The Buzz Is Back in Edmonton? The Oilers Must Have a Prodigy

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Edmonton Oilers fans are excited about their team. They expect Connor McDavid to be a generational talent, just like Wayne Gretzky, who starred for the team in the 1980s.
CreditPhotographs by Jason Franson for The New York Times

At stoplights around town, motorists honk at the owner of a 2009 black Ford F-150 and snap photographs of its license plate, the one that reads, “McDavid,” in red uppercase letters. Then they speed up, straining to see the driver through the window.

Could it be? Could it really be Connor McDavid, the 19-year-old prodigy charged with restoring the woebegone Edmonton Oilers to prominence?

Because he is polite, the driver, who is not McDavid but rather a 31-year-old part-owner of a plumbing and heating company named Raffaele Papaianni, always smiles and waves at those hoping to glimpse hockey royalty. And why not? Like them, he just wanted to believe again.

Even if it is tempered, optimism does abound throughout northern Alberta, where 10 consecutive postseasons have passed without the Oilers’ presence, the longest current streak in the N.H.L. Across that decade of misery, masochism and mismanagement, Edmonton toiled through several unsuccessful phases of rebuilding, garnering three No. 1 picks before a fourth gifted them McDavid, a generational talent — “once-in-a-lifetime,” said General Manager Peter Chiarelli — who conjures the greatest Oiler of them all, Wayne Gretzky.

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Motorists in Edmonton are often disappointed when the driver of this truck turns out to be a man named Raffaele Papaianni, pictured below in his plumbing and heating office, not Connor McDavid.
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“We know what it’s like to have something that’s better than anybody else, so you hang on to it,” said Shannon Hrehirchuk, 48, who works in computer consulting, before Edmonton defeated the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, last week. “It’s the same way with Connor.”

Called McJesus by an irreverent segment of the fan base, McDavid has shifted the paradigm in the N.H.L.’s northernmost outpost. One of the league’s smallest markets, Edmonton could not keep the star defenseman Chris Pronger, whose trade demand after the Oilers’ surprising dash to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals portrayed him as more of a villain than anyone on the hated Calgary Flames.

McDavid missed 37 games as a rookie after fracturing his clavicle early last season, and another last-place finish in the Western Conference followed. But he has turned Edmonton into a hockey destination again, complete with a sparkling new downtown arena shaped like a stylized oil drop, Rogers Place, which opened this season as the centerpiece of a burgeoning entertainment and residential district.

He also spurred a front-office overhaul that detonated the organization’s culture of cronyism and precipitated a series of personnel moves that, so far, have recast the Oilers as an emerging power in the beastly Western Conference.

“You can definitely sense they’re expecting a lot out of us this year, and that’s good,” said McDavid, who this season became the youngest team captain in N.H.L. history. “Because we’re expecting even more out of ourselves.”

Powered by McDavid’s team-high four goals and league-high 11 points, Edmonton is 6-1 after beating Eastern Conference power Washington on Wednesday night, their best record through seven games since 1985-86.

“It’s an exciting time to be an Oilers fan now,” said Michelle LeMoignan, 33, who owns a cupcake shop here. “I haven’t said that in a long time. I don’t even remember the last time I said that.”

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The sun set over an outdoor hockey rink and the Edmonton skyline.

A Supportive Landscape

Sitting in his office, surrounded by Fatheads of Gretzky and McDavid, Papaianni extolled the virtues of the city he adores.

“We don’t have mountains or the beach,” he said. “We’ve got the team.”

That team is not the Edmonton Eskimos, who made the Canadian Football League playoffs every year between 1972 and 2005. The Eskimos do not play hockey, and therefore they cannot compete with the sport so intrinsic to Canada’s national identity.

Stacy Lorenz, a sport historian and professor in the physical education department at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, said winning five Cups in seven seasons, as the Oilers did between the 1983-84 and 1989-90 seasons, presented Edmonton outside a Canadian context. He likened the fervent support here to that in a college town in the United States.

“There’s something unique about carrying that sense of the city out there into the world,” said Lorenz, 47, who teaches a course called “Hockey: Culture and Commerce.”

He added: “You get a sense that once you’re an Oiler, you’re always an Oiler — that alumni feeling. You have that shared history all the way back, and you will in the future and there’s no competition. It’s the only place for Edmonton on the North American stage, the only place where Edmonton is in the big leagues.”

It is a place where, the night the season ticket-holder Alec Card was born, his doctors — and parents — insisted on a television in the delivery room so all could watch the Oilers play the Boston Bruins in Game 4 of the 1988 Stanley Cup finals. And a place where, the morning after becoming a father to twins, goaltender Cam Talbot can walk into a Tim Horton’s and be congratulated. It is also a place where, later that night, the video screen at Rogers Place poses a multiple-choice question: What are the names of Talbot’s twins?

“As far as the hockey culture goes,” said Talbot, who joined Edmonton in a trade from the Rangers in June 2015, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

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McDavid had a team-high four goals and a league-high 11 points as Edmonton started the season with a 6-1 record.

It certainly didn’t in 2006, the touchstone for fans who grew up hearing stories of the glory years but were not quite old enough to experience or remember them. Seeded eighth, the Oilers galvanized the city by reaching the Cup finals for the first time in 16 years, blasting the league’s best team, the Detroit Red Wings, before ultimately losing to Carolina in Game 7.

That spring, adults wore jerseys to work and children wore them to school. Whenever the Oilers scored, cars beeped in unison. The morning after scoring twice to help oust the Red Wings, Fernando Pisani, an Edmonton native, found a 12-foot-tall blue-and-orange oil derrick at the end of his driveway. In a crowded coffee shop recently, a man spotted Pisani and offered him a chair so they could reminisce.

“That’s what we’ve been missing,” said Pisani, who scored the Oilers’ last playoff goal. “Ten years is a long time not to have that excitement about a team.”

Ever since, summers have dawned puffed with positivity, but that good cheer invariably deteriorated into gloomy autumns, bleak winters and depressing springs. The first nadir came at the 2007 trade deadline, when the Oilers dealt Ryan Smyth, an Alberta boy who embodied Edmonton’s gritty ethos, hours before they retired Mark Messier’s number.

Pisani’s three children ask him all the time: Are the Oilers in the playoffs? Not yet, he says, but hopefully soon. But Dad, it’s only November, his youngest, 7-year-old Jaxon, will sometimes protest.

“I know, buddy,” Pisani tells him. “They’re still out.”

He was not exaggerating. By mid-November in 2013, the Oilers had won only four of their first 20 games, falling 14 points out of a playoff spot. That was not even their worst season of the 10. No team during that stretch won fewer games (298), amassed fewer points (686) or had a worse goal differential (minus 459). They lacked depth, defense, determination.

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An Edmonton-Carolina game at Rogers Place, the Oilers’ new downtown arena.

Even as the team foundered, though, fans continued pouring into the old Rexall Place. Not every seat was filled, but it was always sold, helping the building achieve 100 percent capacity each year except for one, when it plunged to 99.9.

For so long, the Oilers peddled hope, with the selections of No. 1 picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. They also peddled H.O.P.E., an acronym for Hall, (Linus) Omark, (Magnus) Paajarvi and (Jordan) Eberle, a collection of promising players expected to guide Edmonton into the postseason.

“Now,” said Matt Henderson, 33, a prominent Oilers blogger who estimated he was watched every game since he was 15, “we’re left with just E.”

Eberle, 26, is the Oilers’ longest-tenured player, surviving purges and tweaks and five coaches in seven seasons. He led the team in points three times, but it took until Feb. 11, in his 399th career game, to register his first career hat trick. All three goals were assisted by McDavid.

‘He’s Totally Idiot-Proof’

The best part about watching McDavid in person, Bob Nicholson said, is watching him on television. Let Nicholson explain.

“He does everything so quickly — not just his feet, it’s his hands — that you need a screen to see it again and again,” said Nicholson, the chief executive and vice chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group. “Bobby Orr was like that. Connor’s got some Wayne in him. He knows where the puck’s going.”

In a league teeming with young talent, from Auston Matthews in Toronto to Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, McDavid transcends them all. In only 52 career games, McDavid is averaging about a point per game, with 20 goals and 39 assists. The comparisons to Orr, Gretzky and Sidney Crosby would seem ludicrous if they were not so reasonable and just.


Everyone in hockey circles agreed as much long before the draft lottery was held on April 18, 2015, a night of demarcation for Edmonton the city and the franchise. Hrehirchuk had been 95 percent certain that he would surrender his season tickets. Instead, he renewed.

Henderson said: “I don’t think even Oiler management can screw this one up. He’s just that good. He’s totally idiot-proof.”

The blame for the Oilers’ lean years bounded from players to coaches and back again (and again), but McDavid’s imminent arrival signaled a certain urgency. Within days, the Oilers had upended their entire organizational hierarchy.

Moving into redefined roles: the former captains and longtime team executives Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe. Hired to reverse the team’s fortunes: Chiarelli, who built a Cup-winning roster in Boston, and Todd McLellan, who led San Jose to six playoffs in seven seasons as coach.

Their philosophies aligning, Chiarelli set about forming a group around McDavid — a bigger, stronger, more competitive group. In an interview last week, Chiarelli said he and McLellan felt their previous teams were never intimidated by the Oilers, calling them “pushovers” in some games.

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One of the many Oilers stores in Rogers Place selling team merchandise.

To compete with rugged teams like Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis, Chiarelli added size to the Oilers’ speed and skill. The roster remains under construction — for instance, the defensive corps demands upgrades beyond Adam Larsson, acquired for the hefty price of Hall. But with the physical forwards Zack Kassian (6-foot-3, 217 pounds), Milan Lucic (6-3, 233) and Patrick Maroon (6-3, 230) aboard, the Oilers are pushovers no more.

“Whether I’m on his line or not on his line, I wanted to be on his team,” said Lucic, a Cup winner in Boston who signed a seven-year deal this summer to play left wing beside McDavid. “I took it as a big challenge to come to a place like this and get the winning spirit going again.”

An avid baseball fan, Chiarelli identifies with a peer who also came to a place this like and accepted a big challenge and succeeded: Theo Epstein, the mastermind of the Cubs’ ascension, who also assembled the 2004 and 2007 champion Red Sox.

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Fans cheered as the Oilers celebrated a goal against the St. Louis Blues in mid-October.

Chiarelli has spoken to Epsteinhim about their shared experiences, including their exits from Boston, and in Epstein’s Cubs he sees a model for the Oilers. Stripped and rebuilt, the Cubs demonstrated steady improvement and developed their young cornerstones.

“You knew what was coming,” Chiarelli said.

Chiarelli think he knows what is coming to Edmonton, but he cannot be sure. Thumbing through an N.H.L. record book, he noted that it took Mario Lemieux five seasons to make the playoffs. He eventually won two Cups.

“The challenge remains,” Chiarelli said, “but it’s always easier when you have somebody.”

That very notion is what inspired Papaianni to race to the drivers’ registry the first business day after Edmonton won the right to select McDavid. Fearful of jinxing it, he did not affix the plate until McDavid donned an Oilers jersey on draft night.

Papaianni waited two months for that moment. He has waited 10 years for another playoff berth, 26 for another Cup and 28 for another Gretzky. The reward will come soon enough, he said. Soon enough.

“We had Gretzky, we won. We had Messier, we won,” Papaianni said. “For 16 years we didn’t have anyone really great, then we got Pronger and we went to the Cup. Now we have McDavid. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be amazing. Just watch.”

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The Wayne Gretzky statue, a meeting place for Oilers fans for years, at its new home at Rogers Place.

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