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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Oilers Are Canada's Team

May 23, 2006|Helene Elliott

EDMONTON, Canada — Fans in Ottawa are still obsessing over what went wrong with the Senators, and some Toronto Maple Leafs supporters will never acknowledge anything that happens outside the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe.

But the Edmonton Oilers' little miracle on the Alberta prairie is catching the fancy of hockey lovers across Canada, an appeal that grows with every win.

Representatives of a dozen local and national TV outlets waited in an airport hangar Monday afternoon to greet the Oilers on their return from Anaheim, where they won the first two games of the Western Conference finals against the Mighty Ducks. Reporters asked about the team-wide stomach-virus outbreak -- it's much better, thanks -- about whether players are fatigued -- not really, because they spent Sunday night in California -- and about the ramifications of carrying a 2-0 lead into Rexall Place when the series resumes today.

They're happy but won't take anything for granted. Fill in your own cliches.

It was all in the name of finding a juicy tidbit for newly hungry fans who might have scoffed at the eighth-seeded Oilers a month ago but know a bandwagon when they see one.

Especially if it's the last Canada-based team left in the playoffs and no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993.

"I've done a lot of interviews across the country, and there's a ton of interest," said Mark Connelly of the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. "They've captured the attention of everybody."

Craig MacEwen of cable's Rogers Sportsnet said he had seen Oilers flags affixed to cars in Vancouver, his home base. "It pains me to say it, but yes," he said.

That's only one way in which this infatuation has bloomed.

In Toronto, hockey nights at a downtown sports bar are jammed with patrons wearing Oil-drop jerseys and hats, said Jeff Marek, director of sports programming for AM 640, the Maple Leafs' flagship station.

"Canadian hockey fans, as I'm sure you're well aware, have this complex about America and its place in 'our' game to the point where the Oilers could have players from Stockholm and Helsinki exclusively and they would get cheered over any American squad, even if all the players hailed from Medicine Hat, Brampton and Rouyn-Noranda," he said. "Go figure."

On sports talk shows and in bars in Montreal, said Gazette reporter Pat Hickey, most fans "are playing the patriotic card and rooting for the Oilers," but some favor the Buffalo Sabres because of their players born in Quebec.

"And some people are pulling for the Hurricanes because they beat the Habs and it makes the Habs look better," he said, referring to the Canadiens' first-round loss to Carolina. "But the Oilers are the favorites here."

Even in Calgary, home of the archrival Flames, there's some pro-Edmonton sentiment. Vancouver Sun columnist Cam Cole, changing planes in Calgary en route to Edmonton on Monday, handed in his boarding pass and got back a new one that had the words "Go Oilers Go" written on it. He'd also been upgraded from coach to business class.

Dave Mitchell, program director of Ottawa's Team 1200 radio station, said his callers "are still in mourning" over the Senators' second-round loss to Buffalo but might soon perk up.

"Discussions by the fans have alternated between who needs to be traded to fix this playoff meltdown that we seem to experience each year, and which of our unrestricted free agents we can afford to re-sign," he said. "This week, the fans will focus their attention on Edmonton. We'll cheer for any other Canadian team trying to win the Cup except for Toronto."

Don Angus of Toronto, editor and publisher of a magazine for the Canadian Society of Cinematographers and a regular participant in a weekly coed hockey game at age 67, said he perceived that Toronto residents ignored the early stages of the playoffs but are starting to adopt the Oilers.

"I think they're getting into it now because there's no other Canadian team and because this is a Cinderella team," he said. "That goes a long way toward turning people to them. They are Canadian, and they play a Canadian brand of hockey."

He suggested that Toronto's apathy stems from jealousy over the Oilers' having won five Stanley Cup titles between 1984 and 1990, while the Maple Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967.

"For most Torontonians, it's 'Go Oilers, because you're carrying the flag,' but I don't see a huge groundswell," he said. "If Calgary were still in it, there'd be more support here for the Flames. It's not the same kind of feeling for the Oilers. It's more a been there, done that, sour grapes."

The Oilers haven't been here -- the conference finals -- since 1992. They haven't made the finals since 1990. But as they've inched closer, they've carried more of the nation's hopes with them.

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