A couple of weeks ago, Colleague Gohier mentioned to me with Colleague-ly sympathy that the 2009-10 Edmonton Oilers must be difficult to cheer for. They’re in last place overall in the league, and even after last night’s victory in L.A., the race to the bottom is not close. This is unfamiliar territory for most of the remaining Canadian teams—very unfamiliar indeed for Oiler fans. Few of you outside Winnipeg have any reason to know this, but it’s actually kind of fun in some ways.
It’s not that this version of the Oilers is a gang of colourful lovable losers like the ’62 Mets. “Unlovable losers” might be closer to the truth. But when your team is this bad, there’s a refreshing absence of delusions. You can watch with total detachment, and hate sincerely. No apologizing to yourself for despairing at the way so-and-so kills penalties or the way Mr. X (or, let’s say, Mr. O’S.) won’t battle for the puck. You’re free to loathe the players on a last-place team for their salaries; no, they really aren’t earning their money—it’s right there in the agate type. (Incredibly, this abominable roster is costing the team every cent of the salary cap. They spent to the max and got the min.) And remember all those front-office mistakes you hated at the time? Turns out you were right: they were mistakes, and the outfit is run by idiots. You really could run a hockey team that was no worse than this!—there’s nowhere to go from 30th but up!
Edmonton is a hockey city that was crying out to be nuked—a rotting, ill-ventilated museum for the ’80s Oilers, who grow ever more prominent in the team’s marketing even as the front office conspires to demolish the perfectly adequate building they played in. The reward of the philosopher’s suffering is clarity, and Oiler fans are finally ready to confront the emptiness of two decades of excuses for almost unrelieved mediocrity (excuses parroted by a captive press corps now facing its own credibility crisis, as fawned-over free agents and prospects shatter horribleness records). Remember when the Oilers were bad because of the exchange rate? Remember when they were bad because there was no salary cap? Remember when they were bad because of the inefficient, cumbersome consortium-ownership model? Even the injury excuse has been overused so much in recent years, it amounts to crying wolf. The ’09-’10 Oilers really have had bad luck with injuries, as long as “bad luck” is defined to include signing a run-down 36-year-old goalie to a huge contract in a buyer’s market and having nothing but beer-league backups available.
In the face of all this, it remains literally true that there is nowhere to go but up. If you count Sam Gagner, who is only 20 and is already unstoppable some nights, the Oilers appear to have a legitimate nucleus of first-class prospects. And they’re about to add a #1 or #2 overall draft pick to the mix. This is by virtue of being unspeakably awful, but it’s nice that the league arranges things so that high draft picks follow periods of revolutionary ferment.