The usher at Rexall Place rolled her eyes and replied to my question with a wry grin, “I have to toe the line here, so yes, I think cheerleaders are a good idea.”
In a small way, the Edmonton Oilers made hockey history by becoming the first Canadian NHL team to have its own cheerleading squad. The Oilers Octane were introduced to the sold-out crowd at Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While they roared their approval when the 19 women walked onto the ice during a first-period intermission, some hockey fans were puzzled by the concept.
“It’s wrong,” said Ryan Singh. “Cheerleading is for football. Our crowds are rowdy enough, we don’t need someone telling us when to cheer.”
He’s not alone. An online petition, calling the idea of an Oilers cheer team demeaning to women and an affront to the game, gathered more than 1,500 signatures.
But cheer squads are already standard fare south of the border. Only one of the 24 American NHL teams doesn’t have one.
Videos on the Predators’ website show nubile women on special non-slip shoes on the ice in Nashville, while the Atlanta Thrashers’ site shows their cheer team practising skating moves.
“But teams in places like that probably need that just to draw people,” said Oiler fan Mike Simms.
His son Denon chimed in. “I don’t think they should be on the ice, but I like ’em!”
Oilers vice-president Allan Watt assured fans that Octane won’t perform while the game is on.
“They’ll be mostly in the entrances and exits,” he said. “They’ll be interacting with fans and doing some of their routines in the concourses.”
He added that a big part of their role will be as “ambassadors” for the team at events around Oil Country.
“They can also help us do any number of commercial and sponsorship functions that our partners unveil, and also any charity events that make sense for us at all.”
Octane member Nikki said she’s a huge Oilers fan, so getting to cheer for them is a dream come true.
The fourth-year psychology student at the University of Alberta said she heard about Octane when she logged onto the Oilers website in October to listen to a game and saw the call for applicants.
“It’s such an exciting thing to be part of,” she said. “We’ve been practising hard and now I’m looking forward to our debut.”
A lot of fans were looking forward to it, as well.
One guy, who didn’t want his name used, said Tuesday’s tilt was his first NHL game.
His buddy laughed and said, “He sent me a message: ‘We gotta get tickets. There’ll be cheerleaders!’ ”
Watt hopes all fans will keep an open mind about Octane.
“Hockey in Canada is generally a conservative place,” he said. “I certainly understand the interest and understand the hesitancy in some cases, but when we roll them out that’s the time to decide and have an opinion about them.”
To see more about the cheer team, go to www.oilersoctane.com
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