SUN Hockey Pool

A dark day for hockey

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

Today was supposed to be the start of another National Hockey League season.

We were going to see if the Lightning could repeat, if the Flames were for real, if Todd Bertuzzi was coming back and if the Edmonton Oilers could win their first playoff series since 1998.

This is October, and in Canada the pucks are supposed to drop with the leaves.

But there is no NHL.

Instead, a third of the players in the union, MIT grads that they are, are convinced that playing in Europe for $100,000 a year is better than playing in the NHL for $1.8 million.

So there will be no opening night for the Oilers. No Paul Coffey jersey retirement. No first crack at making good on that "wait till next year" promise.

"I sense a bit of a void, not having training camp when the leaves start changing and all that," said Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, who has as stubborn a hockey itch as anyone after 19 years as an NHL player and six more in coaching and management.

"Talking to some of our (Oilers) players on occasion, they say their body clocks are telling them that they want to be playing hockey and I sense a little bit of it, too."

Lowe was in the bleachers at Millennium Place yesterday, getting his fix, as most Edmontonians will, from the American Hockey League Road Runners.

"I'm getting my fill of hockey right now, so it's fun for me personally. I'm excited," he said as the players wound up their first practice after the final cuts.

A SLOW PROCESS

"It's a slow process for people in the city to come around to the fact that they've got to cheer for another team ... but the only thing you can say is that people are going to be pleasantly surprised at the calibre of hockey.

"I'm not saying this because you guys are here and we're trying to promote the Road Runners, but I am legitimately, personally excited about watching the game Friday night."

So are a lot of people.

With no exhibition games in Edmonton, Friday night's franchise opener against the Hamilton Bulldogs will be the first time Edmonton lays eyes on its new hockey team.

Lowe, while never having played an AHL game, has seen a million of them and says it's as close to the real thing as you're going to find anywhere.

"Every time I go watch an American league game I'm impressed with the level of play and I think (Edmontonians) will be too," said Lowe. "Not only with our guys but the other prospects. San Antonio is the second team in here and Jay Bouwmeester is going to be in town. And besides the highly recognized prospects there's a lot of other good players that will and can play in the NHL."

With eight of the Road Runners' first 11 games at home, the opportunity to win over the market is right there. So is the opportunity to sour the market. Nothing builds and maintains a strong fan base like excitement and success.

"It always helps," said Lowe, whose club will have its hands full right off the bat against a Hamilton Bulldogs team stacked with Dallas and Montreal prospects.

STILL HAVE TO WIN GAMES

"It's no different than the NHL, you have to win games. But Wardie is a good coach and he has a lot to work with here and they'll be very competitive before it's all over."

Head coach Geoff Ward knows the first two weeks of the season are very important, for the fan base and for the standings.

"We've got a lot of home games early, eight of our first 11 at home, and it's going to be important to get out of the blocks and bank some of those home points as quickly as we possibly can," he said, adding nobody has to try and win over the Edmonton public in the first 60 minutes.

"I think our guys will be fine. Most of them have played enough pro games.

"We're not going to worry about the crowd, we hear it's going to be a pretty big house on opening night. That's going to be great, it should help us, but in terms of what we need to do to prepare to play it's not going to be any different. There's no pressure. We'll play hard ... let the fans make a decision on what they see.

"Ultimately we just want to worry about what we can control, and that's how hard we play and how we execute. With the calibre of hockey in the AHL, hopefully that's enough. We feel confident that it's enough to win some fans over."


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