Mental anguish is nothing new to sports fans. It comes with the territory, and for some teams, it’s become part of a fiercely proud identity – hanging on to hope, even where there should be none left.
While I’ve experienced what feels like more than enough sports-induced agony, I know I’m just a fledgling hockey fan with only one playoff run under my belt.
When I fell in love with hockey, it was with the LA Kings, a team at the top of their division; a team who’d won two Stanley Cups in the last four seasons. I waltzed into hockey with bright eyes and boundless optimism, fully expecting my team to bring home the Cup that year because, well, they were my team.
Fast forward nearly 16 months, and even though I’m still an infant in the world of sports fandom, I now realize how naive I’d been upon launching myself wholeheartedly into my new passion.
Optimism and a gung-ho attitude can get you far in many areas of life, none of which are sports fandom. No matter how loud you cheer, no matter whose jersey you wear, Anze Kopitar is going to score that goal – or he’s not.
It isn’t up to fans to make things happen, but instead to react when they do.
We eagerly let heart-pounding adrenaline, joy, and the crush of defeat consume us. We’re amplifiers for the athletes themselves, riding their triumphs and defeats as if they were our own.
No one knows this better than fans of the Edmonton Oilers.
These hearty northern warriors have endured a dark decade without a chance at the playoffs, and first-round draft picks whose talent stagnated in a team that refused to do them justice. The Stanley Cup hasn’t graced the streets of Edmonton in celebration since 1990, and the Oilers haven’t seen the playoffs since 2006 when they were dealt a crushing defeat by the Carolina Hurricanes in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Even so, the fans stood by; they still wore blue and orange with pride.
And then, with the dawn of Connor McDavid, number one draft pick in 2015 and already touted as the savior of Edmonton hockey, the city felt a spark of hope again.
As the 2015-16 season rolled along, that spark grew. Now, against all expectation, the Edmonton Oilers have clinched a playoff berth for the first time in eleven years. And I, a sudden and unexpected Oilers fan caught up in the midst of this, knew I couldn’t possibly understand how longtime Oilers fans feel now that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t begin to comprehend the years of frustration, the loyalty despite it all, and – no surprise here – the amount of alcohol consumed to cope with over a decade of disappointment.
Desperate to tap into the emotional highs and lows of Oilers fans, I went to the source: loyal followers of the team who could shed light on what it means to love the Oilers. I interviewed four fans who were all too willing to share the ups and downs of Oilers fandom. Like sports fans riding the emotional waves of the athletes they idolize, I wanted to ride the emotional rollercoaster these Oilers fans had experienced over the past decade.
Loyalty to the Oilers, like a genetic trait, is often inherited. As Relieved Oilers Fan X (who chose to remain anonymous) put it, “I have been a fan of the Oilers since birth, I was born into a generation of Oilers fans who had just experienced the ‘Glory Years’ so it was a natural evolution. I didn’t have to choose.” Every fan I interviewed said something along the same lines: the team was thrust upon them as a part of life, and they took up the mantle without question.
That’s not to say that these fans are casual, reluctant, or unwilling; they’re anything but.
Bryce Pugh, a photographer born and raised in Alberta, felt a kinship with the team. “Even after the Dynasty years, they were a blue-collar team,” said Bryce. “They weren’t as flashy, but they worked hard, and I wanted to see them do well.” For Relieved Oilers Fan X, even though the Oilers were chosen for her, the team became part of her identity. “They’re your boys, your guys, your team,” she said. “It’s more an innate love. While I liked certain things about certain Oilers teams (and players) throughout the years, my allegiance and love for orange and blue was ingrained. It’s tough to pinpoint it because it’s always just there (tacky but true).”
For these fans, the Oilers aren’t just a casual fling. They’re family; love for them is, as our anonymous fan said, “innate.”
And just like with family, the bad must be endured along with the good.
For Lisa Moore, a physician’s assistant and MFA student who grew up in Alberta, it’s not always the failures of the team that gets in the way. Sometimes it’s the fans themselves. If there’s one thing Lisa dislikes about the Oilers, it’s the “bad attitude of some fans when certain players aren’t performing well, or a game is slipping away.” But, like any family, there’s as much love to go around as there is enmity. Lisa loves the Oilers so much because it means something to be “part of a fan base that’s held on even when times were lean.”
The 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs were visceral, intense, and a test of emotional strength for Oilers fans.
Each of the fans I interviewed had a similar story, one that began with hope. John Epler, Narrative Presentation Lead at BioWare Edmonton, had planned a camping trip to BC with friends during the playoffs that year. “I wasn’t even at home when they made it to the [Stanley Cup] Finals,” John said. “The people at the campground were ostensibly Canucks fans, but they were willing to cheer for any Canadian team. We watched the final game in their cabin, and I remember the feeling of disappointment. We’d lost Roloson in Game 1, we’d clawed our way back to a tied series, and then they came out completely flat in Game 7. Afterward, they turned off the TV, shrugged, and asked me if I’d cheer for the Canucks the next year. I didn’t want to tell them that, as an Edmonton fan, I could never cheer for another Canadian team, so I nodded in assent and promptly went back to our cabin to drink a fair number of beers.”
Bryce had a similar experience. “When the Oil clinched in ’06,” he said, “I was beside myself. They barely squeaked in. Round one, I told myself they were out. Then they won it. Round two: this was it – they’re done. And they won it. Conference Finals: there was NO way they’d win it. I’m amazed I didn’t stroke out from stress. Then the Finals, Roli gets hurt, and everything falls apart. I watched game 7 with about 15 friends in a cramped apartment, and we were all crushed. There were tears, and I’m not afraid to admit that.”
According to Lisa, “the 2006 run was incredible. I was ecstatic. The city (and the northern half of the province) was ecstatic. We were all obsessed. I was working as a radio operator and traffic control person for Forestry in northern Alberta during the playoff run and it got to the point where I was asked to announce goals and penalties over the radio to all the camps, fire tower people and fire crews during games because some people couldn’t pick up a radio or TV signal in the bush. There were spontaneous Blue Miles popping up in tiny towns in the bush.”
Maybe because hopes ran so high, no fan made it out of that loss unscathed. Relieved Oilers Fan X, like everyone else, was blown away when the Oilers just squeezed into the playoffs and made it all the way to the Finals. “It was insanely exciting to see that ragtag team of ragamuffins bring the city to their feet like that,” she said. “Game 7, when they lost to a fucking team from North Carolina, in a city that didn’t give a shit, was crushing. I distinctly remember waking up the next morning feeling like I was hung over like it wasn’t going to be true.”
In the years following that defeat, the Edmonton Oilers became synonymous with disappointment. There was even a hashtag, #HereComeTheOilers, to document their repeated ability to drop the ball at exactly the worst moment.
“The first few years weren’t so bad,” said Bryce. “I bought into the rebuild. I’d seen Gagner and Eberle in Juniors and they were terrific. Getting Hall, and then Yak, then Nuge – it always gave me a glimmer of hope in the Summer.”
But that glimmer faded more and more each season until it became hard for even the most die-hard Oilers fans to watch games on a regular basis, if at all.
How did fans stay loyal to a team who couldn’t seem to claw their way out of a decade-long slump, no matter how they tried? “In a few words? You either did or you didn’t.”
Relieved Oilers Fan X didn’t pull punches. For her, it was about suffering through the worst of it just for the rare moments when the clouds parted and the Oilers came through with a victory. “I came back every night because seeing them win, when they could, outweighed the tough losses for me. Seeing those guys succeed, even if it was fleeting, impacted me somehow more than the awful and shitty reality of all the losing.”
If one win can soothe the pain of ten losses, then the Oilers’ current season must be a powerful salve.
Lisa couldn’t sleep the night after the Oilers clinched a playoff berth. Not only because her team finally has a chance at the Stanley Cup again, but because of the impact it will have on young fans. “I feel excited that a whole new generation of kids (boys and girls) will be able to experience the playoffs and get excited about the sport,” said Lisa, and I agree. It’s admirable to swear allegiance to a losing team, but there’s something giddy and infectious in letting yourself get swept up in the celebration surrounding a team’s success, even if there’s still a long way to go in the post-season.
Remarkably, after an eleven-year drought, the Oilers haven’t just made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They’re serious contenders, thanks in large part to team captain and wunderkind Connor McDavid. “This is a team that has a chance of doing some real damage,” said John, “especially with players like Lucic and McDavid, the former who’s been here before, and the latter who always seems to [find] yet another gear.” The team feels cohesive and optimistic for the first time in a long time, and fans recognize and feed on that energy.
Relieved Oilers Fan X, who was in attendance at the playoff-clinching game on Tuesday, perfectly articulates why fans stick with their teams through the highest highs and lowest lows:
“When Jordan Eberle did his walk-off interview on Tuesday night, the emotion on his face? I thought he might cry. His whole body was a giant sign of relief. I was beside the bench surrounded by a sea of fans who fucking cared. I high-fived an usherette lady and legit had tears in my eyes. We’re back. That’s why you put your jersey on even after two years of finishing dead last. That’s why you stick around.”
Even if the Oilers don’t finish off the season with a Stanley Cup in tow, they are a team revived; this is only the beginning. With fans like theirs, fans who stand with them even when victory seems impossible, they’ll find a way to persevere, just as they always have, and so will we.
As our favorite Relieved Oilers Fan X put it, “Edmonton may be growing, evolving and changing, but the Oilers are still the crux of what brings these people together. It really was something special. It will be again.”