With the Edmonton Oilers poised to open the season with the most exciting trio of youngsters since the Stastnys, there was plenty of grumbling around Calgary this summer where it was suggested the Flames should also blow things up and start anew.
However, even the man who heads up the Oilers figures it’s a ridiculous suggestion.
“First of all, we didn’t blow it up — it imploded,” said Oilers president Pat LaForge with a laugh. “It is not that easy. It was easier for us. We finished 30th. We sucked. We were the worst team in the NHL. When you’re the worst — where can you go? As (GM) Steve Tambellini would say, ‘We’re not one player away — we’re 20 players away.’ ”
Still, excitement abounds three hours north due to the addition of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, who have fans primed for entertaining — if not winning — hockey again. Add to that the return of oft-injured stud Ales Hemsky, a reinvigorated Shawn Horcoff and a real goalie in Nikolai Khabibulin, and the building blocks are there for change.
And while LaForge is eager to see his club start to trend upwards in the NHL standings, he finds it laughable to hear some Calgarians expect the trend to veer downwards rapidly for the Flames.
“In Calgary’s case, they’ve still got a lot of talent and they’re still going to be hard to beat,” said LaForge, whose club lost all six meetings against 10th-place Flames last season. “They’ve got a great goalie. They’ve got Jarome. There aren’t many pieces missing. They’re a long ways away from having to blow it up. For the Flames, it doesn’t make sense to me.”
Not everything has been dismantled in Edmonton, as LaForge reports the fan base is as strong as ever.
“This year, we sold more season tickets than we ever have in our history — even from the (Michael) Peca/(Chris) Pronger year,” said LaForge, whose club has sold out every game since 2003-04. “Just about 14,000, which for us in a small building is a lot of tickets. People just want to see how good these kids are.”
All this despite a brutal team and an oil patch struggling to find its legs.
“Corporate support is very good, amazingly, through this recession and hydrocarbon downturn — and I expect it will be stronger this year,” said LaForge, whose club opens the season Thursday at home against the Flames. “I think the commitment to blow the team up was announced really early as the season was wrapping up — we started unloading guys in March for draft picks and before the draft. So you give your fans a head start — you tip your hat. That’s valuable — smart and good for business.”
They’ve had to bite the bullet on a few players and are currently doing just that with pricey blueliner Sheldon Souray, who sits in limbo following critical statements made about the organization.
“It could have been a distraction, but not now — he’s gone back to L.A., and I doubt it will come up much,” said LaForge, who has also been busy waging a public war with the city to have a new rink built on 17 acres of land downtown. “(Owner) Daryl (Katz) is writing cheques, and I don’t expect him to do that forever. Sheldon’s not around camp and not being interviewed and asking why he isn’t being traded and all that. We’re not a cap team — it’s not going to affect our business this year.”
Nothing has, which is a testament to the patience and understanding of its fan base.
“We’ve had a crappy three years, and fans want to see the Oilers do well,” said LaForge
“They deserve it.”