June 12, 2006

Small market teams harbor big Stanley Cup dreams

By Steve Keating

EDMONTON, Alberta (Reuters) - Championship banners gently
flutter from the rafters of Rexall Place, a constant reminder
of the Edmonton Oilers' glorious past when Wayne Gretzky and
Mark Messier were leading the team to Stanley Cups.

Banners also hang from the roof of RBC Center in Raleigh
but most pay homage to the North Carolina State Wolfpack's rich
basketball tradition not Edmonton's Stanley Cup opponents the
Carolina Hurricanes.

This year's Stanley Cup final is as much a tale of two
cities as two teams, whose only link is that they are among the
NHL's smallest markets.

In Raleigh they wear their hockey jerseys to games. In
Edmonton they wear them to work, to bed and to weddings.

With five months of bitterly cold Prairie winter and
constant sub-zero temperatures, this is hardcore hockey country
while college basketball rules in Raleigh, where snow and the
Hurricanes remain a curiosity.

Since the Hartford Whalers relocated in Raleigh in 1999,
the Hurricanes have established themselves on the ice, reaching
the finals twice in the last four years but have struggled to
gain a foothold in a sports market dominated by NASCAR and
college hoops.

"The first year the team was in Raleigh, I think they had
8,000 fans at the first game that I was at," recalled captain
Rod Brind'Amour. "Hockey has been here six, seven years.


"It didn't exist as a sport pretty much. It's come a long

"It's a small town, small town feel, but you know, we're
entrenched in the community now and we're becoming a big part
of it."

With the Canadian dollar and oil prices on the rise,
Edmonton is also experiencing a boom and the Oilers have been
part of that returning to the Stanley Cup final for the first
time in 16 years.

This season the Oilers sold out all but one game at the
16,839-seat Rexall place, the team once again assuming a
prominent role in Edmontonians lives.

After winning five Stanley Cups in seven years in the
1980s, Edmonton became known as "The City of Champions" but
shortly after Gretzky and Messier left town, the Oilers began a
slow, steady decline into a financial abyss.

In 1997 the struggling franchise was finally put up for
sale and nearly moved to Texas until a community ownership
group stepped forward to save the team and keep it in Edmonton.

Playing in the NHL's smallest market, the NHL's most
northern outpost continued to struggle under the burden of
rising salaries until a year-long labor dispute ended in a new
Collective Bargaining Agreement and a salary cap leveled the
playing field allowing teams like Edmonton and Carolina to
compete for top players.


"I think with the new CBA there's a whole new balance
around the league now," said Ryan Smyth an 11-year veteran who
has spent his entire career in an Edmonton uniform. "Obviously
we're recognized as a small-market team.

"Obviously you are getting two teams in the Stanley Cup
finals that aren't well recognized."

Eight years after the Hurricanes set up shop in Raleigh
there are still people in the region getting their first taste
of hockey during these Stanley Cup finals.

In Edmonton, almost every one of the area's nearly one
million residents seems to know someone connected with the team
whether it is one of the 35 community owners, a player or the
guys who drive the Zamboni.

To the locals, the team is known simply as "the Oil" and
"Gretz" and "Mess" are talked about like next door neighbors.

Inside the two arenas there has been little to distinguish
the two sides during the first four games of the best-of-seven

Both teams can claim some of the most raucous fans and
loudest buildings in the NHL.

At the RBC Center the stands are awash in a seething sea of
red and white hockey sweaters while in Edmonton blue and copper
are the most popular spring colors.


But take a few steps beyond the tailgate partying at the
RBC Center and there is little evidence the Stanley Cup is in

In Edmonton, the excitement surrounding the final is almost
impossible to escape.

Oilers flags seem to hang from the windows of every home or
whip from the aerials of every car.

Whipped into a frenzy, the celebrations have occasionally
turned violent as thousands of Oilers supporters gathered along
Whytes Avenue setting fires and smashing windows resulting in
hundreds of arrests.

So intense was the spotlight that the team had to escape to
New York after clinching the Western conference title and they
waited for the Eastern conference to be decided.

"They (the fans) have given us a lift when we have needed
it and they have been very supportive of us through this
playoff run; gave us the energy when we needed it against San
Jose, gave us the energy in the third period against Detroit in
Game Six when we were down by a couple," said Edmonton coach
Craig MacTavish. "So it's important.

"There's no secret, as a player you get energized by the
emotion in the building.

"When so many people are so solidly behind you, you want to
make sure that you are playing your best hockey.

"You get an adrenaline rush from it."