For nearly a decade, the door to the Edmonton Oilers' locker room was marked Exit Only.
They'd find and develop talented players, but the economics of life in a small Canadian market doomed them to run in place. They couldn't afford to keep Doug Weight, Curtis Joseph and countless others who might have allowed them to uphold the tradition established during the Wayne Gretzky era, when the Oilers won four Stanley Cup championships in five seasons and, after Gretzky was dispatched to Los Angeles, a fifth title in seven seasons.
Only through a radical, new labor agreement that imposed a salary cap and revenue sharing were the Oilers -- and other small-market teams -- spared a continuation of this perpetual cycle of losing. Last summer, the Oilers were buyers, not sellers, taking on the contracts of workhorse defenseman Chris Pronger and defensive specialist Michael Peca through trades with the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders, respectively.
Without that duo, and without the late-season acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild, the Oilers would not have clawed and scratched and willed their way to the Western Conference finals against the Mighty Ducks, starting today at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.
"When we were losing to Dallas, we were one Mike Modano or Sergei Zubov away from winning the series," General Manager Kevin Lowe said, referring to the Oilers' playoff losses to the high-spending Stars in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.
"So when you add Chris Pronger and Michael Peca, at least now you're on a level playing field, and it certainly looks like that is the case."
The salary cap alone doesn't explain the Oilers' success. Or that of the Ducks. Or the Eastern finalists, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres.
Drafting and developing players will always be the most solid foundation for success in the NHL, which is as it should be. Also, it's clear that the teams still playing this spring were smart enough to capitalize on the new anti-obstruction crusade, reconfiguring their rosters to emphasize energetic, up-tempo styles but leaving room for the toughness to win the dozens of little battles that make playoff hockey so breathtakingly intense.
But no team appears to have benefited more than the Oilers from the parity generated by the new economic system. If their success came at the price of enduring a season-killing lockout, maybe -- just maybe -- the pain was worth it, as long as this season's parity becomes permanent and not a one-shot deal.
Because without teams like the Edmonton Oilers, without cities that live and die for the local hockey team, without arenas where the kid selling popcorn is probably working to pay for ice time and might be an All-Star in three or four or five years, there's no reason for the NHL to exist.
"Calgary was pretty crazy when we were up there," Duck defenseman Sean O'Donnell said, "but those Canadians, they love their hockey. They love it up there. Edmonton's been waiting a long time to get this far in the playoffs again, after having been spoiled in the '80s. They can see the prize at the end of the tunnel.
"Coming in, all the talk was about Calgary and Ottawa, but they're the last Canadian team left, so there's a lot of pride up there. Games 3 and 4 up there, it's going to be nuts."
The Oilers deserve applause. They've been given the tools to compete, and they've sculpted a masterpiece.
"I think there's balance among the league now," Oilers captain Ryan Smyth said Thursday during a news conference at the team's Newport Beach hotel.
"It gives us an opportunity and a chance to get to where we're at right now. It's still a challenge, even when you've got guys like Chris Pronger, Michael Peca and Dwayne Roloson."
Pronger, the 2000 Norris Trophy winner, has brought leadership and poise under duress. He's averaging a league-leading 32 minutes, 37 seconds' ice time per game, hard, physical minutes.
Peca, twice a Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward, has brought "spurts of offense, incredible overall defense and smarts," Lowe said. "There's a real edge to him at times."
Roloson, after a bumpy introduction in March, saved the Oilers in the first round against the top-seeded Red Wings, and was cool and calm and reliable against the San Jose Sharks.
"I didn't realize we were getting another captain," Lowe said, referring to Roloson's leadership ability.
But because they did, the Oilers can talk about dreaming of the Cup without being laughed at. They have as good a shot as anyone left.
"You can't be afraid of talking about winning the Stanley Cup or you're not going to have a chance," Coach Craig MacTavish said. "There's the smell of opportunity in the air, for sure. I don't think there's a lot different among the four teams left. Little things are going to go a long way to determine who's the Stanley Cup champion this year, and we want to make sure we cover all the bases."
The new collective bargaining agreement allowed the Oilers to reach first base, but they've taken it from there. Their task will only get harder against a team that's very much like them in its mix of speed, skill and selfless team play. "We have to do it at a higher level than they do it," MacTavish said.
At least they're getting the chance to do it. That's worth celebrating in itself.