June 15, 2006

Stanley Cup final a tale of two cities

By Steve Keating

EDMONTON, Alberta (Reuters) - In Raleigh, fans wear their
hockey jerseys to games. In Edmonton they wear them to work, to
bed and to weddings.

Championship banners gently flutter from the rafters of
Rexall Place, a reminder of the Edmonton Oilers' glorious past
when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier led the team to Stanley

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 final
opponents, the Carolina Hurricanes.

This year's final is as much a tale of two cities as of two
teams who are among the National Hockey League's (NHL) smallest

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

Since the Hartford Whalers relocated to Raleigh in 1999,
the Hurricanes have established themselves on the ice, reaching
the finals twice in the last four years.

They have struggled to gain a foothold, however, in a
sports market dominated by NASCAR and college hoops.

"Hockey has been here six, seven years. It didn't exist as
a sport pretty much. It's come a long way," recalled captain
Rod Brind'Amour.

"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."
However, once 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
salary cap which leveled the playing field and allowed teams
such as Edmonton and Carolina to compete for top players.

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

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

Inside the two arenas there has been little to distinguish
the sides during the first five games of the best-of-seven
final which the Hurricanes lead 3-2.


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

At the RBC Center the stands are awash with red-and-white
hockey sweaters but take a few steps beyond the tailgate
partying and there is little evidence the Stanley Cup is in

In Edmonton, where game six of the final takes place on
Saturday, the excitement is almost impossible to escape.

Oilers flags hang from the windows of seemingly every home
and from the aerials of almost every car.

The celebrations occasionally turned violent as thousands
of Oilers supporters gathered along Whyte 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 as 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 energised 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."