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Scrappy Oilers' Stubborn Savior

The team might not be playing for the Stanley Cup if Cal Nichols had not forged an ownership group that was able to keep it in Edmonton.

June 05, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Edmonton Oilers would not be at the RBC Center today competing against the Carolina Hurricanes for the Stanley Cup -- and might not exist at all -- if not for a stubborn man who would not let go of the team that had put Edmonton on the map in the 1980s and made it something more than a second-rate oil town.

With owner Peter Pocklington's finances in shambles and an offer on the table from Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander to buy the Oilers and take them to Texas, Cal Nichols cobbled together a group that gazed into a money pit for nearly eight years. No step was easy or sure, and the group still has $30 million in debt.

But the Oilers, empowered by the NHL's new economic system to add players instead of peddling them as they reach their prime, won the Western Conference title and advanced to the finals for the first time since 1990, the curtain call of their dynasty. It's a success story that has endeared them to their fans in a way that the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers never did.

Gretzky's teams were revered, with gloriously talented players who dominated an era. These Oilers are scrappy, not slick. They barely made the playoffs as the eighth-seeded team. Their owners manufacture equipment, develop land, work in the oil patch. They're owned by and for the people of Edmonton, creating a relationship that most closely resembles that between the publicly owned Green Bay Packers and their fans.

"We're a collection of mums and pops," said Nichols, owner of a chain of gas stations and head of the 35-member Edmonton Investors Group.

"We were investing in the city, not a hockey team. That was our only vehicle to sustain us as a major league city. We have no NBA team, no major league baseball team. The Oilers are the most visible brand in our city."

However, that didn't lift them above the tide that submerged the three teams that joined them in moving from the World Hockey Assn. to the NHL in 1979.

The Quebec Nordiques, citing weak corporate support, moved to Denver in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche. The Winnipeg Jets, blaming a small arena, left in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes. The next year, the Whalers left Hartford, Conn., for Greensboro, N.C., where they spent two years before settling in Raleigh.

The Oilers were in an economic vise. Rising salaries had padded their payroll, and the Canadian dollar's value had plunged. The Oilers got most of their revenue in Canadian dollars but paid players in U.S. funds, a losing battle.

"We'd seen this coming for a while," Nichols said in a recent interview. "I'd been out there trying to tell people about this, but until there's an imminent threat, people are hesitant. They think another white knight will show up."

Pocklington had threatened to move the team to Hamilton, but renegotiating the team's lease at the Northlands Coliseum staved that off for a while. He next filed a notice of intent to move the team to Minnesota for the 1994-95 season, but a judge said he couldn't break his lease.

Nichols had led an effort to increase the Oilers' season-ticket base in 1996 so the team would meet the standards that the NHL had set for clubs to receive subsidies from the Canadian Assistance Program. The drive had been successful, bringing the season-ticket total to 13,000, recruiting new advertisers and filling the suites that were part of a 1994 renovation.

Because that renovation used government funds, Pocklington had to agree that if he ever put the franchise up for sale, any group willing to keep it in Edmonton would have six weeks to purchase it at a fixed price of $70 million. He announced early in 1998 that Alexander had offered $82.5 million, giving a potential local owner only 60 days, until March 13, 1998, to come up with $70 million.

Rumors that the Oilers might move "tugged on the my heartstrings," said Kevin Lowe, now their general manager who had been a defenseman on their five Cup winners. "And I was thinking at the time that I'm never going to have the opportunity perhaps to bring my kids, because they were young at the time, to Edmonton to see where I played and where we won some Cups."

Lowe's fears almost became reality. "We had to do a lot of work in a hurry," Nichols said. "We sold units of ownership at $1 million each. Some took one or three or five.... It wasn't an easy decision because the risk was high. The Canadian exchange rate was at 63 cents. The salary grid was out of control. There was every indication this was a black hole."

The original group of 38 came up with about $60 million and got financing for the rest. However, there was no happily-ever-after just yet.

As salaries rose, the Oilers couldn't afford to keep players such as Curtis Joseph, Jason Arnott, Bill Guerin and Doug Weight. The owners had to kick in another $14 million to keep the team afloat for the 2001-02 season. "It was very painful," Nichols said. "People said, 'We didn't get into this to do this.'

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