SUN Hockey Pool

Drop the puck now!

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

What we're dealing with here is very much like it was in Edmonton the year the Oilers were about to begin play in the National Hockey League.

There's a giddiness out there. A level of excitement and anticipation.

For weeks, perfect strangers have been coming up to me and saying the same thing.

"I can't wait for hockey season."

They don't even require reciprocal conversation. Just an understanding smile and a nod does it.

It's a year without hockey. It's the Oilers back as a club that can compete again. It's Chris Pronger. It's Mike Peca. It's the room in the budget to add even another talent. It's the new rules, which might bring back Oiler Hockey. Roll it all together and it's really rather remarkable.

Today is the on-ice start of training camp around the NHL. Not a big event in some cities. It's worthy of the mayor declaring a civic holiday in the Heartland of Hockey.

Hockey Hall of Fame play-by-play man Rod Phillips is going to call the Joey Moss Cup tomorrow night, the Blue & White game, live on 630 CHED.

"Can you believe that? An intrasquad game," marvels Phillips. "How do you do a play-by-play of the Oilers vs. the Oilers?"

But why not? The other day the Oilers held a gathering for fans to pick up their season tickets, and it turned into the Carnival of Champions with the crowd that was there.

IT'LL BE $2 A HEAD

They're charging $2 a head for the Joey Moss Cup, with proceeds donated to the Red Cross fund for Katrina Hurricane Relief. But it'll be a full game with ushers, referees and the whole bit. The Oilers want to put their players through a real game to adjust to the new rules before the big game against Calgary on Friday. It's a pre-season game.

The second thing those "Can't wait for hockey season" fans say is "Can't wait for the Battle of Alberta again."

It's been a while since it's been real in hockey.

Normally a pre-season game draws 10,000 or 11,000 fans. This one ...

"Our sense is it'll be a lot more," says Allan Watt from the Oiler office.

"The level of excitement going into our training camp I haven't seen forever," said coach Craig MacTavish yesterday.

And he was talking about the players.

"The fans are the same," he said.

"The interest, the optimism and the excitement in the building is going to be great this year. And that means points. Our team is going to feed off that."

SEASON TICKET COUNTS

It won't be long before the season ticket counts start coming out of the southern cities where the lockout hurt most, the cities where hockey disappeared from the sports pages and the public consciousness.

But if the Oilers were worried about the fans not coming back, that's now laughable.

"Our fans had the attitude that losing a year would be OK if they fixed it. And they did fix it," said Watt. "Our renewal is going to be close to 100%."

As for sponsorship, something amazing has been happening in recent weeks.

"We're getting calls from sponsors wanting to spend more money. Those have not been normal calls in this office. They want to buy the same thing as before and some more."

The suites are sold out.

The only area which is going to take a hit is the radio and TV advertising, because budgets were set in the spring. But with the additional sponsor interest in the other areas, some may swing over.

But it's on the ice where the focus is going to be. And it goes beyond Pronger and Peca.

It's what Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff will look like coming back from great years in Europe during the lockout. It's the expectation this is going to be a better team, maybe a lot better team.

It's also not really knowing what the game is going to be like with the new rules and with the rust on players who have been away, and which teams have really improved, and which teams are going to go in the other direction.

It was like that when the Oilers went to the NHL. You had a hunch that everything was going to be pretty good and sooner rather than later. But you didn't really know.


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