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A Mullet in the Wind: The Retirement of Ryan Smyth

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

After an even 20 seasons in the NHL, aging Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth has announced his retirement and will play his final game in the league Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Probably the team most’s iconic and popularly beloved player of its post-championship-dynasty period, Smyth hailed from Banff, Alberta, loved the Oilers growing up, and was legendarily hit by 1980s Oiler scoring star Glenn Anderson’s car while working at a hotel in his hometown (they were later teammates in one of Smyth’s first seasons and one of Anderson’s first). Even if he was not an Oiler for his entire career (he was painfully traded away in 2007, only to demand a trade back in 2011), Smyth is identified with the team and the city and its perceived work ethic and tenacity as no player has been since local product Mark Messier in the Cup years.

Edmonton Oilers v Ottawa SenatorsFollowing hard on the heels of the trading of fellow longtime Oilers (and 2006 Stanley Cup Final run principals) Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, Smyth’s retirement cuts the final tether connecting the last great Oilers team and this motley current crew of massively talented but perenially disappointing young players. As steady and effective as Horcoff could be, as exciting as Hemsky’s sublime bursts of skill were, they were neither of them the folk hero that the man known as Smytty (hockey nicknames leave much to be desired) became locally. In a town with a self-image tied in with tough, dirty oil field labour and other related proletarian overtones, Smyth was the exemplar of on-ice spade work and grim, gutsy determination that has come to define not only Edmonton’s conception of “good” hockey but Canada’s as well. His defining on-ice moment for many fans came during the second round of the 2006 playoffs, when he lost three teeth to an errant puck but returned in the same game to set up Horcoff for a triple-overtime winner (the only decent video of the lost teeth incident features some tacky and uninformed Chris Pronger hate, but there you go). It’s a moment out of old-time, smash-mouth hockey lore; had the Oilers gone one win further that spring and won the Cup, the teeth would have ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame (who knows, they still might, though their former owner may not).

Despite this lunchbucket reputation, Smyth was a tremendously skilled player as well, topping 400 goals and 850 points for his NHL career. He was a scorer in his heyday, a power play specialist (tied for most PP goals all-time for the Oilers, topping the list with one more against the Canucks would be a sweet finish) and not a puncher or grinder. The tenacity and tolerance for punishment that characterized his front-of-net office on the man advantage were often emphasized, but the excellent hand-eye coordination and anticipation to screen goalies or deflect shots or bang home loose pucks before defending opponents could beat him to it testified to a high level of skill and ability. If his hard-working rep brought him closer to his fans, his gifted talents separated him from and set him above them. Like all great hockey icons, Ryan Smyth could seem both larger-than-life and just like the men and women rooting for him from the stands or the barstools or the couches.

For my part, I well recall persistent Smytty in-jokes among myself and my Oiler fan friends. His habit of scoring shovel-in goals from in close to the net (this one from the 2006 Finals is an object lesson; how did it go in?) inspired the running joke that he scored every goal with his head like a soccer striker. His flowing hair likewise lead to a nickname that never shook itself from my head: Mullet in the Wind. Now, with Ryan Smyth’s career nearly at its end, adapting the lyrics of a famous Elton John musical elegy to the departed to include this phrase is indeed a tempting final tribute.

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Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

The Slow Start of the Edmonton Oilers and the Trials of Nail Yakupov

October 19, 2013 2 comments

Another NHL season has begun, and this time it was supposed to be different. After seven long seasons out of the playoffs, this was the year that the youthful Edmonton Oilers were supposed to have grown and learned enough to at least contend for the second season, if not burst right through that ice ceiling at last, after so long.

Of course, that hasn’t happened, and Oiler fans of the current cynical vintage ought not to be surprised. Going into today’s road tilt against the Ottawa Senators, the Oilers have only a single win through eight games, that one coming in a shootout against the New Jersey Devils. Their losses have included multi-goal defeats at the hands of superior clubs like Vancouver and Washington as well as more dispiriting defeats: they blew a two-goal third-period lead against the Winnipeg Jets in the season opener, and took the stick to the Toronto Maple Leafs (near the top of the league, though perhaps not deservedly so) on national television, only to continuously lose their lead, including in the final minute, before dropping the game gut-wrenchingly in overtime. For a team whose long-suffering fanbase finally expected to be better, it’s been a disappointing opening tenth of what might be another long season.

If I recall, this goal was not Dubnyk’s fault. But it’s so hard to tell sometimes.

When a sports team is not winning, there is never enough blame to go around, and fans and media have been liberal with it. Much of the heat has fallen on starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk, whose decent career numbers have cratered in the opening weeks of the 2013-14 season. Ignoring all the undocumented palaver about his body language or tendency to allow “bad” goals (as opposed, I suppose, to “good” ones), Dubnyk and backup Jason LaBarbera do need to be better if the Oilers are to compete.

But plenty of more salient issues present themselves away from the easy goalie blame-game. The defence in front of the netminders has been prone to chaos in their own zone (especially prized d-man Justin Schultz, who leans offensive more than defensive), and the power play and especially the penalty kill have been putrid, too. Indeed, many of the areas that the Oilers were strong in last year – special teams, above-average goaltending – have gone south, while areas of the game where they were weaker – faceoffs, generating shots, using Ryan Smyth – have gotten much better. Early times, but the Oilers under new coach Dallas Eakins appear to have flipped the script on the Oilers under the last couple of coaches, for good and for ill.

In the midst of the year-opening slump, as if to make matters appear even worse, Eakins decided to leave last year’s rookie phenom Nail Yakupov on the bench for the games in Toronto and Washington. A healthy scratch is one of the nuclear options in a coach’s discipline tactic-book, and has been used on players of more experience and rounded ability than the still-raw former #1 overall pick. It can also be taken to mean more than it does, and before Yakupov return to the lineup for Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders, trade rumours lit up the internet with Yakupov as a central piece, perhaps to acquire goaltending help. That the rumours (even those pushed by mainstream media figures) were more than a little ridiculous in their misevaluation of Yakupov’s value did not make them any less alarming to Oiler (and especially Yakupov) fans, present company included.

Leave aside lazy xenophobic distaste for Russian players or skilled offensive dynamos, as well as any blather about “toughness” or “heart” or “two-way game” or whatever other dog-whistle term is used by Canadian fans to justify their tendency for preferring Canadian players to any others. Are Yakupov’s hiccups in learning defensive responsibility or how to play a team game really what kept him out? Is there a personality clash with the evidently intense and demanding Eakins? I’ve not kept my fondness for Yakupov’s extravagant enthusiasm and flair too quiet at all, and have great hopes for his transition from the fledgling folk hero he already is to a bonafide superstar for the Oilers. But these things take work and adversity, not merely talent and skill. Yakupov’s latest trials, like those of his team as a whole, will hopefully presage an overdue rise to come. If they do not, then suffering through them will have proven to be that much more difficult for the team and for its fans.

 

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #5 – A King’s Ransom

August 10, 2013 Leave a comment

August 9th, 2013 marked 25 years since the public announcement of the momentous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It seemed like an appropriate day to finally get around to watching Peter Berg’s 30 For 30 documentary film (the first one aired in the long-running ESPN sports film series) about the deal’s lead-up, its execution, and its long-tailed aftermath, A King’s Ransom. The initial verdict on Berg’s film is that it’s a fairly cursory and facile portrait of an event whose psychic scars are still visible on a certain generation of Edmontonians and whose legacy continues to be manifested in the NHL’s stubborn insistence on succeeding in southern U.S. markets.

But then Berg (director of macho Hollywood dreck like Hancock and Battleship as well as Friday Night Lights, both the film and the more acclaimed television show, which he helped to develop) can only work with what he has. The principal players in the deal – Gretzky himself, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather – give a pretty simple picture of the trade-building process. The decision to move Gretzky was influenced by a combination of factors. There was dire economic need: Pocklington was losing money on the Oilers, a trend which continued well into the ’90s when he sold the team and then later filed for bankruptcy, and he got $15 million in cash from the Kings in the deal. There was roster and contract calculation: Sather and Pocklington would have to convince Gretzky to re-sign for less money than he was most definitely worth to keep him in Edmonton and keep a strong team around him, and Gretzky was looking for compensation that befitted the best player in the game at the peak of his powers. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing in another year so as a free agent, so they grabbed assets for him while they could.

But there was a grander, deeper motive behind the deal which has been enshrined as a foundational moment of the modern NHL, and Berg gives it more than a bit of lip service. Quite simply, there was a vague feeling that the game’s greatest player should play in the continent’s glitziest media centre, and that this could only serve to benefit the game’s growth in the U.S. The league, especially under the stewardship of Gary Bettman, has aggressively pushed expansion into non-traditional American markets, often to the perceived detriment of the game’s passionate grassroots in Canada (although, ironically, it is now the muscular incomes of the Canadian franchises that support the zombie American ones through revenue sharing).

In this way, the Gretzky deal – benefitting a southern U.S. franchise and damaging a northern Canadian one – is a sort of creation myth for the contemporary big-money NHL, or perhaps more properly its messianic break from the smash-mouth backwoods heritage of the game. Once the Great One’s name was in lights in Hollywood, there was no going back for the league; flash and glamour were a part of hockey for good, even if they were supported by law-breaking robber barons like McNall (who later spent a few years in prison for fraud). Hardy northern outposts of dedicated fandom like Edmonton would have to return to the wilderness. With the exception of a few playoff series wins around the turn of the millennium and a Stanley Cup Final run in 2006 that is beginning to feel almost as distant as the glory days of the 1980s, the Oilers have mostly wandered in that very wilderness ever since.

As mentioned, A King’s Ransom only addresses these long-established readings in a cursory way: a closing onscreen title half-credits Gretzky’s coming to Los Angeles for the three teams now based in California. Berg also doesn’t do much more to explore the divergent reactions in both cities to the trade other than to show that Edmontonians were pissed (it didn’t help that Pocklington was clumsy at PR and local media hacks like Jim Matheson fanned the flames of anger unwisely) and Los Angelenos sycophantically hopped on the shiny bandwagon (as they are wont to do; witness the glamourous reception for David Beckham when he signed for the MLS’ LA Galaxy a few years ago, despite soccer being even more marginal a sport in the city than hockey was in 1988). Longer-term effects are left unconsidered.

What’s much more interesting is the glimpse A King’s Ransom provides into the perspective and feelings of the Great One and those closest to him concerning the whole affair. Though Gretzky will forever be hockey’s demigod, he has hardly covered himself in glory since retiring from the game, or indeed since leaving the Oilers: no further Cups, only a single MVP, a painful Olympic defeat in 1998, and in retirement, a failed dalliance with co-owning and then coaching the increasingly-disastrous Phoenix Coyotes franchise and a gambling controversy embroiling his wife Janet and a close associate.

Janet appears here, downplaying the role she may have played in the event. Although she was a Hollywood actress (“I saw Police Academy 5!” yells one fan following her wedding limo in the doc, a hilarious summation of her onscreen career) who had married Wayne the same summer as the trade and they had begun living in L.A. in the off-season, she tells us she had nothing to do with any of it. No thinking fan was ever fully comfortable with the misogynsistic tone of the popular effort to cast her as the Yoko Ono of the Boys on the Bus, but neither could a thinking fan believe that Gretzky’s decision was not influenced by his recent marriage to a Californian. Gretzky’s father Walter also shows up, relating how he told his son a few hours after the last Cup win in Edmonton that he would leave for more money soon. The influence of this most famous of hockey fathers is also underplayed, though most inside views have understood the elder Gretzky’s sway over his son was considerable.

Most revealing, however, is how Berg, speaking to Gretzky on a golf course in the film, perhaps inadvertently exposes the great sports hero as a bit of a shallow intellect. When trying to explain his decision to accept the trade, Gretzky says that he decided to leave because he was angry that Pocklington and Sather were thinking of trading him. They were thinking of trading him, so he let them do it; I’m sure that showed ’em. Gretzky is fully aware that more Cups were to be won in Edmonton with that wonderful Oilers team, and from an on-ice perspective, the motivations for the move are much less clear. Indeed, Berg shows plenty of highlights of Gretzky’s prowess with the game, but A King’s Ransom represents one of the first major points in hockey history where what was happening off the ice trumped what was happening on it. In our era of cynical lockouts and shady ownership machinations, perhaps this was the true legacy of the Wayne Gretzky trade. Big business came to NHL hockey in a major way, and the game itself hasn’t regained primacy over the course of its own destiny ever since.

In Which I Describe a Strange Dream Concerning Nail Yakupov

Last night was a restless one for yours truly, and in one extended patch of sleep, I dreamed briefly about dynamic Russian Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov. Perhaps last night’s breaking news of the trade of Oilers Kaptain Shawn Horcoff to Dallas sparked something in my unconscious dreamzone, I can’t rightly say. But I will lay out the detail of this Yakupov dream without interpretation or judgment, and let any amateur psychoanalyst who stumbles upon it speculate on my mental state as they will.

The dream-frame, as it were, was a television broadcast of some sort (my dreams are often couched thusly, like that odd faux-documentary on pink German-made anti-Frankenstein-monster foam my brain conjured up once upon a time). It constituted coverage of an international hockey tournament of some sort, a mixture of the yearly senior and junior world championships (I recall an in-game clip of Oilers farmhand Chris Vande Velde scoring on a point shot only to have the goal disallowed, which seems like a decent summary of his marginal NHL career to this point). The lead-in to Yakupov’s appearance was a montage of free time activities of players from teams already out of the tournament, showing them drinking, playing ping pong, setting off fireworks, and proposing to their girlfriends (the latter two were combined into one act with the fireworks spelling out a rather lengthy proposal message, which seems like an original idea, if a bit lugubrious).

After a short, wary introduction (these guys don’t seem too sure about him), Yak City himself stands among these bro-ish off-duty athletes, attired nattily in a suit coat and open-collared dress shirt and expounding on some subject or another. The program shortly cuts away from this social tableau and to a documentary-style interview with a seated Yakupov (I recall an onscreen title to the effect of “Nail Yakupov – Gentleman”).

Evidently more comfortable speaking his mind in Russian, Yakupov’s words were imparted via subtitles, and covered his eclectic interests away from the game of hockey. He first lamented that, due to his move to North America to play in the NHL, he had to give up his favourite pastime of ranching and riding llamas in his native Tatarstan. He expressed concern that he may have to sell off the property altogether, ultimately. He explained eloquently that being a substantial landowner is a vital factor in a Russian hockey player’s sense of identity and self-valuation, a form of conspicuous consumption used to measure his success against that of his peers. For example, Dallas Stars defenceman Sergei Gonchar, Yakupov tells the hidden interviewer, has title to most of the territory east of Krasnoyarsk, which he rules as a semi-independent duchy.

But Nail Yakupov is a sunny sort by nature, and has other sideline projects to keep this sort of thing from dragging him down. For one, he’s establishing an architectural firm called McElroy & McYakupov. He considers the Scottish affectation important, as it is well known in architectural circles that Scots have an appreciation of fine lines and cutting-edge design and the name will help to build a client base. Furthermore, he’s looking forward to re-organizing the discourse in the Oilers locker room along the free-thinking dialectic principles of the Socratic Method, though he acknowledges that this may take some time to implement.

At about this point, the particulars of the dream fade, and no more can be recalled. Again, I will abstain from analysis, but I think it’s fair to say that Oilers fans can safely add these fascinating details to the growing popular legend of Nail Yakupov.

Tempered Hopes, Deferred Glories: Your 2012-2013 Edmonton Oilers

April 29, 2013 1 comment

The Edmonton Oilers’ shortened NHL season ended on Saturday night with an impressive 7-2 win (albeit in an essentially meaningless game) over the Vancouver Canucks. Though some improvement in standings positioning was shown from previous seasons (24th is undeniably better than 29th or 30th), another finish out of playoff position (seven years running now, longest streak of spring futility in the league now that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the postseason) was undoubtedly disappointing for a fanbase led to expect a more competitive team.

There were consequences for management, as GM Steve Tambellini was let go before season’s end and replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish. There was also a note of challenge from the usually sycophantic Edmonton sports media to the sheltered upper management, as President Kevin Lowe (often understood to be the true mover behind the annual inadequate roster) was grilled over the team’s lack of success in a surprising press conference announcing MacTavish’s promotion to general manager. Lowe’s thin-skinned reaction to criticism later required a contrite apology, but also demonstrated that his intolerance for dissenting views may be part of the problem for the organization.

MacT doesn’t get a banner backdrop? Setting him up to fail already!

Still, this was another season lost, and though the Oilers’ talented core is young and learning, valuable years are draining off of contracts and frustration is building. In particular, hyper-competitive franchise player Taylor Hall seemed irritated with the trend of losing. Considering his emergence as a legitimate play-driving superstar this season, Hall is one player the organization cannot afford to allow to become malcontent. The fans, dedicated though they are, are not blessed with infinite patience either. Not to put too fine a point on it, but winning needs to happen for this team soon.

In terms more aesthetic, there was plenty to latch onto in the Oilers orbit this year. On multiple occasions, the offensive miracles that their cadre of stellar young forwards were capable of came to the fore and lopsided scores (including a satisfying 8-2 lashing of the archrival Calgary Flames) were the result. Hall, as mentioned, learned to “push the river”, as blogger Lowetide puts it, Jordan Eberle came down to earth a bit from a positive outlier season but still showed sublime hands and accuracy, Magnus Paajarvi made major strides towards fulfilling his potential, and Justin Schultz’s blueline learning curve was neither as steep or as shallow as variously predicted.

But you really had to not be paying attention to the Oilers if the running highlight of the truncated season was not infectious rookie Nail Yakupov. While the sea change that I hinted he may portend at the start of the season has not arrived, Yakupov’s joyful celebrations and swaggering play (which improved as the season wore on and included 11 goals in the last month of the schedule) won over the mid-sized northern Canadian city that found itself doubting the kid earlier in the season. As he finished off a hat trick in the final win over the Canucks and moved into a likely Calder trophy finalist position, it was clear that Nail Yakupov, though only a part of the future of an Oilers team that remains tremendously promising but tantalizingly lacking in tangible glories, was much closer to being ready to snatch the spotlight. The bigger triumphs for this team were disappointingly deferred for another season, but the game-by-game delights increased, and the enthusiastic Yakupov was front-and-centre in providing them. Long may they continue and grow.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Nail Yakupov: Joyful Rebellion and the Repressed Hockey Culture

January 26, 2013 5 comments

The lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season is but a week in, and the Edmonton Oilers play only their fourth game of that season against their arch-rivals the Calgary Flames tonight. But already the Oilers’ roster of galactic young talents (which still has considerable holes, of course) is making hockey headlines. They overcame perennial Northwest Division winners the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout in the season opener and allowed 6 first-period goals to be run out of their own building to in their second game. This was followed by a home date this past Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings.

After a game full of head-scratching penalties and generally highly-questionable officiating, the Oilers had a late game-tying goal mysteriously waved off, and looked like they would fall to the champs by 1-0 scoreline. But then, with goaltender Devan Dubnyk on the bench for the extra attacker and in the midst of a furious assault for the equalizer, the Oilers’ latest high-touted #1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov batted a rebound out of mid-air and past Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to send the game to OT with 4.7 seconds remaining. A Sam Gagner tally in the extra frame would give the Oil the full share of points, but Yakupov’s dramatic goal (only the second of his NHL career) was the story, particularly due to how he celebrated it.

Soaking in the (quite literal) spotlight, the enthusiastic personality of Yakupov came out in a memorable, even iconic, way. The moment was something a step beyond being the key turning point in an early regular-season match-up against a league power for a youthful, raw club that hopes to turn a long run of futility into success for a hockey-mad community. Winning is great and all, but winning with style, winning and being cool, is a rarer thing, especially in the square world of pro hockey. Generally, as it is in most big-time sports, success in hockey is predicated on calculated, even ruthless, efficiency in the procurement of talent and application of strategic frameworks. The Detroit Red Wings have done a lot of winning over the last few decades, after all. So have the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers. But are any of those teams, in whatever meaning we choose for the word, “cool”?

This was cool. Nail Yakupov, with his wacky Twitter and his giddy approach to the game and, yes, his passionate goal celebrations, is cool. He’s now surrounded in Edmonton by more personally-staid young stars who can accomplish similarly remarkable things on the ice: Taylor Hall, a constant potential offensive explosion; Jordan Eberle, a skilled sniper with the dextrous hands of a sculptor; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slight, consistently surprising wizard of a passer; Justin Schultz, who may not be Paul Coffey but may fill the role of blueline facilitator for this exhilirating forward core for some time to come. They may be young and a little brash (Yakupov’s slide was certainly that), but that’s a huge part of the appeal.

This is how Yakupov celebrated his first NHL goal. This kid is great.

The hope, for me, is that this group of players doesn’t only win, they win with a style and panache that the NHL game has not really seen in full measure since that legendary Gretzky-helmed Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Hockey at the top level has changed too much in the interim to allow for the same sort of offensive flair to dominate the league; defensive systems and technical goaltending has pushed the onus for success from the forward zones to behind the blueline, where the Oilers are still not reliable enough to compete for a title. Indeed, like Yakupov’s spur-of-the-moment ice-sliding freak-out, the Oilers are spontaneous, unplanned (I don’t give GM Steve Tambellini too much credit for “building” through losing), and maybe a bit too naively delighted with their small successes to achieve larger ones.

But there can be glory and immortality in not quite taking the top prize, but approaching it while playing with aesthetic appeal and entertaining swagger. I hold out some hope that this young Oilers core can do for pro hockey culture what the Fab Five did for the basketball world, introducing a new edge and a less repressed attitude to the game and the impressions that surround it. Yakupov’s attention-snatching celebration runs counter to the conservative, proper behaviour that dominates the hockey culture and turns individuals with non-deferential attitudes into pariahs or “locker-room cancers”. The fact that these figures tend to be skilled Europeans (especially Russians like Yakupov or Alexander Ovechkin) or non-white North Americans (like goalie Ray Emery or current Montreal Canadiens hold-out P.K. Subban, who a TSN analyst once described, with a telling Freudian slip, as not playing or acting “the white way”) speaks also to a xenophobic (white supremacist, even) culture of heteronormativity in hockey culture that mistrusts difference and works with determination to marginalize and eradicate any hint of it.

The fact that something as seemingly innocuous as a rookie enthusiastically celebrating an important goal early in his pro career can challenge the established hockey order speaks to its rigidity. Greg Wyshynski’s piece on Yakupov’s celebration at Puck Daddy is one of the better reaction pieces I’ve come across, fully appreciating the NHL’s structure of “staid decorum” and holding up the spontaneous act as a joyful rebellion against the uptight dominant culture of the game (he also includes some ignorant jibes at soccer’s superior flair, which fails to acknowledge that sport’s theatrical celebrations as expressions of the released mass tension that such a low-scoring game encourages).

And yet Wyshynski’s closing sentence, which darkly hints at what can only be considered gangland-style violent retribution for Yakupov’s celebration when the Kings next meet the Oilers, demonstrates that the culture has a long way to go before style, flair, and “cool” are properly embraced as necessary components of hockey’s mass appeal rather than aberrations in behaviour that compel punishment. If moments like the one Nail Yakupov provided the other night can open wider cracks in this stiff facade, they might prove even more memorable, in the long run.

Ales Hemsky: The Worth of a Minor Legend

February 26, 2012 1 comment

The news of the week out of Oil Country is unquestionably the new 2-year, $10 million contract signed by longtime Oiler winger Ales Hemsky on Friday. The target of persistent trade rumours and blanketing negativity from a sizable contingent of Edmonton media and fans for much of the season (which may or may not have been encouraged by the organization itself in an attempt to drum up trade partners or at least drive down his potential cap hit), Hemsky was widely considered as good as gone up until a day or two ago.

Hopefully, Hemmer can now afford a better wardrobe.

But retaining him is one of the few solid moves that Oilers management has made in yet another failure-prone campaign. Opinions in and around Edmonton have always been divided over Hemsky. Stat-heads and sports aesthetes alike have celebrated Hemmer as a forward who can not only produce nearly a point a game over his career and handle tough assignments against opponents’ stronger lines, but can also fashion magical acts with a stick and a puck that, even if they don’t always lead to goals, remain breathtaking.

His critics scoff at such subtle defenses. The anti-Hemsky contingent tend to be of the more conservative, smash-mouth-hockey school of thought (or lack thereof), who never give a break to a player who won’t punch another one on occasion, consider prodigious playmaking skill to be a sign of unmasculine weakness, and rarely consider statistical support for their views beyond basic boxcars (goals-assists-points) and possibly the unreliable plus/minus ratio. They also point to his recent injury issues and reduced production this season, especially as compared to the crooked numbers posted by the Oilers’ anointed young stars like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and wonder if he’s worth keeping at any price.

There are reasons to consider both sides of the question, although my tone should make it clear where I stand on the issue. Perhaps the deal Hemsky got, a short term for unquestionably less annual salary than a player with his ability, experience, and statistical history would command on the open free agent market despite an off year, was an acknowledgment of the evident disagreement about him, a compromised third way forward. Maybe general manager Steve Tambellini was diligently kicking tires with other teams and found the potential returns for Hemsky underwhelming (yes, I put “Tambellini” and “diligent” in the same sentence; I’m feeling foolish today). Perhaps Hemsky took less compensation in the interest of being part of a team with a bright future (which sometimes feels like it is perpetually in the future and never about to arrive) in a city he clearly is comfortable with, and maybe even likes (Imagine, liking Edmonton!).

Whatever was behind it, at least two more years of Ales Hemsky in an Oilers uniform is, on balance, a happy result. He’s a magnificent player to watch even if the points aren’t coming, and that kind of ability will always be visible on some key statistical metric. Furthermore, although he’ll never be accepted by the grit-worshipping team fanbase in the way that Ryan Smyth has been, Hemsky has been a key part of the Oilers for the past decade or so, and has figured in many of their most notable moments in that span. He scored one of the single biggest goals in team history early in their Cup Final run of 2006, as well as figuring in one of the league’s funniest turn of events and in an instance of galvanizing team injustice. To whatever limited extent one can refer to the Oilers’ run of relative futility over the past years as a “legend”, Hemsky is a key part of that legend. Are figures in minor sporting legends worth $5 million per season? If not, then what are they worth? Surely something. And Ales Hemsky should continue to prove his worth to the Oilers while he’s able.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports