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Hackett: The highs and lows of fandom

Just about 10 months ago, everything was a disaster for the Edmonton Oilers.
Byron Hackett Managing Editor

About 10 months ago, everything was a disaster for the Edmonton Oilers.

The season was on the brink of collapse despite many people viewing the team as a Stanley Cup contender. Rumours about their stars leaving, bad contracts and poor play on the ice all made for a miserable experience for fans. And yet, here we are now, a team recused from the depths of despair by rookie head coach Kris Knoblauch, the Oilers stormed back and nearly won the Pacific Division and are Western Conference champions.

They are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006, which ended in a tragedy of its own tale altogether. They have a chance to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens brought it north of the border.

That Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, for a team that was an eighth seed and found some magic formula along the way, is nothing like this 2024 contender.

Even if those ghosts still linger in the hearts and minds of Oilers’ fans, they should take great pride in the notion that this team is legitimately the best team in the Western Conference.

I could talk hockey all day long — give my opinions about matchups and line combos and where the edge lies in the series — but I think there’s something more to this than just hockey. (Oilers win in 7, I love chaos and drama.)

There’s nothing quite like being a sports fan, specifically a hockey fan in Canada. You pour your heart and soul into supporting the team from October onwards, if you’re lucky that support lasts till June — if you’re like me, and you’ve been born into the disappointment that is Toronto Maple Leafs fandom, you can set your watch to a first-round, Game 7 loss somewhere in early May.

That nihilistic support is a galvanizing part of being a fan. If there wasn’t some sort of misery involved, would it really be as fun? They say misery loves company and when a team you support is struggling, there’s few places as entertaining as watching fans work through those feelings. And maybe the ghost of failures past haunt fans more than players or management.

Those lean years as an Oilers supporter, from the day they drafted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, until the lottery fortunes turned their way again in 2015 when they drafted Connor McDavid. It still took longer than most would have expected to arrive in the promised land, but needing just four wins they’ve got a chance to win it all.

There’s no shortage of passion for this team to help push them over the line, even if you would like to debate how much of an impact that actually has. Here in Red Deer alone, cars across the city have Oilers flags flying from their car, one man, Murray Hill has a homemade oil derrick in the back of his truck to show his support.

Jay Janzen is all the way in Belgium at NATO, waking up at 2 a.m. to watch his beloved Oilers play.

Bars across the province (maybe not in Calgary) will be packed as fans hope somebody can bring the cup back to Canada.

Many fans will say things like, “We are going to win tonight,” as if they are on the ice skating alongside the players. Of course that isn’t true, but that collective “we” is a unifying signal from one fan to another about your passion for the team you support. You live and die with each win or loss, goal scored or called back, faceoffs won or loss. You know a blocked shot here or there, a battle won or lost along the wall could be the difference between a Stanley Cup parade or watching the cup hang out on boats and beaches in Florida.

Being a fan is not only a collective experience, it’s also an immersive one. You feel it in your soul. You feel like if you cheer a little harder or yell a little louder, some force in the universe will reward that passion with a victory. You feel like if they win when you don’t watch or lose when you wear a certain jersey or sit in a certain chair, that experience needs to be replicated at all costs.

Every loss breaks your spirit and faith in the team, while every win makes you foolheartedly believe that this time around, it will be different. It’s a fool’s errand in that way, but it’s also nice to just believe in something, to be a part of something.

In the TV series Ted Lasso, Richmond FC fans have a phrase that defines their fandom: “It’s the hope that kills you.”

Fans of all 30 NHL teams who aren’t in the Stanley Cup Final, and even fans of the two that are in it, have experienced enough lows to understand that phrase deeper than those who don’t give a lick about sports.

In one sense, you are bound to be disappointed by a sports team. It’s not some divine intervention, it is the law of averages. Only one team wins every year, 31 others (the odds were certainly better when there were only six teams, as any Leafs fan can attest) go home disappointed. In some sense, the hope does kill them.

But it’s the journey of that fandom that you remember more than the end result. It’s those moments when you celebrate an overtime winner or you marvel at the magic McDavid is able to perform on the ice. It’s those where were you moments that matter to everybody who doesn’t win. You have to hang onto those moments during the lean times, in order to feel the spoils of victory.

The Stanley Cup Final starts Saturday. No matter who you cheer for, try and find some joy in the game.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a regional Editor for Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

I have been apart of the Red Deer Advocate Black Press Media team since 2017, starting as a sports reporter.
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