What A ride

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

In the spring of 2006, everything was right in Edmonton's hockey world.

One game from being perfect, as a matter of fact.

Just one season into a new collective bargaining agreement, and anxious to prove themselves on the level playing field they fought so hard for, the Oilers were cutting a swath through the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And why not? They could afford marquee game-breakers like Chris Pronger, they could drop a few million on rental players like Mike Peca and Jaroslav Spacek, and instead of slashing salary at the trade deadline, they could add it, and brought in Dwayne Roloson for the playoff drive.

They were playing for the Cup again, the city was going ballistic again - it was pure small market utopia.

In the emotional and often frustrating two-year roller-coaster ride that's followed, fans, players, coaches and managers have experienced more drama, more controversy, more highs and lows and twists and turns than any of them would have ever dared imagine.

Pronger blew town four years early, Ryan Smyth got traded (on the night they retired Mark Messier's sweater, no less), they set a team record for man-games lost to injury, they went 2-18 down the stretch in 2007, they drafted a franchise player in Sam Gagner, they infuriated the entire league with offer sheets to Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner, they agreed to terms with Michael Nylander, only to watch him change his mind and sign in Washington, they traded their longest serving captain, signed Sheldon Souray, broke their record for man-games lost to injury in 2008 and were purchased by one of the richest men on the planet.

And now they're the youngest team in the league, finishing the season with a valiant charge, led by a crop of dazzling kids who sure make it look like the Oilers are on their way back.

Phew.

Ray Emery's team-building efforts? Mats Sundin's no-trade clause? Those teams have nothing on Edmonton when it comes to making headlines.

PRONGER STARTED IT

It all started with Pronger. His sudden defection, one year into a five-year contract and just days after the Cup run ended, triggered an earth-shaking backlash from jilted fans. He didn't like Edmonton? Well, they made sure to let him know the feeling was mutual.

Hate mail. Ugly rumours. It quickly went from professional to personal. Hardly the city's proudest moment. But, more importantly, Pronger's trade demand pulled the rug out from under GM Kevin Lowe's master plan.

"It's very difficult, particularly in the fact that we just finished playing the Stanley Cup playoffs and he fit in very well," Lowe said at the time.

"So it's a big disappointment, but we've had disappointments in the past and we will persevere."

Then came the mass exodus. Peca, Spacek, Radek Dvorak, Georges Laraque, Dick Tarnstrom, Rem Murray and Todd Harvey. All gone.

Some were rentals the Oilers never expected back, some retired, some went to Europe and some weren't offered contracts. But, from the outside, it looked like players were fleeing Edmonton like it was 10 minutes to meltdown at Chernobyl.

Shut out of the July 1 free-agent derby, Lowe reloaded as best he could for 2006-07, but there were too many holes and the Oilers were done by February.

The only drama left was whether they'd re-sign Smyth, an impending unrestricted free agent, before the trade deadline.

As fate would have it (fate loves messing with Edmonton), the deadline was the same day Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Jari Kurri were on hand to retire Messier's No. 11. The Smyth camp, figuring there was no way in hell he'd be traded a few hours before Messier's party, dug in its heels. Lowe upped the offer, they stayed put. Lowe upped the offer, they stayed put. They had him over a barrel.

Then, the stunner of all stunners: "What? I'm a freakin' Islander?"

Yes, he was -- traded for Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and a first-round pick.

It was a jaw-dropping move, and a valuable lesson to anyone thinking about a game of chicken with Lowe.

"I was shocked," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said after the deal. "I'm sure everybody in the league was shocked that it happened. But you have to do what you think is best for the organization."

The Messier ceremony was a surreal evening, with everyone in the place numbed and torn by anger, shock and sadness over Smyth, and pride, love and nostalgia for Messier. Head coach Craig MacTavish delivered the speech Lowe was supposed to make, out of concern the GM would be drowned out by boos.

The next day, Smyth delivered his blubbery goodbye at an airport media conference (apparently he didn't promise Mess he wouldn't do this), and all that remained for Edmonton was to play out the string. They would wrap it around their necks, throw it over the beam and spend the last six weeks of the season twitching.

It was awful. And when you tallied up all the injuries, it was ridiculous. With 11 regulars out of the lineup during one stretch, and no defencemen left in the organization, they couldn't even ice a full team. So they shrugged their shoulders and went with 19.

They crushed the team record for man games lost to injury (286) and went 2-18 in their final 20 games.

"It's as hard a year, by far, as I've ever had," said centre Shawn Horcoff. "I've never experienced anything like that before. I don't think many teams have."

They wound up 25th overall, the lowest finish, and lowest point, in club history.

Lowe needed to rebuild, quickly.

After trading Jason Smith and being left at the altar by Nylander, Lowe upped the stakes - with a seven-year, $50-million offer sheet to Vanek. Buffalo matched, and swore revenge.

"If there's an opportunity to put an offer sheet on an (Oiler), as long as we're alive, we'll be very comfortable doing that," managing partner Larry Quinn said. "They can expect it."

Lowe was so "spooked" by the threats that a few days later he passed a similar note to Penner - $4.25 million a year, for five years. Almost a 1,000% raise on the $450,000 he made in Anaheim.

Burke didn't match the offer, but more than matched Buffalo's venom.

"I think it's an act of desperation by a general manager fighting to keep his job," he said, following it up later with: "If I had run my team into the sewer like that, I wouldn't throw a grenade at the other 29 teams."

To which MacTavish replied: "(Burke) reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. You comb his hair, put a white shirt on, wheel him out in front of the camera and he'll say whatever you guys want."

This stuff just writes itself.

Fears that decent UFAs wanted nothing to do with Edmonton were put to rest when Souray and Mathieu Garon signed. Throw in Joni Pitkanen (traded for Smith), Gagner (drafted sixth overall), Penner and everyone returning from IR, and the Oilers looked much improved heading into this season ... not too difficult when you finished 25th last year.

Now they just had to stay healthy. Doh!

Fernando Pisani was down with colitis before camp even started, Ethan Moreau broke his leg in pre-season and Souray injured his shoulder six games in.

Not quite the start they were looking for.

By January, Horcoff (shoulder), Raffi Torres (knee) and Souray (shoulder) were done for the season. Then Moreau re-broke his leg and joined them.

Five other players missed at least 25 games to injuries, as well.

By year's end they'll finish with about 340 man games lost, crushing last season's record.

BILLIONAIRE SAVIOUR?

On the bright side, reclusive Edmonton billionaire Daryl (Rexall Pharmacy) Katz continued his dogged pursuit of the franchise, despite being rebuffed several times by a 34-man ownership group that didn't want to let go.

In what amounted to a hostile takeover, Katz kept upping the ante ... $145 million, $150 million, $185 million, $188 million, picking off shareholders one at a time. Finally, at $200 million, the last of the holdouts turned in their keys and the 486th richest man in the world, a lifelong Oilers fan, finally had his team.

He dug into his couch, pulled out $100 million and pledged it toward a new downtown arena, then reached into the pocket of an old suit and promised a new practice facility.

Just like that, a team that lived hand to mouth for 20 years is flush, taken over by a man who'll do whatever it takes to build a winner.

And judging from the tail end of this season, a 10-2 run orchestrated by the next generation, a lot of the building blocks are already in place.

Andrew (Clutch) Cogliano, 20, scored overtime winners in three straight games and is top six in rookie scoring, Gagner is a point-per-game player at 18 and Nilsson is dripping with so much skill that you'd think twice about trading him back for Smyth.

Rookie Tom Gilbert is one of their best defencemen and they have five other key players who haven't yet played 100 NHL games. The future hasn't looked this bright since the 1980s.

Can't wait to see what happens this summer.

---

June 19, 2006

Oilers lose Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final 3-1 to Carolina.

June 23, 2006

At the NHL entry draft, word of Chris Pronger's trade demand becomes public.

June 23, 2006

Because they loaded up at the trade deadline, the Oilers, for the first time in club history, have no pick in the first round of the entry draft.

July 3, 2006

GM Kevin Lowe trades Chris Pronger to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, a first-round pick in 2007, and first-and second-round picks in 2008.

Feb. 27, 2007 (1 p.m.)

Lowe trades Ryan Smyth to Long Island for Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and a first-round draft pick in 2007.

Feb. 27, 2007 (7 p.m.)

The Oilers retire Mark Messier's No. 11.

April 7, 2007

Oilers beat Calgary in the final game of the season to go 2-18 down the stretch. Their 286 man-games lost to injury is a new team record.

May 5, 2007

Local billionaire Daryl Katz makes a $145-million offer to purchase the Oilers. It's turned down.

June 20, 2007

Oilers draft Sam Gagner.

July 1, 2007

Lowe trades Lupul and captain Jason Smith to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and the Flyers' third-round pick in 2009.

July 2, 2007

Lowe reaches a verbal agreement with Michael Nylander's agent Mike Gillis.

July 2, 2007

Nylander signs with the Washington Capitals.

July 3, 2007

Oilers sign UFA netminder Mathieu Garon.

July 5, 2007

Oilers sign Sabres restricted free agent Thomas Vanek to a seven-year, $50-million sheet.

July 6, 2007

The very angry Sabres match the offer, calling Lowe's attempt at piracy "an exercise in futility."

July 12, 2007

Oilers sign unrestricted free agent defenceman Sheldon Souray.

July 18, 2007

Katz makes his third bid for the Oilers, upwards of $170 million. It's rejected. The ownership group tells him it's not for sale.

July 26, 2007

Lowe signs Anaheim restricted free agent Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet.

Aug. 3, 2007

Ducks GM Brian Burke declines to match the offer and begins a war of words that still rages today.

Dec. 13, 2007

Katz makes his fourth pitch for the Oilers at $188 million. Ownership group chairman Cal Nichols recommends the shareholders accept.

A handful of them refuse and begin efforts to try and buy out the other shareholders themselves.

Feb. 6, 2008

The holdout owners give up and Katz takes over the team for $200 million. Pledges $100 million more toward a new downtown arena.

Feb. 24, 2008

Ethan Moreau breaks his leg for the second time in five months, joining Sheldon Souray, Shawn Horcoff and Raffi Torres with season-ending injuries. The Oilers are on pace for 340 man games lost to injury, a new team record.

Feb. 24, 2008

The Oilers sit 14th, 11 points out of eighth place.

March 11, 2008

Andrew Cogliano scores the OT winner in three consecutive games, an NHL first. Donates stick and gloves to Hockey Hall of Fame.

March 18, 2008

Oilers beat Phoenix 8-4 for their 10th win in 12 games. The line of Gagner, Nilsson and Cogliano puts up 37 points during the run.


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