What's fuelling Oiler-fan fury
The team with McDavid, the world's best player, simply stinks - but that alone doesn't explain why Edmontonians are so utterly incensed
Saturday, January 26, 2019 – Print Edition, Page S2

The NHL likes to say that the all-star weekend is for the fans.

Actually, it's far more for the sponsors. Rabid fans - you know, the sort of person legendary New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon claimed "boos a TV set" - have little-to-no interest in a meaningless game that only interrupts what they are really wound up about as the season enters its stretch drive: the current state of their team.

"Hockey," author Roch Carrier says, "is life in Canada." Some of the more rabid would modify Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's famous line about British soccer: "Some people think [hockey] is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

It certainly seemed so in Edmonton this past week, as fans and media turned, often viciously, on Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli, blaming dreadful trades and bad contracts for the baffling fact that this team with the best hockey player in the world is entering the all-star break five spots short of the final wild-card position for the playoffs.

No wonder team president Bob Nicholson canned his GM after the second period of Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the lowly Detroit Red Wings so Chiarelli could slip away before the surly mob, hockey sticks aflame, gathered in the parking lot.

"I'd feel betrayed, too," says Richard Gruneau from his home on British Columbia's Bowen Island.

Gruneau is a sports fan, but is hardly an Oilers fanatic. He is, rather, a professor at Simon Fraser University and specializes in the sociology of sport. His most recent book is Sport & Modernity; with David Whitson he previously published Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics. He knows what he's talking about.

Why would there not be so much fury, Gruneau asks. Edmontonians rightly anticipated a return to past glory as their struggling team landed four firstoverall draft picks this decade, six top-five picks in all. In the 2015 draft they lucked into 18year-old kid Connor McDavid, properly tagged a franchise player. Edmonton fans saw their taxes contribute hugely to the city's state-of-the-art $480-million facility - and their team stinks.

"Intense fandom can lead to a situation where 'We need a fix!' " Gruneau says. Tuesday night Edmonton fans thought they got it, but that was merely revenge; the fix remains a long, long way off.

Three hours down Highway 2, Calgary Flames fans feel they have that "fix" fans demanded in Edmonton. No new rink, but a new coach in Bill Peters, a whitehot power play led by a young forward, Johnny Gaudreau, who sits in third place in league scoring - tied, ironically, with McDavid. And a team entering the allstar weekend in first place in the Western Conference.

In Winnipeg, there is also fan delight as the Jets are just a point out of second place in the conference and have had one of the league's top power plays all season. The one niggling concern apart from injuries is the unexpected struggles of 20-year-old Patrik Laine, who scored 18 times in November alone but has only 25 goals to show for the season.

Much more had been expected.

As for expectations, they weren't high in Vancouver as the Canucks began their season having missed the playoffs the previous three years and were supposedly in a rebuilding year.

That was before Canucks fans realized they had a sensation in rookie Elias Pettersson, who missed 11 games with a concussion and a knee injury but still leads the team in scoring with 45 points and has his team fighting for a wild-card spot in the playoffs, Equally surprising has been the Montreal Canadiens. Despite a dreadful power play, the Habs trail the Toronto Maple Leafs by a single point. While the national sports media continues to obsess over the Leafs, little notice has been given to the team that has won more Stanley Cups, 24, than any team in history.

As for the league's last-place team, the Ottawa Senators, one disgusted season ticket holder took disenchantment to a new level when he declared himself a UFA (Unrestricted Fan Again) in an op-ed piece for the Ottawa Citizen.

Dale Sheehan, who is with the International Centre for Sport Security, wrote that he could live with a "rebuild" but not with the apparent "teardown" that is the current state of the team. Sign UFA (Unrestricted Free Agent) Mark Stone to a new contract and he'd renew a half-season package. Also sign UFA Matt Duchene and he'd return full time to this seat in the stands.

Gruneau says that being a fevered fan of any team is all about "identification and belonging." It might be a "faux connection," but it makes fellow fans "your people even though you don't really know them."

Gruneau recalls walking into a British pub years ago and being asked if he, as a Canadian, paid any attention to soccer. Gruneau allowed that he liked Liverpool and instantly four people began singing You'll Never Walk Alone, the Liverpool theme song. They had bonded without even knowing their names.

"Fandom makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself," Gruneau says. "It's all about my team, my community. You allow yourself to do that and you are on a roller coaster. You're gambling with your emotions.

It's euphoria when your team wins, depression when your team loses. Despondency comes from allowing yourself that much attachment.

"But to reach that joy of euphoria, you have to take the risk that you could just as easily feel immense disappointment."

And that pretty much explains Edmonton this past week.

Associated Graphic

Connor McDavid, seen eluding Sean Monahan of the Flames last Saturday, was supposed to boost the Oilers to new heights. It hasn't turned out that way, and fans targeted GM Peter Chiarelli this week, blaming bad trades and contracts for the team's woes.


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