With the Oilers fishing for a Western Hockey League team, and the WHL scheduling a media conference yesterday to unveil its expansion plan, the stage was all set for the return of Major Junior hockey to Edmonton. One problem. The WHL is expanding all right, just not to Edmonton.
In order to appease the ownership group led by Glen Sather and Brian Burke, who wanted out of Tri-City, but not out of the WHL, the board of governors let them sell the Americans (to Stu Barnes and Olaf Kolzig) and buy an expansion franchise in Chilliwack. It'll be launched for the 2006-07 season. So where does that leave Edmonton?
Out in the cold. They were never even considered for expansion at this time.
"There was no real opportunity for Edmonton to participate,'' said WHL commissioner Ron Robison, who did leave the door open for the future. "Edmonton remains an attractive option and brings a lot of assets to the league. They'd be a leading candidate should we consider further expansion.''
DON'T CALL US?
Whether that's the WHL's way of saying 'don't call us, we'll call you', or they're sincere about bumping their league to 22 teams remains to be seen, but Oilers president Patrick LaForge isn't holding his breath. "We're not going to live or die with it,'' he said. "We weren't included in any of those (board of governors) meetings or conversations.''
Despite their efforts, and plenty of wishful thinking, LaForge says the Oilers have never been close to securing an existing or expansion WHL team.
"I can't even say we just missed out on a team because nobody has really had any conversations with us that had much depth. Even our talks with Tri-Cities never got very far. In the very early parts of that conversation they said 'We're going to hang on to what we've got.' And the other teams we talked with, it was only 10 minutes long over the phone. So our expectations were never very high.''
They haven't quit, but aren't going to launch a major push to sway the WHL governors.
"We've left it to the league,'' said LaForge. "We haven't been behind the scenes stirring it up. We said when you're ready to make a move, phone us because we'd love to be involved.''
The WHL has long been opposed to expansion, but that's changed with the Chilliwack addition. Whether it's a one-off deal to accommodate Sather and Burke or the first step in future growth could be decided when the WHL board of governors meets again in June.
"This is going to cause us to re-evaluate our strategic plan and direction,'' said Robison. "As a result of moving to 21 teams we're going to be discussing where we want to go with future markets. Edmonton continues to be of high interest to the league.''
Could Edmonton get an expansion team in June?
"It's certainly feasible,'' said Robison.
NO SLAM DUNK
But it's not a slam dunk by any stretch. There are already concerns about finding enough talent to fill 20 rosters, so adding 21 and 22 wouldn't help. Any expansion teams will struggle for several years.
"There's no question we're putting more pressure on the talent pool than we ever have before,'' said Robison. "When we look at implications of expanding, there are obvious concerns. We'll have to see what effect expanding to 21 teams will have.''
In the meantime, the Oilers can only sit and wait.
"If something happens, that's great, but if it doesn't we're not going to jump off a bridge,'' said LaForge. "We're committed to the Oilers and the Road Runners.''