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The green mile in Edmonton is neither green nor a mile. The walk from the Oilers' dressing room to the ice over a deep-blue rubberized mat scuffed by a thousand skate blades is precisely 29 paces, passing through a corridor of fans who abandon the adjacent bar in the bowels of the arena--well-oiled, some of them--to scrutinize the team. In a sport that lauds accountability, there is no more immediate, and often blunt, feedback than from this mob. "If things aren't going well, there are drunken fans on the Green Mile who'll let you know," says center Michael Peca, a first-year Oiler. "That's a pretty open forum for people. Sometimes guys'll get back in the [dressing] room and mention what they heard." Of course, Peca adds, "They've been great in the playoffs." � That's because the selfless, shot-blocking Oilers have reeled off three straight series upsets to bring the Stanley Cup finals back to Edmonton for the first time since 1990. And this time it's personal. The Oilers play in the NHL's smallest market, and in no other town does battling for the Cup provide so much psychic income. The team hands out playoff pom-poms to fans, and the din in Rexall Place approaches Chicago Stadium loud, but it's really not about decibels and whistles. It's about the game. During the Western Conference finals-- Edmonton closed out its five-game win by beating the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 2-1 last Saturday--the Oilers ran a recurring feature on their arena video screen called This Day in Playoff History. Rather than sepia-tinged tributes to Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or the five Cups Edmonton won between 1984 and '90, the snippets were of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios on a beach and San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton missing a six-foot putt. To get the gag, you had to realize immediately 1) what Chelios and Thornton look like in civvies and 2) that their teams were bumped by the improbable Oilers, the first eighth seed to reach a Cup finals. Candy for the cognoscenti.
The difference between Edmonton and other NHL cities is a pronoun. "When you talk to people in the street here, it's 'Jeez, we didn't play well last night' or 'We had a great game,'" says coach Craig MacTavish, who played on three of the Oilers' Cup-winning teams. "In other cities it's 'You guys weren't that sharp' or 'You guys gotta get it going.' Here it's 'we.' Everybody shares a piece."
The Oilers are indeed community property, owned by 35 local businesses in a model like that of the NFL's smallest-market team, the Packers. (Call the NHL's northernmost franchise Green B'Eh.) If you aren't an owner, you know an owner. Or know someone who does. Almost 70% of the 15,000 season tickets are mom-and-pops, purchased by individuals. Players disappoint the customers at their peril. During the past decade braying fans all but escorted underachieving center Jason Arnott, skittish defenseman Tom Poti and faltering netminder Tommy Salo to the city limits. "They expect a certain type of player," says general manager Kevin Lowe, an important defenseman on all five Edmonton Cup winners. "They even expect [skilled right wing] Ales Hemsky to finish checks and block shots. If he doesn't, he better be awfully good in all other areas." And if he isn't, Ales won't live here anymore.
"This is about hockey 24 hours a day. There's nowhere you can go in this city and not be an Edmonton Oiler," says defenseman Steve Staios, who played for three NHL teams before arriving in 2001. "Some people have trouble dealing with that, but some guys thrive."
Within this tight-knit team no one is more delighted to be here than Fernando Pisani, who would be the face of the Oilers if you could see it under his luxuriant red playoff beard. The right wing enters the finals with nine playoff goals and three game-winners--local boy makes excellent. He grew up in Edmonton's Little Italy (or as locals call it, little Little Italy; you can walk its length and still have finished only half a cannoli), a 10-minute drive from the Oilers' arena. Pisani scored his first goal in that arena when he was 12, in a between-periods shootout involving youth teams (he remembers its being during Wayne Gretzky's first game back in Edmonton as a Los Angeles King) and suffused himself in Oilers culture. For his father, Cosmo, an immigrant homebuilder, hockey represented a checkpoint into mainstream Canada through which his son was the escort. "My dad's never been on skates, but he acts like he has," Pisani says. "He's always giving me advice." The Oilers historically have leaned toward local talent; captain Jason Smith and first-line left wing Ryan Smyth are also Albertans. As Lowe says, "When in doubt, we take the western Canadian kid. When I went back to play in Montreal"--he grew up an hour from that city--"I was always excited, and that feeling lasted 14 years. [If] you're from here, you understand what all this means."
That is the Oilers' blessing and their curse: They skate with the excess baggage of an era impossible to replicate. The Gretzky-Messier-- Jari Kurri teams gave the world Oilers Hockey, essentially the old Montreal fire-wagon style leavened with European dandies and a devil-may-care approach to defense. The problem: Since the end of Edmonton's hegemony, Oilers Hockey has basically meant doing things on the cheap and getting whacked by Dallas in the playoffs. The players are caught between worlds, the compelling present and the one represented by the posters of the Stanley Cups and Messier and Paul Coffey to their left as they stomp the Green Mile to the 16,839 fans awaiting them, a crowd far more animated and lubricated--booze was banned in the stands in the 1980s--than its predecessors. Apparently the trick is to dip your toe in the shimmering waters of the past, a must given the omnipresent reminders, without being sucked in and drowned. For Lowe, a Cup in 2006 would be a useful device "to sever ourselves from the past, in a good way."
If these postlockout playoffs compose a substantial part of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's legacy, his nurturing of the Oilers will be as significant as his support of the Buffalo Sabres through their bankruptcy. Canadian franchises in Quebec City and Winnipeg bolted early in his tenure, but he stopped the trend. Whether he wouldn't or simply couldn't move the financially strapped Oilers-- Houston was a plausible suitor in Peter Pocklington's final years as owner--Bettman stuck with the franchise (and a country), overseeing the transition to the community-ownership group in 1998. He was rewarded with allies on a personal level (Bettman was signing autographs outside the Oilers' arena before Game 3 against Anaheim) and a professional one, which came in handy when small-market hard-liners helped him usher in the salary-cap era. Edmonton was staunchly prolockout, viewing a cap as the only possibility its franchise had of getting back in the game.
After years of urging fans to wait until a new economic order was established, the Oilers had a sacred covenant to do something after the lockout. Lowe leaped into the market immediately, trading last August for franchise defenseman Chris Pronger and Peca, precisely the kind of big-ticket players who over the previous 15 years had been preemptively dumped or had gone off in search of more money. Then, at the trading deadline, he acquired dynamic winger Sergei Samsonov and well-traveled goalie Dwayne Roloson, who stopped 32 of 33 shots against the Ducks in Game 5. "Pronger and Peca and Roli brought us to the next level of competing," says assistant coach Craig Simpson, who won two Cups with the Oilers. "We had a foundation of getting the most out of our players. Now we're not only getting the most out of players, but we have some who have established a higher level."
There has been the requisite playoff delirium for the past six weeks, including the four celebrants who climbed up and dangled from a traffic-light wire as well as news reports about a critical beer shortage in some downtown Edmonton establishments. (This story, which had shaggy-dog shedding all over it, was reported with a straight face on CBC.) When you almost lose something precious, of course, you hold on to it a little tighter. Even if it's a live wire.
the surface is Edmonton's pent-up need to say to the world, 'We're here
too,'" says Oilers president Pat LaForge. "There are other cities in
Canada, and we know we're down the list in some other comparatives, but when it
comes to this sport, right here, right now, we've got five banners hanging and
a history of great players. When we get here, we want to tell the whole world,
'We're Edmonton, and we've got a place at the table.'"