Oil Kings alive and thriving
By John MacKinnon, edmontonjournal.com
May 14, 2012
Members of the Edmonton Oil Kings celebrate their victory over the Portland Winterhawks as they win the WHL championship series on May 13, 2012 in Edmonton.
Photograph by: Greg Southam , edmontonjournal.com
EDMONTON - Just five seasons after being brought down from the musty attic of Edmonton’s sports memory and revived as an expansion franchise, the junior Oil Kings are alive and thriving, back on top of the Western Hockey League.
The Oil Kings defeated the Portland Winterhawks 4-1 in Game 7 of a thrilling best-of-seven WHL final series Sunday night in front of a franchise record playoff crowd of 12,514 at Rexall Place to clinch the championship.
Edmonton native Rhett Rachinski, who set the tone by scoring at 1:51 of the opening period, Tyler Maxwell, Michael St. Croix and T.J. Foster staked the Oil Kings to a 4-0 lead before Oliver Gabriel, also an Edmonton native, scored for Portland not long after the mid-point of the second period.
That was it for scoring, and Edmonton was able to protect that lead, no sure thing against the high-octane Winterhawks, who were held to just four shots in the third period.
Now the Oil Kings are headed back to the Memorial Cup tournament to compete for a national junior championship for the first time in 40 years.
“You know what, it’s a little surreal right now,” said Rachinski, a fifth-year player who has lived the growing pains of this fledgling franchise. “If you would have told me the last couple of years that we’d be winning a championship, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Going through that adversity early on in my career, it makes you value this experience even more.”
The Oil Kings won’t have much time to savour their league championship. They play the host Cataractes on Friday night in the tournament opening game in Shawinigan, an industrial city of about 50,000 on the St. Maurice River, the hometown, famously, of former prime minister Jean Chretien and legendary goaltender Jacques Plante.
Their other opponents will be the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights and the Saint John Sea Dogs, defending tournament champions, who are representing the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the second straight season. The tournament runs from May 18-27.
“I’m just ecstatic,” said second-year Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal. “The work we’ve done in the last two years with this group of kids has been just outstanding.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked. This is their time and this was the best game they played in the series. Now we’ve just got to take it on to Shawinigan.”
The Oil Kings haven’t been to the Memorial Cup since 1972, when they failed to win a game in the first national championship held in a tournament format in Ottawa.
In 1971, the Oil Kings lost a best-of-three series in two straight games to Guy Lafleur and the Quebec Remparts.
Back in the day, they were finalists seven straight years, from 1960-66, winning in ‘63 and again in ‘66, the latter occasion against Bobby Orr’s Oshawa Generals.
Reborn under the ownership of the NHL’s Oilers for the 2007-08 season, the Oil Kings have regained pride of place in the Edmonton sports community now, after some tough early seasons, including 2009-10, when they won just 16 games.
As with previous editions, these Oil Kings are tightly woven into the fabric of the community, from Rachinski, to team captain Mark Pysyk, of Sherwood Park, to assistant coach Steve Hamilton, son of Al, who helped the Oil Kings win a Memorial Cup in 1966.
Those connections also include defenceman Keegan Lowe, son of Oilers president Kevin, who was watching via the Internet from Finland, where he is GM of Team Canada at the World Hockey Championship.
“I felt bad,” the younger Lowe said. “He stayed up (Saturday) night to watch the game (a 3-2 Portland win), so staying up two nights in a row, he must be pretty tired.
“Growing up in Edmonton, most recently I can remember 2006 Oilers (run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final) and the city was absolutely electric. Edmonton knows their hockey, loves their hockey and the Oilers haven’t been having a great couple of years.
“We’re just happy to give Edmonton a little taste of a championship series. It was a great feeling and Edmonton got behind us, too, right at the end here, which was really nice.”
Here’s another nice thing: Win or lose in Shawinigan, roughly 20 members of the current Oil Kings roster will be back in 2012-13.
They will be a year older next season. And better? It should be fun finding out. For now, the fun will be in Shawinigan.
Check out my blog, Sweatsox, at edmontonjournal.com/blogs
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal