oilers were formed] it was really something special. We were kind of now taking it to the next level.”

Landry has followed the Oilers from their humble beginnings, where the newly formed professional team took up residence in the Edmonton Gardens arena. With a capacity of 5,200, Landry said the attendance never lacked.

May, 1988: Edmonton Oilers sit behind a panel of very short plexiglass. Photo by Getty Images.
“You were able to walk right beside the players and you could actually touch them on the back because there was no glass behind the benches,” he said. “You would walk right beside them to go and sit down. There was no Plexiglas along the sides, the pucks would fly into the stands quite regularly, and that was commonplace. You really had to pay attention then.”
   
A sharp contrast to the rarity of seeing pucks — and sometimes sticks — fly from the rink, over the board-threshold and into the stands. When the Oilers made their transition to Northlands Coliseum in 1974, Landry — and many other Season Seat Holders — wholeheartedly followed.

Five years later, the Oilers and four other franchises would be introduced to the National Hockey League (NHL) in the 1979 NHL-WHA merger.

“That was really exciting,” said Landry. “There were hopes that [we] might make it to the NHL…some of the WHA teams were folding, the ones in the U.S., and some weren’t making it financially, they didn’t draw enough fans. It was really important we had a good team and we knew that if some teams were to be brought in [to the NHL] we knew Edmonton could be one of them. Of course, with Wayne Gretzky being signed and playing with the WHA we knew we had a major drawing card.”

And boy did they ever. Though there weren’t mass amounts of media channels back then as there are today, Landry recalls the immediate impact Gretzky had for the team and for the fans.

“When he started in the WHA and when you saw what he did and how he played - an innovator behind the net - and how he could stop and start and turn and set up players and score; not a really big man, he was just a kid then, you knew that he was for sure going to be something special.”

Today, it’s as though the past and present have converged, and in that time, the support has only grown for the Edmonton team. While embracing the history and carrying the memories of Rexall Place forward, Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) is building the future with the opening of Rogers Place and Oilers fans are soaking it in, anticipating that first puck drop in the NHL team’s new home.

“I think one of the major reasons that I love playing here is the fans,” said Eberle. “You want to play in a place where people are passionate about the game where they want to come to the rink and see you do well. They’re going to get on you when things aren’t going well but I don’t think you’d want it any other way. I don’t think you’d want to play in a place where people didn’t really care.”

Memories are made where traditions are born. Though Rexall Place prepares for a new chapter and the Oilers gear up to move into Rogers Place, those traditions will be forever carried forward and remembered by fans, fusing old memories while creating new ones.

“There’s a lot of history behind this team and behind winning and how well they’ve done and people stood behind them even when we haven’t been that good,” said Eberle. “I imagine that they’ll stick behind us [at Rogers Place] and I’m sure that there’ll be more energy there just because it’s new.”

Oilers fans have been there for the best of times and seen the team through the worst of times. The players will continue to play and the coaches will coach, but Oilers fans will forever be the resounding piece that makes this team whole.

By Meg Tilley / Edmontonoilers.com

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