Archive for the ‘Edmonton Oilers’ Category

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.

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

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter

February 11, 2012 7 comments

I will freely admit that it took me some time to come around completely to the merits of Twitter, let alone to learn how best to use it (still not certain about that last part). Certainly its instantaneous nature and the direct and unfiltered nature of its communication was always pregnant with possibility, but it could be as prone to insularity and contextless snark as any blog comments section. But I’ve come to see Twitter’s greatest strength as being the feature which I initially found to be its greatest weakness: its enforced brevity. Though I remain irked by the “be more clever” exhortation when the character limit is exceeded, the bonds are useful ones; Gord knows my prose could stand to be reined in more often.

So, for my own edification and in the interest of building up the follow lists of the curious, I present a choice few Twitter accounts that I have found to be worth keeping up with. Each one employs the format to great effect, and demonstrates its potential as a medium for creativity that the comparatively sprawling Facebook could never hope to match. Three examples shall suffice for today, but I may suggest other good ‘uns in future. Therefore, consider:


The Brooklyn-based Nigerian novelist, author of the critically-acclaimed Open City (which has an intimidatingly long waiting list on hold at the library which has thus far kept me from reading it), sometimes employs his Twitter to express thoughts on various aspects of life and culture, as many as wont to do.

But most of his feed is given over to what its subtitle dubs “small fates”. Combining a tone of quasi-journalistic detachment with a sense of irony that is as mild as it is wicked, Cole passes along often-violent events in the lives of fellow Nigerians that give clues to the character of the country and of its people. The construction of Cole’s sentences is always superb, and the masterful ironic twist can hang on a final word or two, or even a comma. The result neither edifies nor mocks his subjects, but reveals instead the absurdity of human choices and the inherent difficulty of understanding and sympathizing with others in a complex world of joys and horrors. In other words, I’ve really got to read the guy’s novel.

Representative Tweet:


Maybe it’s a Toronto thing, seeing as this city has the largest urban raccoon population in the world. But there’s something both amusing and poignant about these skulking nocturnal scavengers, with their probing forays into compost bins and waddling gait. They are the furry carrion-pickers of unchecked urbanization, feasting on leftover scraps of North American’s blithe excess. And I cannot imagine their nightly reality being imparted with anything more appropriate than the gently observant humour of @City_Raccoon.

A parody of the insipid “what I’m doing right at this moment” Twitter updates that dominate the platform, the often extremely short tweets describing tableaus of rodent action (“Waddle triumphantly”, “Scurry across the garage roof. Scurry”) take on an almost zen-like quality that trades on the collective recognition of these shadowy animals by city-dwellers. It also demonstrates a full appreciation of the comedic potential of repetition (“Nibblenibblenibble”). A simple-delights kind of account.

Representative Tweet:


With their beloved team closing in on six long seasons out of the playoffs, Edmonton Oilers fans have plenty of reasons to feel disillusioned, which is what makes this brilliantly therapeutic and slyly sophisticated satirical account so wonderful. @SHorcov, you see, is purportedly the Twitter account of long-time, overpaid Oiler center and current team captain (or “Kaptain”) Shawn Horcoff. The key comic distinction is that, while Horcoff is a reserved Western Canadian guy from Doukhobor stock, “Horcov” is a brash and talkative Russian stereotype who grew up under Communism, fought in the Chechen War, expresses himself with Yakov Smirnoff-style clipped English grammar, and has a wife named Olga with whom he has frequent “sexiness”.

@SHorcov is exasperated with the Oilers’ spiral of failure since their 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Finals (as most thinking fans tend to be) and expresses this feeling constantly, calling the Oilers “barely an NHL team” while openly defying his bosses in highly bawdy terms, wiping his penis on head coach Tom Renney’s silk scarf after masturbating into a rookie’s skates and having “sexiness” with Olga on general manager Steve Tambellini’s desk (while the latter looks on with impassive blankness, as always). This tweet-narrator’s extreme Russian-ness and stories of deprivation in the Soviet Union and in Chechnya (where he claims he once survived a frigid winter’s night by cutting open a fat dead Chechen and sheltering inside, like Luke and Han in The Empire Strikes Back) prove to be apt hyperbolic analogies for the experiences of the denizens of Oil Country, who can now officially be referred to as “long-suffering”.

But @SHorcov is truly great as a demonstration of worldcraft through the Twitter format. Rife with subtle literary and cultural references, the litany of tweets really constitutes a sort of makeshift situation comedy through the sometimes-bizarre comic exaggerations and ironic inversions that characterize its portrayals of the members of the Oilers roster. @SHorcov is not much interested in the Oilers’ blue-chip young stars like Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle. He focuses instead on the established veterans as well as the misfits and also-rans that fill out the bottom of the roster.

Thus, top-pairing defenseman Tom Gilbert is a Adonis-like ladies man, slaying puck bunnies with his flowing locks and “massive knob”. Recently returned folk hero Ryan Smyth, not exactly known for his erudite range of expression in post-game interviews, is a widely-read intellectual with a “big brain” (Horcov recently imagined him giving a lecture on Goethe in the Catalan language). Ales Hemsky is gleeful about his likely-imminent trade away from the frozen hellhole of losing hockey that is Edmonton in February. And Finnish fourth-liner Lennart Petrell is just plain nuts – like all Finns, in our hero’s opinion, although this did not stop Horcov from taking a bacchanalian sauna-and-snow holiday in Finland during the All-Star break alongside Petrell and former Oilers Janne Niinimaa and Esa Tikkanen, which read across several days on Twitter feeds like a slowly-unfolding work of ragged comedic genius. And this is how @SHorcov reads in general, and why it’s a must-follow for Oilers fans (and maybe even for Flames fans, too).

Representative Tweet:

Samwise the Brave: Gagner’s Eight-Point Night

February 3, 2012 Leave a comment

So does this mean that he really had 16 points?

When the intermittent NHL powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks last visited Edmonton in October, the hometown Oilers demolished the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions 9-2 in a giddy premature ejaculation of offense that had Oiler fans and observers from around the hockey world buzzing with the euphoria of imminent possibility. The worm turned on the Oilers’ season soon afterwards, though. Due to injuries to key pieces like defensive anchor Tom Gilbert and rookie phenom Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as a grotesque accident befalling young scorer Taylor Hall and a general course-correction that stat-heads invariably predicted during the team’s strong start, the thin construction of the Oilers’ roster caught up with it and a run of futility ensued. This included 8 losses in 9 games leading towards the All-Star break, with a dispiriting 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the rival Flames on national television bringing the waters to a particularly low ebb.

A slight bounce back has materialized since then, with a couple of points from shootouts and a solid win against Colorado earlier in the week making it clear that the Oil are unlikely to finish dead last this year again, at least (though that has more to do with the fanciful disaster that is the 2011-12 Columbus Blue Jackets than any leaps forward the Oilers have accomplished as a team or an organization). But another February-March stretch of meaningless games for a team out of the playoff picture for the sixth season running loomed, with the usual trade deadline sacrifices (good luck to Ales Hemsky with whatever contender will pay the too-low price for him) and another lottery pick waiting at the end of the dark tunnel.

What fantastic timing, then, for the Hawks to come back to Rexall Place and get torched by the Oilers’ young offensive guns and get that cruel, guttering glimmer of hope nicely blazing again. Last night’s 8-4 blitzing was not just satisfying, but surprising and even historic, and its mythic hero was distinctly unlikely: Sam Gagner, the talented, hard-working, little-rewarded top-six forward on a team choked with them, had a hand in every Oilers goal to equal the team record for points in a game with 8. That one of the young Oil’s whirring offensive engines might one day approximate the burning-house hockey of the Gretzky-led dynasty years has been the open aspiration of team management, city sports media, and the fanbase alike since at least the start of last season, when Hall and now-All-Star Jordan Eberle made their debuts. That Sam Gagner, the organization greenhorn of the depressing late ’00s, was the one to equal an ’80s team record (Gretzky had 8 points twice, Paul Coffey once) could not have been an expected outcome.

Is it the beard? It's the beard.

Now 22, Gagner has been in the league long enough to have become a bit of a stale taste to the notoriously fickle Oil Country hordes. Up until last night, he was having trouble establishing his game in a team full of very assertively-defined forwards. Perhaps a victim of the quiet effectiveness of his own game away from the puck as well as of coach Tom Renney’s mania for shuffling his non-top lines or perhaps just slumping in that ineffable athletic way, Gagner was looking like another potential deadline victim and a further footnote in modern Oilers history, a sure-to-succeed player who just could not succeed in Edmonton.

But then last night happened. Do you turn around in the next month and trade a guy who exploded for 8 points in a game? I’m no great admirer of Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, but even he’s not that silly in his decisions. That the balance of Gagner’s point-grubbing (seriously, spread it around a little, buddy!) came alongside Eberle and Hall (who both had the quietest 4-point games in recent memory) should make Oiler fans feel even better about that dynamic duo, as well make them wonder how much of Nugent-Hopkins’ pre-injury prowess was related to his Kid Line mates’ bona fides as opposed to his own.

All of those wider roster considerations aside, though, the triumph of Samwise (as Lowetide has amusingly dubbed him) was a bit of an aesthetic glory, and could be enjoyed most purely on that level. Just watch through the highlights package from the league, and witness the virtuosity take form with the inevitable exactitude of origami. By the time Gagner’s getting secondary assists on Cam Barker knucklepuck point shots, you’ve got to figure that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is reaching down His pasta appendages to effect the outcome. In an Oilers season largely dominated by valleys, Gagner’s absurd Thursday night was a towering peak. Admire it before we return to the unforgiving earth.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Edmonton’s Downtown Arena and the Social Utility of Sports

October 30, 2011 2 comments

After years of debate, clashing public relations campaigns, and enough specious reasoning to fill, well, several sports stadia, Edmonton ‘s city council approved the massive, long-brewing $450 million deal to construct a new multi-purpose (but, really, hockey) arena in the city. Truly or falsely (and the latter is suspected, largely perpetrated by the relocation scaremongering of the Katz Group and the rest of the pro faction), the future of the Oilers franchise in Edmonton was tied to this deal, but not just that. The back-and-forth over the project has encompassed the city’s inherent anxieties about itself and about its self-worth, anxieties that are always mediated through the successes or failures of their copper-and-blue gladiators, about which more was said around these parts months ago.

Working Together to Turn Downtown into Coruscant

My interest is not in the civic self-esteem of a mid-level Canadian metropolis, but what this deal’s approval and a nearly concurrent denial of improvement funds tells us about the social priorities of government, business, and even the public at large. On the very same day that the arena project was approved by council, contingent on a further $100 million of funding from (likely) provincial and (less likely) federal levels of government that may or may not be forthcoming in these times of dubious fiscal belt-tightening, word leaked out that the Harper Government (as they’ve made it clear they prefer to be officially called) was withdrawing $92 million in funding for a potential new Royal Alberta Museum, also to be located along the north region of the downtown that is to be magically “revitalized” by another large building that is to be empty most of every day.

In the mathematical alignment of these figures lies a cold symmetry. The obvious corollary, and one fated to be immediately seized upon by liberal defenders of a culture-first variant of civic prestige, is that hockey (and sport) matters more to the people, to the government, and to the money men than museums (and cultural institutions) do. Putting aside both the liberal self-pity and utter forehead-slapping obviousness of such an observation (this is Canada, after all), it is both entirely true and entirely irrelevant.

I got this, bitches.

From the point of view of capital (and is there another one?), a new sports and events venue with maximized profit potential is entirely preferable to a historical and cultural institution. The prestige generated in highbrow circles by a world-class museum (which the current RAM is not quite and a new RAM is not guaranteed to be) is positively swamped by the pride and enthusiasm generated in both monied and proletarian circles by a successful sports team (although live sports attendance has by now passed well beyond the budgetary limits of the working class). Enthusiasm is much more easily converted to profit margins than prestige is, and it doesn’t take an economist to tell you that. The cultured may lament as they will, but capitalism leaves no space for distinctions of taste or aesthetics beyond the drive to profit. As a system, it is given little reason to do so.

Sports and culture need not be placed in opposition so often in this way, and indeed the new downtown arena will fulfill a cultural function as well (if a Nickelback concert can, in any way, be construed as “culture”). But what, if any, is the social function of Katz’s and the city’s new pleasure palace? There is some appeal to the concept of big-time pro sports, with its overt displays of athletic masculinity, as a release valve for the sublimated aggressions of an essentially non-martial society. But $450 million is a very large amount to spend on a simple release valve (no matter its capacity of flow), and that’s a drop in the bucket when the billions spent on professional sports across North America, Europe, and the wider world is taken into account. What’s the overall social function of this? I specialize in the big questions around here, but that one may be bigger than I’m willing to fathom.