They're fan-tastic

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

When the Edmonton Oilers were marching to the Cup final last spring, they had more support than they knew what to do with.

Everybody loved them. Their jersey-clad fans literally danced in the streets after every win - toasting their heroes, hailing them, chanting their names.

The handshakes and backslaps were free and easy. The Oilers had a million new best friends.

But who doesn't when they're winning?

It's during times of trouble when you find out who your real friends are. And when the Oilers, struggling through one of the worst droughts in franchise history, looked into the stands at Rexall Place and saw the same 16,839 faces they saw last spring, not quite as jovial, perhaps, but still there, still urging them on, it struck a chord.

"I don't know of many cities in the league where you lose 12 in a row and you have a full building, and a crowd that was into the game and that supportive," said Oilers centre Marty Reasoner, one of many players who expressed their gratitude before the final home game of the season last night.

"I wouldn't have been too, too surprised if the building was half empty, but to see it full is a credit to the Edmonton hockey fan."

When you go a month to the day between victories, the potential for ugliness is enormous.

Season ticket holders who'd already pre-paid for their seats could have shown up for no other reason than to spew their discontent. They didn't.

They saw the laundry list of injuries, sensed the Oilers were still trying, and kept the venom to a minimum.

"Someone asked me how they were in public and it's been pretty positive, they're pretty understanding of the situation, all the injuries we had," said Shawn Horcoff.

"They stayed right till the end of the games. You could hear the odd jeer from one or two fans, but that's to be expected. I actually expected it to be a lot worse, to tell you the truth.

"It just shows you the understanding of the game that they have here, and the passion they have for the team."

They could have turned their backs when times got tough. They didn't.

"The fans have been unbelievable through this whole stretch," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "I've walked past that (Club Seat)bar, from the bench to the dressing room, before and it hasn't always been that pleasant, under better circumstances, but they've been really supportive."

The fact they're even there is enough to turn the players' heads. Crowds could have topped out at 11,000 and nobody would have blamed the no shows one bit.

"There were some nights when we hoped there were only 11,000 people out there," joked Horcoff.

"When it begins to snowball like that it becomes very frustrating and you do start to question how much longer they're going to support you.

"I was very impressed."

As long as the effort was there, the fans were, too.

"That's the type of person who lives in Edmonton,"said Reasoner. "A hard working guy who appreciates, even when things aren't going well, that a player is still giving everything he has."

"When we're losing like we have been lately it can be tough," said Toby Petersen. "So we appreciate everything they've done for us all year. We know it's painful for them, we run into them around town, but they've been great. It's a lot of fun playing here."

That's why so many of them hate to leave.

"That's what draws people to here and that's why every guy who's been here always leaves saying great things about the experience they had here," said Reasoner. "It's one of the privileges of being an Oiler."


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