SUN Hockey Pool

Seriously, Edmonton is okay

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

EDMONTON -- Didn't bring mukluks and a Siberian-English dictionary on this trip, but was relieved to find one still can converse with short-sleeved natives.

Since the Maple Leafs stopped making Alberta a regular stop the past few years thanks to a revamped National Hockey League schedule, dispatches have spread throughout the league that frosty Edmonton is to be avoided. But as expected, the only big ice visible at this time of year is at Rexall Place, the best surface in the league at a time when its best skaters worked on it.

When Wayne Gretzky and his teammates were in their prime, anyone would have signed a deal with the devil to play for a piece of those five Stanley Cups.

The Oilers were a measuring stick for the rest of the league, their dressing room packed with great players and quotes. Game-night entertainment often would continue on stage at Sherlock's where Terry Jones, the Edmonton Sun's industrial-sized columnist, would don fake moose antlers and join the Hockey Night In Canada crew in a version of Johnny Preston's Running Bear.

The 21st-century Oilers were a win away from the Cup in 2006, but lost to the Carolina Hurricanes. Almost immediately, a dump-on-Edmonton movement began when star defenceman Chris Pronger and family pulled up stakes. Now the scare mongering is coming from reluctant free agents -- or in many cases, their wives -- and it has had a detrimental effect. Oilers management has said that Michael Nylander's spouse was the latest to make the dreaded Siberia comparison during failed talks with the forward this summer.

"It's not a world-class city, but it's a world-class community," said an Edmonton colleague, who has lived and worked in several Canadian locales.

"What you have now are young players with a lot of money who want it to be like Crescent St. in Montreal or South Beach in Florida.

"It's not Toronto or New York and never will be, but it's still a good place to live and a great place to raise kids."

Unless it's luring local product Sheldon Souray or the bold kidnapping attempt of Group 2 free agents Tomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres or Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks -- the latter worked -- the Oilers might one day dwindle to a team of draft picks and journeymen, with no Souray to bridge the gap to respect.

"Sheldon recognized that it's a good, tight group of guys," said general manager Kevin Lowe, hoping that others eventually will see the potential of a team that includes Penner, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and, if he is ready, top pick Sam Gagner.

Lowe showed off the team's new $3-million facility at Rexall yesterday and truth be told, it's better than most, including the Leafs' set-up at the Air Canada Centre.

There's about 10,000 square feet including dressing room, gym, kitchen, theatre seating for team meetings and a trophy case with the five replica Cups at the entrance.

"There was a bit of working to Sheldon with all this," Lowe said.

"You're trying to show the player you're going the extra mile."

Judging by the packed flights going west from Pearson, and the Edmonton housing crisis, NHL free agents are about the only work force not migrating to Alberta in droves.

Crude is king of course, but construction is everywhere and the diamond and precious metal mines to the north have helped Edmonton boom almost as fast as Calgary.

MORE FAILURE?

But on the ice, most pundits have the Oilers missing the playoffs again.

"I've been on teams where you were counted out before your first game," Penner said. "Hey, we were up and down with the Ducks for a few years before we won."

All the Oilers have to do is melt some players' resolve around the league.


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