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Familiar loss

Gretzky, Mess and now Smyth. Edmonton loses again

Posted: Wednesday February 28, 2007 12:24AM; Updated: Wednesday February 28, 2007 12:24AM
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The trade was, at first blush, almost as bad as the optics. On the day the Oilers retired Mark Messier's No. 11, the team ditched perhaps the most respected player in Edmonton since Messier left. After failing to reach a contract agreement by the 3 p.m. trading deadline with Ryan Smyth, the left winger and security blanket of the franchise, the Oilers promptly moved him to the New York Islanders for a pair of disappointing former first-round draft choices and another No. 1 in 2007.

If the trade seemed achingly, disturbingly familiar in Edmonton, it should, especially with the towering presence of Messier in the building to jog the memory. The best team of its time -- and perhaps the most thrilling of any era -- the Oilers, who won five Stanley Cups in seven years, were broken up because of money. Starting with the sale/trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988, the Oilers diaspora of that greatest generation -- Messier and defenseman Kevin Lowe, the general manager who Tuesday moved Smyth to Long island -- were dispatched because Edmonton just didn't have the resources to keep their best players. The exodus continued into the 1990s and the millennium -- Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, among others -- as management was compelled to constantly be preemptive, moving star players before their salaries became too crushing or they could test the open market and leave Edmonton with no assets in return. This was the parlous life in the small market, grudgingly understood by the most discerning of hockey towns because it was the best chance the Oilers, truly the People's Team, had of competing against the well-heeled franchises in the NHL.

The salary cap, earned by a 2004-05 lockout whose tremors are still being felt in many American markets, was supposed to put the Oilers on a more equal footing. Edmonton rallied behind NHL president Gary Bettman with the fervor of a tent revival, seeing the lockout (and salary cap) as their salvation. (Bettman was even signing autographs outside the arena last spring during the Western Conference final.) Although it might never have been articulated quite this way, in Edmonton the salary cap meant never having to banish a player like Smyth again.

After the lockout, the Oilers rewarded their community by trading for star defenseman Chris Pronger -- some players thought the team actually had acquired Sean Pronger because the defenseman was too big-time for Edmonton -- and adding expert checker Michael Peca. These were two expensive but worthwhile thank-you notes, a return of public trust.

Now eight months after reaching the Stanley Cup final, Pronger, who requested a trade after the season, Peca, who signed in Toronto, and now Smyth, the guts of the Oilers, are all gone. When Gretzky, in Edmonton with the Phoenix Coyotes for the Messier ceremony, noted Smyth's trade was a sign of the times, it begged the question: Which times -- 1997 or 2007?

Meet the new loss. Same as the old loss.

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