Past dogs Oilers in Carolina

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:23 AM ET

CAROLINA — Ales Hemsky tries not to go there.

Especially when he goes there.

Tuesday night marks just the third visit to Carolina since the Edmonton Oilers capped off the most electrifying run in 20 years with the most crushing defeat in franchise history … not that many of them are still here to relive the heartbreak.

Of the 23 players who suited up for The Little Team That Almost Did on that hot June evening, only Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff remain, and No. 83, for one, doesn’t like to think about it.

“I don’t look behind anymore,” said the Czech winger, who was just 23 years old when the Oilers came out of nowhere to captivate the city. “It was nice, but we didn’t win, so you can’t sit around dreaming about it, at some point you have to look forward.”

That’s not easy when there’s nothing worth looking forward to, and in four failed seasons after the run, everybody in that dressing room knew by Christmas that they weren’t going anywhere but down.

“Man, it really teaches you that when you are there you really want to make the most of it, enjoy it,” said Horcoff, who might have to watch this reunion from the press box if his bruised thigh doesn’t come around by game time. “Because it’s so hard to get there and so hard to get back.”

As the Oilers charged toward history in that glorious storyboook summer, nobody would have dreamed in 100 years that virtually all of the players would be gone in four.

“Probably not when you’re going to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, no,” said Hockey Operations president Kevin Lowe, who, as general manager at the time, brought in the last vital pieces of a contender at the trade deadline. “But knowing, going into Game 7, that Chris Pronger wanted out of town was probably a precursor. It seems like forever ago.”

Probably because there have been some hard, hard miles in the four years since. The nearly 100% turnover (not counting coaches, management and training staff) tells you how far the Oilers needed to go.

Today, with Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi leading the revival, and more talent on the way, the future looks brighter from last place than it did from eighth in the spring of 2006.

“It’s evident the potential we have on the big club, but all the other stuff, Oklahoma City, the nine kids in the WHL, all our draft picks, that’s what I’m most excited about,” said Lowe. “There’s just a different atmosphere now.”

Had they won that game, where would they be today? They’d have one more Cup, but might be years behind their current rebuilding schedule.

“I don’t think Pronger would have changed his mind, based on how strongly he felt about it,” said Lowe. “But we probably would have hung around for a few more years, like the Rangers did after they won in ‘94.”

Would have been nice, though.

Horcoff looks at the hand where the Stanley Cup ring should be and wishes, not just for himself, but for the 21 other guys who are gone now, that they’d won one more game. That’s how you know you’re part of something special, when you want it for the guy in the next stall as badly as you want it for yourself.

“You become so close as a group when you go that far that you never want to disband, you make friends for life,” he said. “You go through battles and wars with those guys, you never want to disband but it’s part of the game and you realize that.

“(Carolina) definitely still harbours bad memories. They’re a different team, we’re a different team. But it’s the building. You have a chance to win the Stanley Cup and you don’t, they do, and you’re on the ice. You never forget that.”

As much as Hemsky tries.

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca


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