CANADA

Home-town proud

DALE EISLER November 17 1997
CANADA

Home-town proud

DALE EISLER November 17 1997

Home-town proud

CANADA

EDMONTON

When it comes to decor, Mo’s Sports Parlour in south-side Edmonton is like similar places across the continent. Professional team banners hang from the ceiling; hockey and football jerseys are spread across the walls. Twenty-three TV screens connected to five satellite dishes beam in sports events from around the globe, as waitresses in shorts and T-shirts deliver chicken wings, potato skins and pitchers of beer. And like sports bars everywhere, Mo’s is a hotbed of home-town pride—this is, after all, Edmonton, birthplace of the Oilers and city of champions. But many of those who filled all 220 seats one night last week to watch their beloved team take on the New York Rangers were edgy—and not because of the game, which ended in a 2-2 tie. At stake was the fate of the team that, as a Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s, focused international attention on Edmonton. ‘You can’t help having this queasy feeling that the Oilers’ days in this city are numbered,” lamented Mike Horvat, 24, who grew up idolizing the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. “Being able to say I watched those guys play during their peak years is something I’ll be able to tell my grandkids.”

Since the late 1980s, when owner Peter Pocklington began threatening to move the team to a more lucrative venue, local fans

have had reason to fear for the future of an Edmonton institution. Last week, after much speculation, Pocklington confirmed he had received an offer from Houston businessman Leslie Alexander to buy the Oilers for $119 million. Almost immediately, the deal hit a snag when civic officials refused to renegotiate terms of a threeyear-old agreement with Pocklington that

requires the team to stay in Edmonton until at least 2004. Alexander retreated to Houston to consider his options, but said he has not given up hopes of buying the team and intends to continue negotiations.

Oiler diehards could not disguise their sense of dread over the team’s fate— and for good reason. In recent years, Canadian fans have endured the loss of two other National Hockey League teams: the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, while the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes the following year. Both left, basically, because the larger markets had the financial muscle to fund escalating player salaries. Granted, the Oilers of today are a pale imitation of the team that won the Stanley Cup five times between 1984 and 1990. But only 18 years after entering the NHL, they have long since be-

Oiler fans fear that their team may be headed for Houston

come part of the local culture. “Much of who we are and how we see ourselves is tied to the Oilers,” says Bob Stauffer, 30, an Oilers fan since 1981 and a regular at Mo’s. “The Oilers put Edmonton on the map. It really meant something when we’d watch CNN and see them talking about Edmonton and the Oilers. We were a town of average folk and suddenly people were aware of us around the world.”

But in the cold economic reality of today’s big-league 2j professional sports, fans’ I passion and pride may not g be enough. Since dismang tling the Oiler dynasty—be1 ginning with the 1988 trade Í2 that sent Gretzky to Los AnH geles in a deal that netted

Pocklington $18 million in

cash—the owner has talked about taking the Oilers to Hamilton, then Minneapolis. The team stayed in Edmonton after an agreement was struck in 1994 among Pocklington, the city and the Northlands Coliseum that gave Pocklington control of the community-owned arena in exchange for an annual fee of $2.8 million.

Key to the deal was the agreement requiring the Oilers to remain in Edmonton until at least 2004. Alexander, who owns the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, wanted to modify that term before buying the team, allowing him to take it south as early as 2000. But he was told the deal will not be changed. ‘This is an airtight agreement,” Edmon-

ton city councillor Brent Maitson told Maclean’s. “There is no way that this team is moving before 2004—and hopefully never.” Despite that, many fans fear the location term could be renegotiated. Another key part of the agreement gives local investors the option to buy the Oilers for a

predetermined price of $70 million (U.S.) within 30 days of an offer from a purchaser outside Edmonton being accepted by Pocklington, his bankers and the other parties to the 1994 agreement. As of last week, no local investors had stepped forward with a firm bid, leaving the Houston proposal as the only substantial offer— and Oiler fans in a funk worrying that Edmonton without the Oilers is a bad dream that might come true.

DALE EISLER