EDMONTON — After a five-year absence, there’s a ping pong table in the middle of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room again.
Likewise, smiles and banter between players after practice at Rexall Place on Tuesday, something that had been scarce almost as long.
Whether it’s a promising 2-0 start, an infusion or youth or that the Oilers haven’t yet been beaten down as they have in four straight years out of the playoffs — maybe a combination of the three — the difference in atmosphere stands out lust like the ping pong table does.
The home dressing room feels like home again. “It’s obviously different,” said Sam Gagner, entering his fourth season with the Oilers. “It’s something where we want to create a positive atmosphere in here and make it a place where guys want to be.”
There have been rumblings of discontent in the dressing room in recent seasons.
That’s not altogether unexpected, given the team’s lack of success, including a 30th-place finish last season.
With early success, rookies Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle in the mix and veterans Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray, sent to the AHL or away, it’s a different place.
“We’ve got a completely new team here,” said Shawn Horcoff, who has taken over from Moreau as captain.
“Listen, the older guys who were here were great leaders and great teammates.
“Last year, we’re in 30th place. It’s going to miserable, and it should be. If people are content and happy in 30th, you don’t have the right people.”
Tom Renney, who took over from Pat Quinn this season after being Quinn’s associate coach a year ago, has made an effort to make the dressing room a welcome place for rookies and veterans alike.
“The most important thing is that they know they’re coming to work,” said Renney. “They know they have to put in a good, honest effort with that time. They have to allow themselves to be coached. They have to take care of themselves and each other.
“If they do that, then the rink should be a destination. If they choose not to participate in any of those things, then it becomes a little tougher. Right now, it’s all-in.”
The relationship between veterans and rookies, in particular, was called into question in recent seasons.
“I think the biggest issue we had was losing,” said Jason Strudwick. “The losing, it seems to amplify everything and then everything is examined, which it should be after a couple years like we went through.
“To be honest, I thought the older guys who’d been here a long time, they had a lot of pride in the way they played. They took losing very hard and very personally. That was amplified a little bit.
“I get a sense that a lot of guys who didn’t have a voice, or didn’t want to use their voice, have a voice. I’m not talking about rah-rah before the game or Vince Lombardi speeches, I’m talking about interacting every day. Hanging out before practice, after practice. That’s how you build a team.”
Gagner, who broke in as an 18-year-old, agrees losing made things difficult. With a turnover in personnel, hopes high and wins over Calgary and Florida, there’s a different dynamic at play with the team that’s welcoming Hall, Paajarvi and Eberle.
“It’s a results-oriented business,” Gagner said. “With the scrutiny on results here, they get highlighted. If you’re playing really well, it gets highlighted. If it’s really bad, it gets highlighted.
“When things are going great we still have to push ourselves to get better as a group. When things aren’t, we have to try to come through it together.”
Aside from seating arrangements being changed so young players are scattered around the room instead of having veterans mostly grouped on one wall — Horcoff, for instance, sits next to Hall — there’s the return of the ping pong table.
It’s not the table Horcoff remembers from his rookie season a decade ago, the table Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and the old Stanley Cup teams played on, but it’s having the desired result.
“Tom (Renney) is big on making the rink a place where the guys want to come and spend time,” Horcoff said. “So was I, and I said, ’Well, let’s get the ping pong table back.’
“When I first came here, it had been here for years. All the greats had signed their names. It wasn’t even a ping pong table, it was a piece of plywood on top of legs, but it kept guys in the room, kept things light.
“In stressful situations, it kept things fun. There’s going to be times when it’s not fun, but over the course of 82 games, if you want to get better, build confidence, build team unity, you have to enjoy coming to the rink.”