July 23rd, 2024

Oilers fever overtakes Edmonton as fans dream of a Stanley Cup comeback against Florida

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on June 19, 2024.

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) – Kris Knoblauch got his up-close look at how crazed Edmonton is about the Oilers’ playoff run thanks to a mix-up with his car keys the night they clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

Knoblauch had to walk home, and in doing so went through a jubilant crowd, a scene he described as “mayhem.” The excitement has only grown since his team that once trailed the Florida Panthers 3-0 in the series has forced a Game 6 back on home ice on Friday night.

“You see the excitement, the flags all over the place, people driving around with Oilers flags and their clothes around town even when it’s not a game day,” Knoblauch said Wednesday. “You can tell this means a lot to the city.”

It means a lot to generations of fans, some old enough like Darin Winder to remember the Edmonton dynasty of five championships from 1984-90, a glorious run that filled the arena rafters with blue, orange and white banners.

Winder, 55, grew up in nearby Camrose and went to the old Edmonton Gardens with his dad when the Oilers were in the World Hockey Association before joining the NHL and rode the wave of the 2006 run to the Cup final that ended with a seven-game loss to Carolina. Back-to-back wins by the Oilers have fueled hope across Alberta.

“It’s been a magical run,” Winder said. “It’s game on. Let’s go. Now we got a real shot, right? Two games, we can do that.”

Two more victories would mean completing a comeback done just once in league history and long ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied from down 3-0 to beat the Detroit Red Wings in 1942. The odds remain long, but fans since last week have been putting up “BELIEVE” signs in windows downtown, and there’s no shortage of support for making some history.

“It’s been nothing short of extraordinary watching the way that the fans have come together,” said retired defenseman Shawn Belle, an Edmonton native who played a handful of his NHL games for his hometown club. “Knowing that the fans have got your back that much and they want to see you win and you really just electrified a city, it almost feels like it’s a bit of a responsibility for you to show up every day and bring your best because you know that they’re bringing their best and they paid tons of money to watch you play and it brings out the best qualities in players.”

From Connor McDavid’s heroics putting him in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP to Stuart Skinner’s play in net, the Oilers have brought the best out of the city that lives and breathes hockey. After the 8-1 win to avoid a sweep, the city was awash with people honking their car horns and playing the team’s victory song, “La Bamba,” in the streets.

Asked before the series the best part about living in Edmonton, McDavid said, “the passion of the fans.”

“They understand the game,” McDavid said. “A long history of great teams and great players going through there. A great fan base.”

The Oilers are in the final for the first time since ’06, though the championship series was at Rogers Center during the pandemic in a closed-off situation no one liked – players and fans alike. The city of nearly a million people is the heart of the region’s petroleum industry for which the team was named, and the stunned silence that came with the Oilers falling behind 3-0 last week is long gone now.

One worker at a local cancer treatment center said her patients are riveted by the games. Gretzky and Messier and Fuhr and Kurri jerseys are still popular, but McDavid and Draisaitl are everywhere.

“The jerseys that you see walking the streets any given day, the flags on the cars, the fever is huge,” said Pete Mason, a bartender at a pub down the block from Rogers Place. “It’s exciting. It’s fun. Is it exhausting? Am I too old for this? Absolutely. But it is fun.”

And then there’s Friday, with the Stanley Cup in the building for Florida’s third chance to hoist it. But the Panthers will need to deal with a fired up, sellout crowd hoping to will the Oilers to a Game 7 back in Florida on Monday.

After seeing fireworks and flares go off on Whyte Avenue near the bar he manages, Connor Yakabuski expects the atmosphere for Game 6 to be nuts.

“I think the city is just going to be wild,” he said. “If we win, it’s going to be a madhouse.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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