Return of Oiler pride

Oilers Jeff Petry, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins  celebrate Hall's second...

Oilers Jeff Petry, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrate Hall's second period goal during their game at Rexall Place in Edmonton, AB on Tuesday September 27, 2011. (PERRY NELSON/QMI Agency)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:59 PM ET

In years past, cynics thought it rather symbolic when Edmonton completed its training camp in the mountains … because once they dropped the puck on opening night it was all downhill from there.

A Rocky Mountain High, followed by a regular-season low.

But after back-to-back 30th place finishes and years of listening to everyone call Edmonton one of the worst destinations in the NHL, the players were packing a little something extra when they checked out of the Jasper Park Lodge and headed for home.

Oilers pride.

It took a beating in the wake of Pronger and Heatley, five straight seasons out of the playoffs and all those player polls ranking Edmonton just above Kabul as favourite places to play.

But a culture change that began with a dressing room purge two summers ago and continued with an infusion of skilled young talent is showing results.

“It’s really nice to be an Oiler, it’s an awesome feeling,” said defenceman Ladislav Smid, who’s seen enough bad here to know when it’s getting good. “It’s so much fun being on this team. I love every single guy in there. I look forward to coming to the locker-room every morning. It’s awesome.

“You can even see it on the ice in practice, guys are chirping each other and stuff like that. It’s a great mix of veteran guys and younger guys. Honestly it’s awesome.”

With a team on the rise, Edmonton was even able to attract a few free agents in the off-season, landing the likes of Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk and Andy Sutton.

“Good things are happening here, it’s heading in an exciting direction,” said Belanger. “You look at all these young players, where this team is going, those are the reasons I wanted to come here.”

Edmonton’s talent level and atmosphere used to be one of the reasons players stayed away, but word is getting around the NHL that a new generation is taking ownership of the program.

“I thought last year we made a huge jump forward in terms of the chemistry and integrity of our group and the cultural change we’re trying to make here,” said head coach Tom Renney, who credits the remaining veterans as much of the energy of youth. “The guys who have experienced some tough times here three or four years ago have a great deal to do with the chemistry of the squad right now. Nobody likes to be a part of a losing effort and not making the playoffs. They certainly have some ownership of where this stands today.”

That’s why GM Steve Tambellini looked closely at character when he made his off-season moves. The last thing he wanted was somebody bringing tension into the room.

“The people we acquired through free agency, the young people coming up through the system, they’re proud to play here and excited to play in a market like this,” said Tambellini. “That’s what you want, a culture where people feel that they respect the community and the hockey club and want to stick together.”

And now that the high-altitude team building is complete, the next step in the rebirth begins on Oct. 9, when they try and move all this to the ice.

“People are still going to dump on us and say we’re still not good enough to make the playoffs,” said Smid. “We just have to be committed to it, do it and shut these people up.

“I think we can. I’m really excited for us and for the fans in the city. They’ve been with us through some rough times. Hopefully this is the year we can pay them back.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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