Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Looks Back

Soon enough I will be using this blog to spout off about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which started tonight (Tourette's alert: Go Bolts! Kuuuuch! Hedman for Conn Smythe! Fuck you Abdelkader!) but first it's time to look back.

Two major voids have opened in the hockey world over the past week, and we should pause to appreciate their place in the game's history.

Northlands Coliseum
Yeah, yeah. I know it has been called Rexall Place since 2003, and had shorter stints when it was known as Skyreach Centre and the Edmonton Coliseum during the eight years before that.

But it will always be Northlands Coliseum, for that is what it was called when it housed the team that changed the history of hockey.

That name, Northlands, was taken from the park where the building is located -- and the park took it from the 137-year-old volunteer organization which to this day runs the park and owns the building -- so it has a local fit from that perspective. But that fit seems too small, for Northlands is a word that reflects Edmonton's location on the globe and projects it on a grand scale. To this Florida teen in the 1980's, hearing that word in front of "Coliseum" brought to mind's eye a picture of Alberta as an untamed land of freedom and derring-do, infused with images of roaming bison on frigid plains with the Canadian Rockies somewhere in the distance.

That mind's eye picture was clinched by the fact that the Edmonton Oilers -- Northlands Coliseum's reason for being -- were the best damn hockey club the world had ever seen, a free-wheeling, fast-skating, goal-scoring machine that didn't shy from doling out checks or dropping gloves when necessary. They were what the '86 Mets could have been if the '86 Mets had stayed focused on the games and not squandered their talent on drugs and booze. The Oil was hockey's last dynasty, and its best.

Some people claim that the team's greatness became a sure thing on November 2, 1978. That was the day Nelson Skalbania, owner of the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers, sold Edmonton the rights to a 17-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky (along with two other players, Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll) for a sum of $700,000.

But to say that clinched things is to be blind to reality. The Oilers were in the WHA at the time, not the NHL, and the WHA was struggling to stay afloat. When it folded in 1979 and the Oilers (plus three other WHA franchises) were accepted into the NHL, Gretzky was only 18 and the team was wholly mediocre. It finished well down in the bottom half of the league for its first two NHL seasons.

But during those lean, building years, the Oilers drafted extremely well and before long their roster included a bevy of other young phenoms: Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, and Andy Moog.

They had a breakthrough season in 1981-82, finishing with the second-best record in the league and becoming the first team ever to score 400 goals in a single season. Gretzky led the way with 92, which remains an NHL record all these years later, and added 120 assists; those numbers combined for 212 total points, making him the first -- and still only -- player to account for 200 points in a season, a feat he would accomplish four different times.

But despite all the highlight reel success of that '81-'82 season, Edmonton got bounced by LA in the first round of the playoffs.

Not to despair. The following year saw that group of ambitious whippersnappers arrive ready for the post-season and make it all the way to the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for them and their fans, they ran into the freight train that was the New York Islanders dynasty, and got swept as the Islanders won their fourth Cup in a row.

Then came the 1984 finals, when the two juggernauts faced off again. The Isles were aging out of their collective prime and the Oil was aging into its. They stared at each other across the abyss, then rushed across it into battle, and the Oil prevailed... Edmonton won a 1-0 goaltenders' duel in the opener, with Kevin McClelland scoring the only goal; and then New York took Game Two in a 6-1 blowout; but then Edmonton dominated the rest of the way, earning the title by winning the next three games by scores of 7-2, 7-2, and 5-2... Messier won the Conn Smythe, Kurri led all playoff goal-scorers with 14, and Gretzky easily had the most assists with 22.

From then on it was legend, as the Oilers won five Cups in the seven seasons that ended in May 1990. Edmonton, a smallish city far from the beaten path, became the center of the hockey universe and home to what could legitimately be called the greatest show on Earth.

Gretzky's passing ability made Magic Johnson's seem like no big deal, and his assist numbers were blown through the stratosphere by the fact that Kurri, a sniper extraordinaire, was on the receiving end of so many of those passes... Meanwhile, Messier's pugnacious leadership recalled the spirit of Gordie Howe... Fuhr, biracial at a time when the sport was even whiter than the North Pole, performed so well that many observers claimed he was the best goalie ever... Marty McSorley was the most feared enforcer on the continent... And in the dynasty's later years, yappy Finnish winger Esa Tikkanen left his mark as one of the best defensive-minded forwards of his generation.

And that all occurred in Northlands Coliseum. Sure, the Montreal Forum housed some epic title teams back in the day, and Maple Leaf Gardens housed some splendid ones way back in the day -- but Northands Coliseum did its hosting in the truly modern era, with the NHL drawing the best players from many countries, not just two; with the best U.S.-born players finally being actually good; and with the NHL fielding many more teams than in those limited, bygone, days of yore.

One week ago tonight, the Edmonton Oilers played their final game in Northlands Coliseum (I refuse to call it anything else) and defeated Vancouver 6-2, which is the kind of score that was expected back when Reagan was our president and Brian Mulroney was Canada's PM.

The evening opened with this stirring belting-out of the national anthem, the crowd's singing drowning out the recorded voice of the late Paul Lorieau, a local optician who performed "O Canada" before every home game from 1981 to 2011.

In the third period, Walter Gretzky, father of Wayne, gave an autographed Wayne Gretzky jersey to a longtime season ticket holder.

After the game, more than 100 past and present Oilers, all clad in their Oilers jerseys, came onto the ice as their names were read off.

However, there is this: The Oilers finished this season in the shit of last place, and have not been to the playoffs in a decade. They routinely finish at or near the bottom of the league, and their city is never talked about as a destination where free agents want to go.

From where I sit, that is not good for hockey, because Edmonton was once its epicenter.

Baseball players think of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and yearn for the honor of playing for the Yankees, even if they weren't Yankees fans growing up... Basketball players sense the same thing when they think of playing for the Lakers and taking the baton from Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, and Bryant; or when they think of playing for the Celts and taking the baton from Russell, Cousy, Bird, and McHale... It seems to me that hockey players should feel that way about Edmonton.

The Oilers have been stockpiling star-potential young talent for a few years now, so the future should seem bright; but they remain stuck in the cellar, so dire feelings continue to linger like an infection that won't respond to antibiotics. And like I said, this is not good for hockey. Every sport needs to keep its canopy connected to its roots, or else its trunk will die.

A whole generation is coming of age with no living memory of the Oilers even being respectable, much less good and certainly not great. For today's 15-year-olds, Gretzky's days in Edmonton are farther from their births than Rocket Richard's time in Montreal is from mine. For the new generation, Oiler greatness is an extinct artifact from grainy news reels, kind of like Truman's presidency was for me at their age.

And that makes me shudder.

As Northlands Coliseum passes into professional oblivion, and its status as the Oilers' home gets replaced by Rogers Place next season, those of us who recall how significant it was, and how otherworldly its tenant was, should take it upon ourselves to make sure it is remembered for what it was at its peak. It would be tragic if Northlands Coliseum was to slide as anonymously down the memory hole as the Hartford Civic Center.

Ed Snider
I, like most people who were not born in southeastern PA or southern NJ, or in the drawf state known as Delaware, am not a Philadelphia Flyers fan. Never have been, never will be. Never could be. Ditto for the Eagles, Sixers, and Phillies. I tend to root for whoever is playing against them. It is what it is.

But having said that, there is a large part of me that can't help but respect Ed Snider. The entrepreneurial son of a Jewish grocer, he founded the Flyers when he earned an NHL franchise after learning that the league was planning to expand in 1967. Under his watchful eye, taking a cue from his passionate personality, the franchise became one of the most dependable in the game.

The Flyers have existed for 48 seasons and have qualified for the playoffs in 38 of them... They have reached the Stanley Cup Finals eight times (an average of once every six years) across a span of nearly half a century... In 1974 they became the first team from the '67 expansion to win the Cup, and in 1975 they won it again to make it two in a row.

Their list of all-time stars includes high-scoring cheap-shot artists gadflies like Bobby Clarke, snipers like John LeClair, seven-time Ashbee winner Eric Desjardins, and envelope-pushing goalie Ron Hextall.

In February 1966, Snider was awarded the expansion franchise that would become the Philadelphia Flyers... Seven months later, a baby named Mike Richter was born just outside of Philadelphia. As Richter was raised, he watched the game and started playing it and grew up to become the best U.S.-born goalie of all time, backstopping the Rangers to a Stanley Cup and Team USA to an upset championship in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey... Would he have even played hockey had Ed Snider not created a home team for him to watch? And in turn, would U.S. hockey have experienced its only major international championship since the Miracle on Ice? Would today's Rangers still be taunted by opposing fans chanting "1940"? Do not assume anything. The answers to those questions are probably no and no and yes, respectively.

In short, Ed Snider was a force for growth in the game of hockey, and the mark he left reaches far beyond the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

In addition to the Flyers, Snider once owned the cable company PRISM, and he started and ran Comcast Spectator. He started the first sports radio station in the world. From 1996 to 2011, he also owned the Philadelphia 76'ers.

Ed Snider's battle with cancer started a couple years ago. For the last several months his health has had been deteriorating. On Saturday, before the final Flyers home game of the season, the national anthem was sung by Lauren Hart, whose late father Gene was the team's radio broadcaster for its first 29 years of existence.

While she sang, Lauren held up her iPhone with Snider on FaceTime from his hospital room, so that he could share in the experience. Then the Flyers went out and won the game, clinching the final playoff spot.

And on Monday, he passed away.

I do not like the Flyers, but I shudder to think about what the world of hockey (and sports in general) would be like if not for Ed Snider, the son of a grocer -- a son who went not to Harvard or Yale or Stanford, but to the University of Maryland. RIP...

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