Thursday, 28 September 2017

Oilers will always have a big following in Saskatchewan

The Oilers mingle at their bench during a timeout.
    The Edmonton Oilers will always have a sizable following in Saskatchewan.
    During Wednesday’s 4-0 NHL pre-season victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, a large gathering of 10,387 spectators were on hand at the SaskTel to see captain Connor McDavid and his Edmonton bunch. The Oilers star attraction didn’t disappoint netting a pair of goals and an assist to send almost all of a partisan crowd, who were mostly decked out in Oilers gear, home happy.
    The Oilers following in Saskatchewan has been entrenched for a few decades. The team build a huge fanbase during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Oilers captured the Stanley Cup five times in seven years from 1984 to 1990.
    During that time, the Oilers were often labeled Western Canada’s team. Due to hitting the ice with players the likes of hockey icons Wayne Gretzky, who was part of the Oilers first four Stanley Cup wins, and Mark Messier, it was easy to identify with the team that was on television on a regular basis every April and May thanks to those championship playoff runs.
    Oilers netminder Laurent Brossoit enjoyed seeing the support his team gets from Alberta’s eastern provincial neighbour.
    “That is nice to have a couple of provinces that considers us their home team,” said Brossoit. “It is definitely a nice feeling. It is a lot of support for us.”
    Saskatoon product and rugged defensive defenceman Eric Gryba has always enjoyed his homecomings during his NHL career, and he noted there is a bit of an extra attachment when he returns home as a member of the Oilers.
    “Any time I come home and play in my hometown (before) a lot of friends and family is always a special thing,” said Gryba. “Obviously, the crowd is excited to have the Oilers in town.”
The Oilers and Hurricanes get set for a faceoff.
    While the Oilers haven’t won a Stanley Cup title in 27 years, a lot of fans in Saskatchewan still have an attachment to the team’s glory days. When the club is in a down stretch, the jerseys will sometimes be placed in the closet, but they are always ready to be brought out for that next memorable playoff run.
    Oilers fever hit a high pitch in the province in 2006, when the team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals only to fall 3-1 in a series deciding Game 7 to the Hurricanes. During that playoff run, many fans that weren’t alive to see the Oilers 1990 victory got to indulge in what appeared to be a team of destiny out of nowhere run.
    Edmonton proceeded to miss the post-season for the next 10 straight years.
    Last season, the Oilers returned to the playoffs posting a 47-26-9 record in the regular season. They eliminated the San Jose Sharks 4-2 in a best-of-seven first round series and fell 2-1 in a series deciding Game 7 to the Anaheim Ducks in the second round.
    Thanks to that run where they came up a win short of qualifying for the NHL’s Western Conference championship series, the support for the Oilers is gaining momentum again. With McDavid under contract for the next nine years, hope is high the new cast of characters that make up the current Oilers can bring home another Stanley Cup championship win.
    During a public autograph session that was part of the Royal University Hospital Foundation’s Celebrity Golf Classic last June, the players that received the most autograph requests were Gryba and Oilers starting netminder Cam Talbot. You could tell the run in the 2017 NHL playoffs was fresh on the minds of the fans.
    In Saskatchewan, there will always be strong followings for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs due to the NHL’s historic Original Six days.
    Thanks to the Stanley Cup runs from 1984 to 1990 and the sprinkling of playoff marches that have occurred since, the Oiler will always have a big backing locked down too in “the Wheat Province” too.

Other thoughts from Wednesday’s NHL stop in Saskatoon

The Oilers skate off the ice after saluting the fans at the SaskTel Centre.
    The fans that attended Wednesday’s NHL pre-season game at the SaskTel Centre got to see a good show.
    While a 4-0 score in favour of the Edmonton Oilers might say otherwise, the Carolina Hurricanes had a number of solid chances to score. After outshooting the Oilers 13-4 in the second period, Carolina looked poised to rally from a 2-0 deficit. Connor McDavid scored twice inside of the final 10 minutes of the third to seal Edmonton’s victory.
    I have seen the NHL pre-season games that have been held in Saskatoon annually for the last four years. Last year’s game that saw the Ottawa Senators down the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in overtime was the most exciting of the four.
    The games that have been held each of the past two years were far better than the ones I saw in 2014 and 2015. The contests the past two years were held late in the pre-season, and teams hit the ice with lineups that more resembled the ones that would be used in the regular season.
    The games in 2014 and 2015 definitely weren’t worth paying ticket prices ranging from $59.50 to $112 including fees to go see.
·         Hurricanes defenceman Haydn Fleury looked like an all-world player during his WHL days with the Red Deer Rebels, which wrapped up following the 2015-16 campaign. The sophomore pro looked ordinary trying to defend McDavid on a one-on-one rush on the Oilers fourth goal on Wednesday. McDavid seemed to toy with Fleury and cause the rearguard to move into position where he screened netminder Cam Ward. Fleury isn’t the first and won’t be the last player to look ordinary going against McDavid.
·         Wednesday’s attendance of 10,387 was quite a bit higher than the 7,541 that saw the Oilers play in Saskatoon in 2015. McDavid suited up for that 2015 contest, picking up an assist in a 3-0 win over the Minnesota Wild. Back then, McDavid was going through the paces of his rookie campaign.
·         Defenceman Eric Gryba of the Oilers and Trevor Carrick of the Hurricanes engaged in a late third period fight. Carrick managed to get some decent shots in, but the bout ended quickly after it started when the pair slipped down to ice.
·         Way less media from Edmonton attended Wednesday’s game compared to past years, when the Oilers came to Saskatoon. Outside of the crew putting together contest for the Oilers website, only one Edmonton based reporter was present during post-game interviews. In past years, a number of members from the Edmonton media were on hand. There were no appearances this year by legendary Edmonton sportswriters Jim Matheson and Terry Jones, who are both first class guys. It was another sign of Canada’s worse than skeleton crew media cut era. On the bright side, all of Saskatoon’s local outlets were represented.
·         I covered Wednesday’s game for The Canadian Press. My story for that wire service can be found right here.

Anthem protests didn’t have to happen

Some fans have burned their NFL gear over anthem protests.
    The sports world, especially the professional sports world, has been overwhelmed with protests regarding the United States national anthem, and the recent wave didn’t need to happen.
    A year ago, Colin Kaepernick, who was then the quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, at first sat and later kneeled during the playing of the U.S. national anthem to protest social injustice – primarily inequality and police violence against blacks. Issues involving race have always been a huge elephant in the room in the United States. Canada has its racial issues too, but arguably, they are not as wedge oriented as those in the United States.
    A number of other players joined Kaepernick when he started doing his protest, but the story really died down to the point it was pretty much off the radar at the start of the current NFL season.
    That changed last Friday, when U.S. President Donald Trump made a speech to supporters in Huntsville, Ala., and attacked players who kneeled in protest of the U.S. national anthem.
    Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
    He followed with a storm of inflammatory tweets. When NFL games rolled around on Sunday, there were massive protests that included over 200 players sitting or kneeling during the U.S. national anthem. Most teams locked arms in standing for the U.S. national anthem.
    In the CFL on Sunday, the Saskatchewan Roughriders locked arms during the Canadian national anthem before their 15-9 loss to the Calgary Stampeders at Mosaic Stadium as a show of support to the NFL players in the U.S.
    Since Trump’s speech last Friday, the anthem protest story seems to rise again with each passing hour with another story containing a different angle. It really feels like this is a story that is out of control. Had Trump not said what he said last Friday, life in the professional sports world and the overall sports would have gone on as normal.
    Now, you have two camps. You have those that kneel and lock arms to peacefully protest during the U.S. national anthem for Kaepernick’s original cause of protesting social injustice and police violence against minorities.
    You have the other camp that believe the peaceful protests during the U.S. national anthem show disrespect for the United States flag and military. The peaceful anthem protests were never about the United States flag or military.
    That same scenario goes for Canada and the Canadian flag and military.
    The two sides seem to keep escalating each other up, where you have fans burning jerseys or other team gear. The fact Trump, who started all this in the first place, keeps stoking the fire on this subject also doesn’t help.
    For myself, I will support anyone that feels moved to the point they believe it is necessary to make a peaceful protest during the national anthem in the United States or Canada like what has happened in the last five days. If someone wants to just stand at attention during the national anthem in the United States or Canada, I support that action too. Freedom of expression is a right in both countries.
    In the amateur sports world, I know a large number of teams who are serious when it comes to standing at attention for the national anthem, and it has become part of something those teams have always done. If they do anything else, it feels weird. Those teams should feel free to continue what they have always done.
    Had Trump not stoked the subject up last Friday, the divisiveness that followed would not have happened.

RIP Hugh Hefner (1926-2017)

A 2010 documentary on Hugh Hefner.
    On Wednesday, Hugh Hefner, who was the founder of Playboy magazine, died at the age of 91 at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, California.
    Due to Hefner’s age, his passing isn’t a shock. It still feels surreal due to the impact he had on culture in North America and the world during his life. It seems everyone likes to relive the joke that they checked out Playboy for the articles as opposed to the naked female centerfolds, but Hefner’s life impact expanded beyond that publication.
    Before Playboy was published, talking about sex in North America was locked in the puritan sense in that you didn’t talk about or acknowledge it at all. He helped society break free from that where the attitude toward sex became more free.
    What often doesn’t get discussed is that Hefner had a huge impact in advocating for free speech, civils rights and social justice causes, and he was way ahead of his time in advocating for those things on a number of fronts.
    Back in 2010, filmmaker Brigitte Berman produced the documentary entitled, “Hugh Hefner Playboy, Activist and Rebel.”
    The film does a fantastic job of telling the story of Hefner’s life. The majority of the interviews are with his supporters, but there are also interviews from his detractors and went into detail about the adversities he faced.
    Hefner spoke freely about his adversities. His supporters note Hefner always carried himself like a gentleman.
    The best part of the film was it was shot when Hefner was in his mid-80s, and he was still really vibrant. Judging from social media posts from people that were close to him, age finally caught up to Hefner on the health front in recent years. If you find a copy of Berman’s documentary, it is a must to check out in my opinion.
    I believe Hefner made the world a better place and did a great job in living life to the fullest.

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