April 18 is the anniversary of two key dates in my Oilers fandom. In 2015, the Oilers won the Draft Lottery and were rewarded with the pick to select Connor McDavid. In 2018, just three years later, it was the day I chose to no longer support the team I grew up cheering for.
Ask any of my friends growing up and they’ll tell you: I was a diehard Oilers fan. At least a quarter of my school pictures feature an Oilers jersey. Each spring, when the Oilers faced off with their superior rivals from Dallas, I’d get a buzz cut with an Oilers logo shaved on to the back of my head. Every short story we had to write in Language Arts featured the Oilers in some way. In Grade 6, we had to draw a short comic book for some project. Mine ended up being nearly 200 pages of carefully drawn out fiction about Brett Barrett, Oilers captain and NHL superstar. In many ways, my love for the team has defined me to many of my friends and peers.
Not anymore, it won’t.
The team has been Bad with a capital B for most of my life. Largely because of the EA NHL series of video games, I’ve always been cognizant of the managerial side of hockey. Let me be clear, in no way do I think being good at a video game makes me qualified to be an NHL general manager. But it made me aware of several key factors in team building.
That awareness has made watching the Oilers doubly frustrating. Their hockey operations department has made so many head-scratching decisions over the years that a more musical person than I might have written a parody of We Didn’t Start the Fire. “Bold moves, MacT, challenging Jeff Petry.” You could probably write an entire song just listing the various NHLers whose careers died in blue and orange.
For a long time, I’ve been blinded by my Oilers fandom. Not anymore.
A few weeks before the first of those April 18s, I seriously questioned my fandom for the first time. The Oilers had just finished another season where the playoff dream died in October. Craig McTavish traded Jeff Petry at the trade deadline, then held an unbelievable press conference where he expressed confidence going forward with a defence core of Oscar Klefbom, Justin Schultz, Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference, and Mark Fayne. Only two of those players are still in the NHL, one being a rookie at the time and the other being pre-Pittsburgh Justin Schultz.
After that press conference, the venerable Al Mitchell, or Lowetide, wrote an article titled “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish.” The closing paragraph, true on March 2, 2015, sadly remains mostly true.
“The Edmonton Oilers are a bad hockey club and they make decisions based on things other than winning. Saying more would only cloud the issue. There is nothing about the actions of this team in recent months that offers us any hope for the future. I have reached this conclusion: The Edmonton Oilers organization has no idea what they’re doing.”
Then they won the Connor McDavid lottery. Holy shit. MY Oilers were finally going to be good. Never mind longing for the days of Wayne Gretzky, I was getting my own generational superstar in Edmonton.
Much like the oft-compared-to Chicago Blackhawks when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived, the Oilers had pieces in place to supplement McDavid. This wasn’t like the arrival of Taylor Hall in 2010, when the core pieces included Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, and Ladislav Smid. This was a core of Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Klefbom, soon to be supplemented with Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, and three more top-60 picks in a damn good 2015 draft.
Bob Nicholson, the CEO of the Oilers Entertainment Group, quickly knifed McTavish (hopefully over Skype) and brought in Peter Chiarelli. They now had a GM who had won the Stanley Cup more recently than my -3rd birthday. Sure, he hadn’t built the Bruins’ Cup-winning core, and he tanked the team’s immediate future with bad contracts to depth players and jaw-dropping bad trades, but the Oilers already had a good core in place and Chiarelli had to have learned his lesson… right?
Turns out, the lessons Chiarelli took from his time in Boston were the wrong ones. Overpay for the players you want and it’ll all work out. In the salary cap era of the NHL, that is a horrifyingly wrong path to success.
Over the next three years, Chiarelli decided Griffin Reinhart, Adam Larsson, Milan Lucic, Kris Russell, and Ryan Strome were the guys he wanted. To recap, that’s a slow-skating defensive defenceman who has not—and likely never will—become an everyday NHL player, a good second pairing defenceman with good defensive awareness but limited offence, a 30-year-old power forward, a third-pairing defenceman who can’t make a good first pass, and a third line centre who consistently scores 30-something points and doesn’t win face-offs. With the exception of Reinhart, all are NHL players. None are stars, though. Unfortunately, in acquiring and keeping those guys, Chiarelli lost three stars. Mat “Pick 16” Barzal, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle were traded for Reinhart, Larsson and Strome respectively. Making matters worse, Russell was added because Reinhart couldn’t make the grade, and the Eberle trade was made in order to sign Russell long-term.
Much digital ink has been spilt on these moves, including here and here, so I won’t continue to beat these dead horses. Ultimately, the Oilers are a worse team because of these and several other bad moves, many of which are direct results of the above moves.
Connor McDavid is basically a real-life cheat code, yet the Oilers still couldn’t score when he wasn’t on the ice. Turns out intentionally reducing your team’s offensive output is a bad idea. How could anyone have known, unless they somehow figured out that you need to score more goals than the other team to win hockey games…
Peter Chiarelli is unable to build a good hockey team. He’s the latest in a decade-long line of poor GMs making poor decisions.
After Chiarelli and Nicholson’s embarrassing end-of-the-season press conferences, I was done.
There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother where the main character explains that he writes a letter “to his future self” after each of his breakups. Writing the letters is cathartic, and they can be used to remind the writer why the breakup happened, in case of any second thoughts.
Having decided to end my fandom, I wrote a breakup letter to the Oilers organization. The team no longer makes me happy. My mental health is very often worse for being a fan of this organization. Watching games became a burden and watching teams like Winnipeg and Toronto succeed was a reminder of what could have been.
I ended up writing another copy of that letter, with less swearing and stream-of-conscious narration, and mailed it to the organization. I outlined some of the poor (read: dumb) choices the organization has made and why I can no longer support the team in good faith. The letter was dated April 18, 2018: three years to the day when the future seemed irrepressibly bright.
I mailed the letter, packed my jerseys and memorabilia into a box (no small feat, I had a lot of Oilers crap), and gave the box to my parents. I began looking for a new team to cheer for. I forgot about the letter.
Two months later, I received a reply. It was signed by Nicholson, but I’m fairly confident it’s a form letter someone else from the organization wrote to send to a growing number of disillusioned fans.
In the letter, the author touts their belief in “Peter’s plan,” and points to two moves that will help the organization improve. Those moves? Re-signing a 25-year-old minor-leaguer with 44 points in two AHL seasons and signing a shiny new backup goaltender who makes far too much money. Problem solved!
I have no doubt the Oilers will be better this season than they were in 2017-18. It’d be almost impossible not to be. But heading into year four of the McDavid Oilers hoping to be a playoff team is downright unacceptable. This team should be a legitimate Cup contender, not just a playoff maybe.
Returning to my earlier comparison to the Blackhawks, that team was a Cup contender in year two, and won two Cups in the first six years. Anyone else sort of doubt the Oilers win two of the next three Cups?
There is a relationship between fans and a sports club. An implicit contract where we support the team with our time and money, and it provides an exciting and winning product. In 2010, the franchise asked for patience while they rebuilt the team into one that could win a Stanley Cup. ”Stick with us, it’ll be worth it in a few years.” Eight years later, the few worthwhile parts of the Edmonton Oilers were earned through futility and good luck, not through the efforts of management.
It is not a simple thing to end a lifelong association, but the direction this franchise is headed has made it an easy choice. The key decisions made over the past three years by Chiarelli have, to be frank, not worked out. I am not an NHL general manger, nor have I ever been. Despite that, I have never needed the benefit of hindsight to be critical of Mr. Chiarelli’s feature moves. These moves seriously damaged the team’s ability to ice a competitive team in 2017-18 and beyond.
The Oilers have always been like a childhood friend to me. But now, it’s like that once-close friend who’s made too many bad life decisions and continually refused help, to the point where the only sensible course of action is to cease being friends with them.