Oilers fans are, without a doubt, the best fans in the NHL.
(photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club)
I must admit as someone who covers the Edmonton Oilers and has done so since 1998 that at times, over the last nearly 14 years, I have taken the fans for granted. That through thick and thin, snowstorms and wind chill factors that the fans would make their way to the almost 38-year-old building that sits on the corner of Wayne Gretzky Drive and 118 avenue. However when I think back to the late 1990's and early 2000's it wasn't always like that and what jogged my memory was this most recent road trip.
I remember some nights when 11,000 people showed up and there was concern in the Alberta capital for the team and its future. That wasn't long after Les Alexander tried to move the team to Houston but Cal Nichols, Jim Hole, Bruce Saville and a total of 38 business people -- but more importantly people who loved the Oilers -- coughed up millions at a time to keep the team in its rightful place. Once they bought the Oilers then they had to fill the place they called home. There were ticket drives that finally bumped the Oilers into the 13,000 season ticket range. The owners still had cash calls when dollars were short and more money was needed. Eventually the support grew and grew and the bond that was stretched was rebuilt between the team, the organization along with the city and Northern Alberta.
How else would you describe Edmonton having run together a string of 274 straight regular season sellouts? The streak started November 29, 2005. If you throw in the post-season packed houses from the 2006 Cup run and add 11 more sellouts that makes it 285 in a row. That for a team that is about to miss the playoffs for a sixth-straight year. A painful pill to swallow but even further proof of the undying passion and commitment from the fans. The teacher, electrician, lawyer, real estate agent and every other imagineable person from some walk of life that decides to show up at Rexall Place while turning a mostly blind eye to the standings.
That's why I reference the last two stops on Edmonton's 4 game road trip. The official attendance in Florida was 16,214 which was about 2,000 short of capacity. In Columbus the final number was 12,295. The Jackets building holds 18,247. This is not a shot at those two organizations but it is an NHL reality. In a lot of the cities the Oilers visit you have to be a winning team or it shows in the stands. Florida last made the playoffs in 2000. Columbus has made the post season once since its acceptance into the NHL.
Along with success there are other road blocks faced by teams like the Panthers and Jackets. Ohio is the Buckeye State and it just so happens the Buckeyes basketball team advanced to the NCAA Final Four on Saturday night. 12 hours later the Blue Jackets were on the ice. To make matters worse, Ohio State's next opponent for college basketball supremacy was being determined at about the same time the puck drop was happening between Edmonton and Columbus. In Florida you have pro baseball, football and basketball with the Miami Heat. Not to mention, college sports and weather that makes anything outdoors possible 12 months of the year.
The above challenges are not factors in the Edmonton Oilers world. Instead they are the 'Big Show' in town. Not the only one (the Edmonton Eskimos are certainly no slouches and have devout followers as well) but they are the biggest one. Money doesn't grow on trees and neither do fans who spend it to support a huge part of the local economy. Edmonton Oilers fans should take a bow for what they have done and continue to do. A standing ovation for the fan-tastic support they have provided through the bad times knowing that good times aren't far away.