Oilers raising red flags

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

The red jersey designation used to be straightforward.

When players wear a red jersey, the message to teammates is clear. It means no hitting because that player is injured. The player is several days, or even weeks, from game action.

Anyone with a clue, even a reporter, knows that.

What we've come to understand, though, is that when Ryan Smyth pulls on a red jersey, it should raise red flags for opponents because, as history has shown, he is close to being ready to play. Like minutes or hours.

SMYTH TOOK A TWIRL

Well, Smyth, who has been out of the Edmonton Oilers' lineup for seven games with a fractured right thumb, practised with his teammates for the first time since his injury when he took a twirl at Rexall Place yesterday wearing - you guessed it - a red jersey.

I suspect that signals his return against the Colorado Avalanche tomorrow or, at the very least, in Phoenix or Dallas before Christmas. We are, after all, talking about Smyth.

Do tell, Ryan. Do tell.

"The doc said no," insists Smyth, asked if he'll play tomorrow. "It's not strong enough. The bone hasn't fully healed yet, so there's a possibility of it displacing.

"It's a matter of being more cautious than anything."

Uh-huh. OK.

Smyth, injured Dec. 2 against Columbus, might be dishing the straight goods here. He might not be ready until after Christmas, even if the cast on his hand has been cut down so he can practise. Even if he'll be fitted with a new one by tomorrow, when the Avs are here.

MEDIA TRICKED LAST TIME

Then again, if you recall the 2001-02 season, when Smyth suffered a broken ankle that required surgery, you might remember how he wore the red jersey at a morning skate, then bolted out of the tunnel that night like he had a booster rocket stuck in his backside.

Smyth's return, with the 2002 Olympics looming, was weeks ahead of the most optimistic prognosis.

I remember it because both newspapers in town actually made a point the day before of writing Smyth was nowhere near ready - complete with an explanation of the red jersey.

Craig MacTavish took great delight in pulling that one.

"You're still sensitive about that? You got me, but it was unintentional," laughed MacTavish yesterday. "Seeing as how you're still talking about it, I'll have to try to concoct ..."

Smyth looked pretty good yesterday. He'd skated on his own before trying a full practice. He handled the puck reasonably well. He didn't have much on his shot. Then again, that's normal.

"It's still harder than Marty's," smiled Smyth, having some fun at the expense of Marty Reasoner. "I'm not recognized as a shooter."

Whatever the real story is, Smyth is close.

That's nothing but good news for a team that's had to get along without him and Ales Hemsky for more than two weeks.

"It's good to have guys closer and closer to being healthy," MacTavish said.

"I don't expect Ryan back for awhile, but he looked all right today. We'll see."

As for Smyth, he's got new gloves, a lighter stick and has even broken in a new pair of skates. He'll get his new cast, look at the latest X-rays and circle a date, if he hasn't already.

"I don't want to prolong it," Smyth said of re-injuring the thumb by coming back too soon.

"I listen to what the doctors say right now. If I had it my way, I would want to play."

Reminded of his charade five years ago, Smyth shrugs.

"Was that my ankle?" he asks, as if he doesn't know.

Tomorrow, then?


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