I can’t recall exactly where I was when this crossed my mind, but I thought about it the other day. Something very depressing. I was at what will go down as the final playoff game ever seen at Northlands Coliseum/Edmonton Coliseum/Skyreach Centre/Rexall Place. If you would have told ANYONE that night it would be the last playoff game ever in that building, it would be unimaginable the laughs, looks, and mocking you would take for suggesting that.
Back in those days (get off my lawn) my family had season tickets…good season tickets! I had gone to 3 playoff games in the early 90’s at the end of the dynasty, but during what could be called the Ryan Smyth era, I was there at least twice every spring.
So with it being the final days of Rexall I figured it would be a good time to do a whole week of retro pieces on the Oilers and instead of talking about the dynasty years that while I lived through I don’t really remember much of it pre 1990 and everyone knows everything about that team. Then, I could talk about the rebuild, but I’ve gone down that memory lane a ton including one piece a couple weeks ago. So I figured I would talk about what again is essentially the Ryan Smyth era (96-06). Maybe call it the “Rock n Roll All Night” era? They did use that song a lot during the playoffs in those years. In 99 they used Dragula for the team entrance….and used it for every period, not just the initial entrance. So you could imagine my pain by the 3rd OT in 99, game 4 against Dallas. But I digress.
So here we go, this is the first of 5 pieces I’m doing to that plucky underdog and oh so loveable team that never won a Cup but was one of the most popular teams in the league and believe it or not was considered amongst the most well run organizations in all of a sports for a time.
Things had changed a lot in Edmonton since 1992. It looked as though in 92 that the rebuild was essentially over and that “the team of the 90’s” was here. Led by Bill Ranford, Vincent Damphousse, Joe Murphy, Bernie Nicholls, and Dave Manson the Oilers went to the Campbell conference final in 92, knocking off the Kings in the process. And Don Whittman said during the handshakes of that series “the team of the 80’s knocked off by the team of the 90’s”. But that SO wasn’t to be.
The exodus that looked as though it was done after the gutting of the roster on the eve of the 91-92 season continued. By the end of 93, the entire top line of Damphousse, Nicholls and Murphy were all gone. Kevin Lowe who Glen Sather thought would be the 1 hold over from the dynasty, also wanted out. 93 and 94 were as dark of years for the Oilers as the last 6 have been. 95 and 96 they made playoff pushes. They couldn’t find a way into the dance in either year, but you could see they were coming and entering the 96-97 season you had the feeling it could be the year they broke through.
But breaking through meant making the playoffs, not going anywhere. Little did we know, internationally things were about to get worse for Canada, but the feeling in October of 96 was that hockey in Canada was fading fast.
Canada lost the World Cup of Hockey to the Americans, and no Canadian team made it past the first round of the playoffs the previous spring. 1990 marked the 9th straight year a Canadian team (everyone of those years it was at least a Western Canadian team) had made the final. 6 years later, no Canadian team made it out of the first round. Then of course the previous 2 seasons were the last for the Quebec Nordiques and the former incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The combination of no revenue sharing, no salary cap, and a horrific Canadian dollar was crippling every Canadian team. It felt like Canadian hockey was in free fall.
But for Oiler fans, they would be happy just getting in the dance. And there was a certain energy around the team. The new jersey’s were a big hit. As a kid at the time, they felt like the hip/cool team. Sick new uni’s, that was the first season they came onto the ice through the oil derrick, they were really young and had a lot of talent.
Most importantly, they really took on the personality of their head coach, Ron Low. Low wasn’t an X’s and O’s guy…not even remotely close! Ron Low had bite, and Ron Low was as straight of a shooter as you could find. The type of guy who maybe wasn’t going to start the fight, but he would welcome it. There were no fly by’s on his hockey team. If you had the chance to lay the body, you better do it. Otherwise Glen Sather might be trading you the next day.
It was a hell of a year. If I’m not mistaken at one point around mid season they sat 3rd in the West. If they didn’t, they came real close to catching Detroit in the standings. They spent a lot of the season in 4th and looked headed for home ice. But they began to fade late in the season, and really faded once they clinched a playoff spot on a Saturday night hosting Vancouver (no lie, didn’t need to look that up, Canucks tied the game with a second to go, ended in a tie).
They ended up 7th and played Dallas. I really thought with the way they ended the season and all the vets the Stars had that they had ZERO chance to win that series.
I remember being surprised they were even in the first game. Mike Modano sniped late to give the Stars a 4-3 win, and my thought was it was the Oilers best chance to win and it would be done in 4 or 5.
Game 2 was the Bryan Marchment game that I really thought at the time would be well remembered. Marchment for those who don’t know or don’t recall, lost his balance dumping a puck into the Stars zone and as he was falling Guy Carboneau’s penalty was expiring, so the door was open.
It was pretty scary at the time. Anyway, the Oilers used this a rallying cry and actually dominated the remainder of the game, winning 4-0. All of a sudden I felt like it was going to be a respectable series as it moved back to Edmonton.
But game 3 the Stars finally woke up. For 56 minutes the Stars completely dominated the Oilers. It was an awful and frustrating game to watch. 3-0 Dallas. Of course, games are 60 minutes long and the greatest comeback in Oilers history was about to take place.
Doug Weight on what seemed like a meaningless back hand. Then Andrei Kovalenko on a power play, followed very shortly by a Mike Grier tip in. 1:56, 3 goals, and it was tied at 3 heading to OT, where captain Kelly Buchberger ended it. At this point I remember thinking the upset was coming. The Stars were having trouble beating Joseph, their PP was awful, and the Oilers just had nothing to lose.
Game 4, Dallas bounced back and tied the series but game 5 was when Cujo really took over the series. The game went to double OT, and the Stars couldn’t get anything past him. Then Ryan Smyth scored, with a shot that would be both a blessing and a curse to Oilers fans. Smyth had one of the worst clappers in league history, but after he got a bad one past Andy Moog on this Friday night in April of 97, he believed he was sniping one like that every time he had a little room coming down the left side. So while it was great that this shot put the Oilers up 3-2 in the series going home…I’m not sure it was great for Oiler fans after that.
Once again though in game 6 the Stars bounced back, and like so many times in what would become a rivalry (which I’ll be going more in depth about tomorrow), Mike Modano. 2nd time in the series Modano comes up huge for the Stars late in a game, to give Dallas a 3-2 win and taking the Oilers back down South for game 7. After this one I remember once again thinking “they’re done”.
I had not got used to a team that wouldn’t quit. I actually played on a team like that in 97, we came back in both our first 2 playoff series that year, from 2 goals down in the first one and from 3 down in the second, winning both series in OT (2 game total goal). But watching the Oilers be that team, I really wasn’t used to it. They were either the heavy favourites like in the late 80’s/early 90’s, or they were horrible.
Never were they the plucky/loveable underdog who never would quit. Game 7, Stars get a 1-0 lead, Oilers tie it 10 seconds later with a Rem Murray goal setup by Joe Hulbig and the never forgotten thanks to how Shane Doan’s career has gone Steve Kelly. The Oilers see a 2-1 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit late in the 2nd and again I’m thinking “now they’re done” and REALLY thinking that when Mike Modano got Cujo 1 on 1 with 30 seconds left in the 2nd and Joseph completely robbed him. Seconds later, Marchant to Kovalenko and it was tied again.
Of course you can’t speak of the goal without speaking of the save. The save late in the 2nd on Modano might have been better…MIGHT…but it wasn’t as clutch. When Brendan Morrison scored in the 3rd OT to be the Flames in 6 of the 2004 playoffs, Chris Cuthbert’s call was “Brendan Morrison, a silencer…” That might have been true, but never have I heard something make a building go quiet like Cujo’s save on Joe Nieuwendyk. I don’t think I’m over exaggerating that either. The crowd noise goes from the anticipation of the series winner going in, to “what?”
I remember just being in shock. In my parents living room, 13 years old, undercut flying everywhere, probably wearing an “I AM CANDIAN” t-shirt and some really baggy tanned cords, just going absolutely ape shit at what I was witnessing. This team should have been done about 15 times by now and still Cujo was keeping them alive. Then the puck dropped to resume play, and the Stars got another chance that Cujo kick aside. And Bob Cole says “he looks like he’s in that zone again by the looks of it”. And that was it. It was the last shot the Stars got on goal, because this happened.
That goal along with the Pisani goal is the most replayed Oiler goal outside of the dynasty years. Something else to add is that until that goal, Marchant NEVER scored on breakaway’s. EVER. He couldn’t have picked a better time to do it.
Need more of that save and that goal? I got this clip from a TSN Top 10 (goaltender saves). Starts at 1:02.
But back to the goal, and again some might wonder why that goal was so massive, but you have to remember where things were at. The Oilers were maybe the poorest of the poor Canadian teams. I’ve heard Bob Stauffer say it about the 04 Flames lots that he felt it changed from the battle OF Alberta to the battle FOR Alberta. Well this season was really the start of that and not just Alberta, but Canada. At that time, of the 6 remaining Canadian teams, none of them were anywhere near the top of the league. It was dominated by the big market U.S. teams like Philadelphia, Detroit, Colorado, the Rangers and of course Dallas. And here was the poorest of the poor, the Oilers, going into big market Dallas and knocking them off on their ice no less. It was huge. Ironically, scored by an American. Assisted by an American.
It really seemed to stop the bleeding so to speak too. Not internationally. Of course Canada lost the 98 Olympics, 97 was the last year before 05 that Canada won gold at the WJC, but life for the Canadian teams seemed to improve after that. The next season, all 3 that got in the playoffs went onto the 2nd round. In 99 both the Sens and the Leafs became powerhouses, and things were really never as bad again. Even today, while there is a threat of seeing no Canadian team in the playoffs this season, no team is on the move, 6 of 7 don’t need new buildings (and Calgary will get theirs), and the cap ensures everyone has a chance as long as the right people are running a team. No team may make it this season, but 5 of 7 made it last season, and I would say 6 of 7 are in great shape for the years to come.
A massive goal, at just the right time, that kicked off one of the league’s hottest rivalries.
Follow me on Twitter @TJ_Soups