The most important thing that could have happened in the National Hockey League did happen last week: The Edmonton Oilers regained possession of the Stanley Cup. Important? You said it. Not just to the league but to North American hockey, because if this game is ever to become a sport of the future, it will have to be dragged there kicking and screaming on the coattails of the underappreciated Oilers.
For a team that has made such a significant contribution to the finer points of the game, the Oilers truly are unloved. In many ways it's understandable. There is something about Edmonton as a team that begs for a comeuppance. There is a collective smugness in their style, a cocksure, Mets-like, we're-the-best-and-you're-the-rest arrogance that practically demands you root against them. They have had too much too soon: three Stanley Cups in just eight years in the league, four appearances in the finals in the past five years. They haven't suffered sufficiently. And, least forgivably, they are just too good.
But where would the NHL be without them? The Oilers and the Soviet national team are the only active outfits that, when they are right, play the game with an artistry that lifts hockey to a higher level. Imagine what would have happened if these Oilers, a team unsurpassed in the traditional hockey skills of skating, stickhandling, shooting and passing, had been knocked off by a club with as villainous a history as the Philadelphia Flyers.
Remember what happened when the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the mid-'70s, the Broad Street Bullies era? Ugly, ugly things. Every team in hockey, thinking that the likes of Dave Schultz and Bob (Hound Dog) Kelly were the keys to the Flyers' success, went out and toughened up its lineup with goons. The general level of play in the NHL took a nosedive. Well, Schultz, Kelly and the other Broad Street thugs were not the keys to the Flyers' success. Bobby Clarke, the league's MVP, and goaltender Bernie Parent were. Surround those two with 16 disciplined Girl Scouts, and the Flyers still might have won the Cup in '74 and '75. But the Schultzes and Kellys were not hard to find, and soon every team in the league had a pair of them. It took years for the league's goon mentality to subside.
This is not to say that the 1986-87 Flyers are anything like the old Broad Street Bullies. They are a fine team, well-coached, bighearted. They give fans their money's worth 80 games a season. But there is a certain knee-jerk reaction around the league that associates Philly with brawling and unseemly behavior. And, even now, the Flyers are no angels. It is no coincidence that they were involved in the first pregame brawl in memory, at the Montreal Forum earlier in these playoffs, or that the league's most notorious goon, Dave Brown, wears Philly's orange and black. Again, this had little to do with the team's success—Ron Hextall's goaltending was the key to that—but you can bet, had the Flyers beaten Edmonton to win the Cup, other NHL teams would have beefed up their lineups in the off-season and instructed their goalies in the practice of hacking at calves.
The Oilers march to a different drummer. Their president, G.M. and coach, Glen Sather, believes that—even in a league whose officiating promotes clutching, interference, bumping and bullying—superior skill will triumph. While other teams adopted a more defensive posture this past season (following the lead of the Montreal Canadiens, who won the Cup in 1986), Sather sought more offense, adding a pair of small, wonderfully skilled players, Reijo Ruotsalainen and Kent Nilsson, to an already world-class lineup. Speed and playmaking are the cornerstones of the Oilers' style, and every move is designed to open up the ice, to set the skaters free. The results can be spectacular, and fans love it—even if they don't love the Oilers. Since joining the league in '80, Edmonton has been one of the NHL's top road draws.
So the success of the Oilers is important to the league. Entertaining hockey is one thing, but winning hockey is the only brand that other teams will emulate. The NHL is basically a copycat league, and if the Stanley Cup champs were to win by fielding a team of midgets, soon 21 teams would be dressing short folk.
If the Oilers had lost to a grind-it-out team like the Flyers, a team that believes a grunting will can defeat a superior skill, would that have meant Sather was wrong? That players with real ability are not needed to win in this league? That an imaginative offense is frivolous? That toughness along the boards, brute strength in front of the net and—it almost goes without saying—goaltending are the most important components to winning a Stanley Cup?
No, hockey is a better game than that. Sather is right. Let the clones spring forth. The Edmonton Oilers are on top once again.