A Western Hockey League title is fantastic, and a Memorial Cup would be even better, but what the Edmonton Oil Kings accomplished over the last two seasons is bigger than any trophy.
They are the founding fathers of a winning culture, lifting an expansion team from a 16-win gutter and creating, with nothing more than their own character and work ethic, a legacy they hope will last long after they are gone.
“There have been some low times here but we stuck with the program, started building it up, and here we are today,” said team captain Mark Pysyk, who’s been there from the beginning. “Two years ago we only had 16 wins, this year we had 16 wins in the playoffs. There’s a winning culture here now with what we did this year and last year. In the years before that, we sort of came to the rink being afraid of teams. Now, hopefully we can be on the other end of that.”
They are. And Keegan Lowe loves that he helped do for the Oil Kings what his old man helped do for the Oilers all those years ago.
“Talking to a few (former Oil Kings), when they came down into the room after Game 7 against Portland, they were like ‘You guys are really paving the way for the Oil Kings of the future,’” said Lowe. “We’re no longer a team that can be pushed around. Hopefully this can be a successful hockey team for years to come.”
Being pushed around like they were in 2009-10 didn’t break the young Oil Kings, it made them stronger, hungrier, more determined to never be anyone’s doormat again.
“They say the third year is always the toughest for an expansion team and it lived up to it,” said winger TJ Foster, who joined the Oil Kings in Year 2. “It was hard on us, but as young players we got experience in different situations, which was good.
“It helped us in our careers. You look at it now and it’s unbelievable how we turned it around, 16 wins to 50 this year and winning the playoffs. It’s an unbelievable feeling that I’ll never forget.”
Foster remembers, before the Oil Kings taught themselves to win, coming to the rink half expecting to lose.
“Coming into games we knew we were in tough,” he said, adding they almost learned to accept defeat. “You’d lose a game and it wouldn’t sting as much as it did this year.
“This year, when we lost, there was no talking in the room, no anything. We re-focused, practised and knew we needed to win the next game. The whole outlook changed.”
And they’re the guys who changed it.
It’s not easy turning a losing program into a winner. A lot of times, when a team is as low as the Oil Kings were, they stay that way. They simply can’t recover. They learn how to be losers.
These guys fought back.
“I don’t know if some teams get used to losing or don’t know how to win,” said Foster. “I’m really glad that wasn’t our case.”
Being an Oil King now comes with weighty expectations and responsibility. Good enough isn’t good enough anymore, not on a winning program.
“I was here for that 16-win season and it was not fun,” said Lowe. “I don’t want to have one of those ever again for this franchise, even when I’m not here.”
Like the Oilers, back when they were winners, the Oil Kings will pass what they’ve learned to the next generation.
“That’s what Derek (head coach Laxdal) and Steve (assistant coach Hamilton) are telling the guys, how important it is if you learn how to win when you’re young,” said Foster. “You know what it takes, you’ve been through it. Now you’re able to teach it to the younger guys.”
They’ve built something here that, no matter what happens in Shawinigan, is bigger than they are, something they can look back at and be proud of.
“It’s been the best year of hockey of my life,” said Pysyk. “Hopefully we can cap it off with a win.”
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