Saturday, 11 June 2011
06/11/11 36.0 Unspoiling the Fan Base
The last time we of Oil Country saw anyone in that hallowed jersey lift the Stanley Cup was 21 years ago, in 1990. It will probably be at least a couple more years before we can start talking about it realistically happening again. Those long decades have been hard and painful at times, but it's all happening for a good reason.
By the time the Oilers won their fifth Stanley Cup in 7 years, Oiler fans had become a bit jaded. It was a fanbase that was accumstomed to winning, and had had one of the best teams ever assembled play for them for a decade.
So, as star players left or were traded and it became apparent that there were no prospects in the system to replace them, the fans were not amused. To go from a Stanley Cup to the worst season in franchise history (points earned) in 1992-93 was a blow. Pocklington and the Alberta economy didn't help either. Interest and attendance declined, and it was only by the narrowest of margins that the team was able to stay in town and continue on its path of mostly middling play. Fans had glimpses of past success in the late 90's and early 2000's, but it was pretty lean until 2005-06. Expectations were not particularly high that playoff year, so a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was extremely welcome and reminded everyone what that "winning" thing was all about.
All of those bad seasons over the last 21 years have helped to remove the sense of entitlement from the fans. The fact that we are all fed up enough to accept back-to-back 30th place finishes as a good thing is evidence enough of that. For a lot of fans it's already hard to remember what it's like to actually want the team to do well and not tank for draft position. Finishing last after the Cup run was a good thing, because the team has continued to add new fans even as it is terrible and not just when it gets good. It's a stark contrast to what happened after the Oilers last won the Cup. After only 3 years out of the playoffs you could go to the Coliseum and find loads of empty seats in 1995-96.
When the Oilers start to win again - and it will happen eventually - even the fans that watched the dynasty years and expected to win will be happy with modest increments of success. It's made everyone much more humble, and that's a good place to start. Because of that, we may not be the most vocal fans there is, but Oilers faithful have shown their support by selling out the building of a dismal team year after year since the lockout.
The bandwagon is still full, but the attitude has had a fresh start. The trick will be to keep it up even as the team improves (and not cheer when your goalie gets pulled in the playoffs). These two 30th place finishes will help with that. In the late 70's and the 80's Edmonton went from no team to a decent team to a great team. Finishing 30th gives the fans some perspective that they've never had before, and hopefully it will help to keep them grounded when playoff hockey returns. If we all thought 2006 was wild, wait until fans who have been to the bottom get back into the hunt.
It's not that far away.