Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What Shoulda Been...

History often repeats itself and it seemed destined to do so again this week. In a story that seemed eerily familiar to one from 20 years ago, the Kings-Oilers game tonight in Alberta should have been a well publicized homecoming for the boy who once proudly wore an Edmonton jersey. A man who now suits up for the Kings. The boy who was drafted by his by his childhood team and went on to become Captain Canada...now returning as Captain California.

For more than a decade Ryan Smyth was the Oilers. While his teams didn't bring the on ice success of the ones Wayne Gretzky played for, Oiler fans didn't love him any less. Eventually, more than a decade apart, each guy left town and the city was ripped to it's core. Men, women and children openly wept. Both player's connection to the city transcended the sport and the entire experience of being a fan.

For Gretzky, coming to LA was a fresh start. Something Smyth echoed in several interviews himself earlier this summer. With the wound left by the trade of August 9th, 1988 still fresh and open, as anger and hurt raged on, #99 returned home to Edmonton on October 19th for the first time as a King. Back then, to properly put that game into perspective, Oilers public relations director Bill Tuele said "It's a bigger ticket than the seventh game of the (Stanley Cup) final."

LA lost to the Oilers 8-6 that night. A week or so later the rematch was in LA, also won by the Oilers 5-4. Fortunately, the Kings ultimately won the war that season, beating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. An epic seven game series that was a cornerstone of what used to be one of the best rivalries in hockey.

Like most good stories, it wasn't completely written in that first chapter. The Oilers will be forever be known as the roadblock for the Kings in the playoffs; beating them in 1990, 1991 & 1992. It was the '90 series that cut deep, as the Oilers extracted revenge on the Kings with a 4-0 series sweep. The following year wasn't much better though. The Oilers dumped a bunch of salary that season and the Kings went on to win their first (and only) Smythe Division title. Didn't matter though. Come playoff time the scab Oil team beat the high salaried Kings.

During those early 90s the Kings were collecting former Oilers like a teenage nerd and his bug collection. The SoCal Oilers eventually featured guys like Kurri, Coffey, McSorley, Fuhr, Huddy, Conacher and so many more. Just think about if they woulda been able to get just one more, Mark Messier. What coulda been. Ah, I digress...

Then there was the hatred. The list began with names like Muni, MacTavish, Anderson, Tikkanen, Beukeboom, Steve Smith, Buchberger...and it went on and on. They would constantly start problems after Fuhr or Ranford covered the puck. Oh, Ranford...RAN-ford, RAN-ford, RAN-ford - that chant would ring in your ears for days after some games.

Even with their disdain for the Kings though, the city of Edmonton still had love for the Great One as the years went by. I was privileged enough to watch Gretzky's last three games in an LA uniform in person. That's not something I share in common with most other Kings fans, as those three games were on the road - the middle contest being in Edmonton. The Trade had taken place eight years earlier, yet is was still fresh on the minds of most that night. What a thrill it was to see Wayne work his magic in that building, even if outside it was hard not to feel conflicted. After all, it isn't very often you take a road trip and see the captain of the visiting team immortalized in a huge statue outside the home team's arena. Awkward and surreal.

For much of the last 10 years the feud between the two teams has slowed to barely a simmer, with each side retooling several times. But, perhaps this coulda been a bigger game if Craig MacTavish were still coaching. The once nasty player, referred to by Kings fans as 'McToilet', had gone from being one of the last players to skate in the NHL without a helmet to an angry and bitter coach. He was let go this summer. Oh it was fun to watch him lose.

Summer before last a trade between the two teams seemed to stoke things along ever so slightly. It certainly wasn't as big as The Trade, yet it's still important to both teams suiting up tonight. In the summer of 2008 Lubomir Visnovsky was sent to the Oilers in exchange for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene. Sure, it would be nice to have the talented and offensively minded Lubo on this year's Kings team. However, if we could rewind the clock and the deal was on the table again - make the trade or don't make the trade - Dean should do it all over again and twice on Sunday.

Then there's Patrick O'Sullivan, the guy that shoulda been a star for the Kings. It didn't work out that way and he's now in Edmonton. Lately he's been popping off at the mouth about everybody and everything, including taking jabs at the fans in Los Angeles. In an ironic twist, a few games after he was quoted as saying how much better it is to play in the hockey rich Canadian city versus the laid back LA, he was taken to task by former Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey and Mike Milbury for his poor play (article here), to which he responded with "I don't care what (he) has to say. He's on TV for a reason." Probably shoulda just kept his mouth shut to begin with.

Where does all this take us? Is there enough juice flowing between the two teams for a rebirth of the rivalry? Without Smyth in the line-up tonight, it's doubtful.

Interestingly enough though, the link between Smyth, the Oilers and the Kings started way back during the 1994-95 season. Long since forgotten by all but the most ardent fans is the fact that Rhyno played his first pro hockey game back at the Forum - no not in Montreal, Los Angeles. Kings-Oilers at the Fabulous Forum. Full circle indeed.

Now as a member of the Kings, Smyth was set to return to the building in Edmonton where he previously was royalty of a different sort. It shoulda been something special.

For now, it will have to wait. An upper body injury has forced him to miss the next few weeks.

Kings-Oilers. It will mean a lot to some tonight, more to others.

It woulda meant much, much more with Rhyno in the line-up.

The Mayorwww.twitter.com/Mayor119

1 comment:

  1. Rhyno? Is that what you guys call him? Around these parts (Edmonton), when we say Smitty, we only think of Ryan Smyth. He's the cats meow. Too bad he's not playing. He had such a great start to the year.

    Let's hope it a good game tonight with the Oilers coming out on top. *wink* Nice blog.