The days of Wayne and roses may be over, but, yes, there is still hockey in Edmonton. Oh, it's not the scintillating, take-your-breath-away brand that made Edmonton the center of the hockey universe, but its still darn good hockey, as one would expect from a team blessed with the likes of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Kevin Lowe, who among them have 20 Stanley Cup rings.
Yet something is missing from these Oilers, and it's more than number 99. Maybe they lack the sense of history that fuels the inner fire that burns when you play for one of the great hockey clubs of all time, which the Oilers were but are no longer. "The mystique is gone," says Rod Phillips, CFRN radio play-by-play man. "Every night now, the other team believes it can win."
Which is not to say that the Oilers are getting their drill bits handed to them by the rest of the league. After Saturday's 4-2 win over the Hartford Whalers, the Oilers were 19-12-3, the fourth-best record in the NHL and equal to their showing of a year ago after the same number of games. On the other hand, two of the teams Edmonton trails—the Calgary Flames and the Gretzky-inspired Los Angeles Kings—are Smythe Division rivals, against whom the Oilers had a dismal 4-8-1 record at week's end.
"We should be proud of the way we've played the first 34 games," says Messier, who was named captain after Gretzky's departure. "It would have been easy to throw in the towel."
The Stanley Cup champions throwing in the towel? That's exactly how many of Edmonton's veterans felt when the blockbuster trade was announced last summer: Gretzky and forwards Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski for center Jimmy Carson, 18-year-old winger Martin Gelinas, $15 million and the Kings' first-round draft picks in 1989, '91 and '93. Over the objections of general manager and coach Glen Sather, Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington gave up greatness for cash and potential, which left every Oiler to wonder: If Gretzky is no more than a hunk of meat and a chunk of change to management, then what am I?
"They don't have to like it, but they have to accept it and make their own adjustments to it," says Sather. "I'd like to think that they've done that, but how do you know without crawling inside somebody's head? We still have a helluva hockey club."
No argument there. Even without Gretzky, Edmonton has five former 50-goal scorers, and at week's end, the Oilers ranked second in the league (to the Kings) in goals scored, with more this season—161 goals to 157—than at the same point in 1987. Despite criticism that he was too poky to keep up with the speedy Oilers, Carson led the team with 27 goals.
"The knock against his skating has been overplayed," says Edmonton assistant coach Ted Green, who admits that during training camp the coaching staff was concerned. "The bottom line is, he puts the puck in the net."
Not even Carson's play has been as eye-opening as that of the 28-year-old Kurri, who has been proving what Gretzky said all along, mostly to deaf ears, about his former linemate—namely that Kurri is the best right wing in the game. A native of Helsinki who still spends his summers in Finland, Kurri leads the Oilers in points (23 goals and 35 assists through Sunday) and has been killing penalties, working the power play and serving as a deft playmaker for linemates Keith Acton and Esa Tikkanen, who's also from Finland.
Tikkanen, 23, has also emerged as an excellent player, scoring 21 goals, including eight shorthanded ones, in his first 34 games. He had only 23 goals all of last season. "Esa is one of the new breed of Europeans who doesn't give a damn when a hard-nosed Canadian kid tries to intimidate him," says Green. "He gives it right back."