Building memories

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

Nobody booed them, nobody on the home team played keep away with the puck, the most feared fighter in hockey wasn't staring them into submission and their goalie wasn't getting lit up like a pinball machine.

In other words, yesterday's trip down Memory Lane was a much smoother road than the bumpy dead end most of these Hall of Famers travelled the first time around.

As one fabled Oldtimer after another returned to the storied arena they used to call Northlands Coliseum, it instantly triggered a flood of memories.

Unfortunately, most of those memories were of crushing defeat.

"The game that stands out the most in my mind was when they eliminated us in three games in 1981," said former Montreal Canadien Steve Shutt, in town for a charity game with the Edmonton Police. "I think that was the first time the league really started taking notice of the Oilers, when they swept us in the playoffs."

HABS ON THE ROPES

The Habs finished third overall, the Oilers, 14th, but by the time the series shifted to Edmonton for Game 3, Montreal was on the ropes.

"We knew they were a good team," said Guy Lafleur. "But we didn't think we were going to lose three games straight.

"We really thought we had a good shot at (a Stanley Cup) but they were a good team, really well balanced."

Two years later the Oilers won their first championship, and began a tradition of thrashing Winnipeg in the first round. So it's no surprise Dale Hawerchuk's most vivid memories of Northland Coliseum involved going home empty handed.

"The thing I'll always remember most is coming here in my first season," said the Hall of Fame centre, who broke into the league in 1981. "Grant Fuhr was their first-round pick, Gretzky was just starting to light it up. It was pretty exciting to come into this building at that point. It's gone through a lot of changes since, but the atmosphere on the ice hasn't changed."

LANNY WONDERS

Lanny McDonald looks up at five Stanley Cup banners and wonder how many would be hanging in Calgary if the Oilers hadn't been standing in the way.

"It's actually sad," he said. "You had two great teams, two of the best teams in the '80s, and one of those teams was always out after the second round - and, more times than not, it was us."

His most bitter defeat was the Game 7 loss here in 1984, while the most precious moment was the night Steve Smith made the colossal blunder in 1986.

"In '84 we really felt like we were on our way to beating them," he said. "We won Game 6 in overtime and then came back here and lost Game 7, 4-3.

"But '86, when we finally did find a way to win it, was something special. Everyone talks about the Steve Smith mistake, but they overlook the fact that for seven games that was some of the best hockey ever played."

Tiger Williams and his Vancouver Canucks fought many a battle - most of them ending in 7-4 losses - but the one that irks him to this day was a mid-'80s nail-biter.

"We were winning probably the lowest scoring game in the history of the Oilers and Canucks - 3-2 with 43 seconds left and the faceoff in our end.

"Thomas Gradin finally won a draw, clean as a whistle, and the puck went to Lars Lindgren along the boards. He shot it right into our own net. Right in the corner. And those (bleeps) beat us in overtime. Roger Neilson got fired after the game."

While most opponents dreaded coming here, Williams, always the warrior, lived for the challenge.

"It was a good building, good crowd, great teams, great ice, and you knew you had to be the very best you could be to have a chance. If everybody wasn't firing on all eight cylinders at the same time, you were pushing the bus uphill.

"They had the greatest lineup in the history of the game all on one team. A hundred years from now that will still be one hell of a hockey team."


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