Lesson learned by Oilers

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

It was a rookie mistake that any veteran would have seen coming from across the street.

An Edmonton Oiler can charge all he wants at autograph sessions when he's out of town.

Who cares what they do at off-season memorabilia shows in Toronto, Vancouver or Los Angeles?

But charging the hometown fans for autographs -- even at a collectibles show, where 90% of the people in attendance are more businessman than fan -- is a little unpalatable in a community that's given the Oilers unconditional support for more than 30 years.

A player can turn up at shows that charge $25 to get in the door, then sit next to a sign that reads 'Free Autographs' -- but a direct link between signature and payment isn't cool.

Not here.

So there were a few red faces when Andrew Cogliano, 21, and Sam Gagner, 19, got caught pen-handed on Sunday, sitting at a table next to a sign that read 'Autographs: $25.'

It wasn't very Sharpie, but it was an honest mistake by a couple of kids who didn't know any better.

SURROUNDED

"We thought we were doing the right thing," said Gagner, surrounded by reporters in the dressing room after practice yesterday.

"We thought it was a public signing. We do those with the Oilers all the time. At first, we weren't aware that everybody was being charged that amount.

"When we found out it was like 'What can we do? We can't leave now ..."

Players get appearance money for autograph sessions all the time, but the host company normally eats the cost, trying to make it up on exposure and goodwill when all those potential customers flood their store for the free signatures.

That's what Gagner and Cogliano say they thought was happening this time.

"We just didn't know what was happening, and when we got there it was too late to back out," said Cogliano, adding the two were under contract for the show.

"It's too bad we were put in a situation where we're looked bad upon, but we really don't think we did anything wrong."

They didn't.

This wasn't a table at the Stollery Children's Hospital, this was a sports collectibles show, where entrepreneurs pay for signatures they can leverage into more money.

A guy takes a $5 picture, gets it signed for $25 and sells it for $100.

An official NHL sweater doubles or triples in value when it's signed. So 90% of the people shelling out $25 per signature were making a big profit at the other end.

"This was more for guys who get things signed and sell them," said Cogliano, adding he would never even think about charging a fan in a fan setting.

"That's why people do these shows. These things happen all the time."

They sure do. Just not here.

Derek Jeter can get away with it in New York, for a lot more than $25, but charging for autographs doesn't fly in Edmonton, no matter what.

So when that other 10% started grumbling, in a city where the media can't wait for something juicy on the Oilers (whether it's bike helmets in Jasper or two kids at an autograph table), boom, they're on the front page.

Rookie mistake.

"Guys like Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray have all that stuff sourced out before they even get there," said Oilers VP communications Allan Watt.

"They know all the questions to ask."

MOLEHILL

Gagner and Cogliano didn't, and the Oilers weren't aware of what was going on, so the molehill became a mountain.

Forget that Oilers players made some 400 public appearances last year, where they signed for free, or that Gagner was on a Make-A-Wish visit Saturday, or that the Oilers are signing 10,000 hats for a fundraiser that will generate some $300,000 for breast cancer research.

The kids tripped up, got burned, and learned a valuable lesson along the way.

"It kind of put into reality how big it is (to be an Oiler)," said Cogliano.

"When you see something so small like this in the paper, it shows how much people actually care about us.

"We take it very seriously. We're guys who'll do anything for the community, and we usually do.

"It's unfortunate, but it's something we've learned from."


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