Off-ice complications have resulted in the American Hockey
League’s decision to allow the Edmonton Oilers to relocate their minor league
affiliate from Toronto to the Alberta capital, where the team will be based at
least for the 2004-05 season.
What appeared to be a positive player development situation
last year for the Oilers became a headache this summer when the group running
the day to day operations of the Toronto Roadrunners could not longer meet
their financial obligations. In the
scenario the Oilers benefited from last year, the Coliseum Renovation
Corporation paid for all operating costs of the Roadrunners, and the NHL club simply
supplied the players to fill out the roster.
However, once news of CEO Lyle
Abraham’s defaulted lease payment for the use of Ricoh Centre became known, the Oilers then began
weighing their options and moving the team to their own back yard became
their optimal choice.
The move west provides the franchise with its third
different AHL home in as many years dating back to the split affiliation in
Hamilton with the Montreal Canadiens during 2002-03.
The Edmonton Roadrunners will play out of Rexall Place, the
same arena as their NHL parent club, but because of the expected work stoppage
beginning September 15th, the AHL team may find themselves as the
primary tenant for some time. The fact
that there will be a team at all to fill the building for 40 nights this winter
comes as quite a relief for the Oilers who had been aggressively pursuing a WHL
franchise with no success for many months.
The local ownership group will see at least some income this year even
if the NHL does not play a single game.
The question now facing the organization is how successful
the AHL club will be at the gate in an NHL city. At the moment, only one other NHL team has their farm club in the
same location, the Philadelphia Flyers and Phantoms, but they do not share an
arena. The complexities of the Oilers
and the Roadrunners both playing out of Rexall Place don’t exist as long as the
NHL is in limbo, however, should the two teams both be operating at the same
time there would be dates where double headers were played. The logistics of changing the ice surface
markings from AHL rules to those of the NHL may prove difficult although
officials for the organization say that it can be done. Issues like wider bluelines and the distance
of the goal line from the end boards are some of the main differences.
Fan reaction and support is going to be the biggest concern
of the organization. Will Oiler fans
buy tickets to watch non-NHL hockey?
Support for amateur hockey at the university, junior and college levels
exists but certainly not to the level that is expected for an AHL franchise. At a press conference outlining the changes,
Roadrunner GM Scott Howson said the team would be hoping for attendance figures
averaging the 10,000-seat mark. That
would sound like a realistic goal at least until the Oilers are back in
business, then the competition for the fans’ dollars could get tough. Howson estimates the cost of tickets to
average around $20, which should be fairly affordable for the family
demographic that the Roadrunners are shooting for.
Those most affected by the team’s move to Alberta are
obviously the players themselves, many of whom are from Western Canada and
quite happy with the relocation.
Kyle Brodziak tore up the WHL last year by finishing
third in the league’s overall scoring race and is looking to crack the
Roadrunners roster for his rookie professional campaign when training camp
opens in two months. The talented
center hails from the town of Vegreville, about a 45-minute drive due east of
Edmonton, where his parents still live.
“I couldn’t imagine anything better happening than what’s
gone on lately,” Brodziak told Hockey’s Future in late July. “I was really excited and a little shocked
when I heard the Roadrunners were moving here.
My mom’s pretty happy, so it’s good.”
The thought of being able to play in front of friends and
family is exciting for Brodziak who played for Moose Jaw in the WHL for the
last few years. It was only when the
Warriors were on a road trip that brought him to the closest WHL town that
Brodziak’s parents could take in the games to watch their son play.
“Back in Junior my family would always come watch in Red
Deer and stuff like that so I guess I’m a little used to it already but, it’s
definitely a dream come true the way this has happened.”
Like Brodziak, Jeff Woywitka is another Alberta kid
and his parents still actively farm and raise livestock on land between
Vermilion and Mannville. It’s easy to
sense the happiness of Woywitka when asked how playing in Edmonton will sit
“I just got a new place in Sherwood Park and if I had to go
to Toronto I’d have to leave that place and now I also have my family close,”
Woywitka pointed out as reasons to be happy.
“When you look at the whole situation, being in Edmonton is going to be
perfect, the fan support is going to be good so I think it’s going to be a good
situation for me.”
Woywitka’s older brother Mark, a defensemen for the current
ACAC college champion Grant MacEwan Griffins, is rooming with him at the new
abode in the bedroom community to the city’s Southeast.
There is one Roadrunner player who knows first hand what the
fan support can be like in Edmonton because he played for the big club for a
stretch last season. Mike Bishai
skated with the Oilers for all of last February and has a respectable chance at
making the team this year. The local product is clearly thrilled knowing he’ll be
here all year regardless of which team he’s on.
“Edmonton’s a great city and the fans here love their
hockey,” proclaimed Bishai. “Having two
teams here now, especially if the NHL doesn’t go on, it’s good for the fans and
it’s good for a hometown kid like me too because I get to stay in town no
matter what so I’m pretty happy about it.”
Definitely not lost on the AHL players is the fact that
while in Edmonton, the NHL is literally only a few steps away. Unlike in previous years, a call up to the
Oilers will take a Roadrunner player all of half an hour compared to the hassle
of catching a flight to and from a different city. The reality of the ease of transactions could lead to more player
movement between the two clubs.
“You look at last year with Jarret Stoll,” Howson pointed
out, “He didn’t get into a game for basically the first month of the year. Maybe we’d have sent him down for a game or
two just to keep that game readiness as high as possible.”
“I’m trying to make that step this year and if the NHL
starts up, we’re close by for any call ups so that’s good for me,” Bishai
Woywitka is another player many feel is nearly ready to make
the transition to the NHL and from his short time in the Philly organization,
he knows the benefits of having the parent club so close by.
“If you get called up you’re not really moving to a new
city,” the rearguard explained. “You
know the situation with the big club’s guys because you keep in touch and
because of that, you don’t really feel awkward when you get called up so
there’s less pressure.”
Speaking of pressure, the fact that the two teams are in
immediate proximity to one another, the pressure will be on the NHL players to
perform nightly knowing that tickets to the farm are going to be so easy for
the club to write. Then again, all of
the pressure isn’t solely on the big club either.
“Yeah, it keeps pressure on us too because we know that a
call up is so close by,” Woywitka pointed out.
The list of other Western Canadian players on the Roadrunners
includes forwards Dan Baum and J.J. Hunter (Saskatchewan), Sean
McAslan (Southern Alberta) and defensemen Doug Lynch (B.C.) as well
as veterans Dan Smith and Rocky Thompson.
Scott Howson also believes that the rule differences between
the two leagues should create enough interest amongst fans to draw some extra
people just out of a curiosity factor.
Added to the fact that the AHL is widely considered the next best thing
to the NHL, Howson expects the buzz for Roadrunners hockey to eventually be very
“The level of play will surprise fans as it is hockey played
at the highest level outside the NHL,” Howson said at the press
conference. “In addition to the caliber
of play, there are the added bonuses of exciting differences to the game
including shootouts to determine overtime winners, no-touch icing and
variations on offside calls.”
The Oilers feel that the Roadrunners are a representation
and an extension of themselves and therefore should be embraced by the
community and followers of the NHL club.
As a small market team that cannot afford to dip into the free agency
market for elite players, the Oilers rely on their ability to develop their own
stars through a strong farm system.
Since the current management team of Lowe, Howson and Prendergast took
over in 2001, the Oilers have clearly improved dramatically in the drafting
department. This new arrangement will
allow them to be more hands-on, on a day-to-day basis, with the player
development side of the business, which is the area that draws the most
Serious and dedicated Edmonton fans will be as interested in
the Roadrunners as they are in the NHL club because the make-up of the minor
league roster consists of Oiler hopefuls.
These are players who Oiler fans have probably heard of, but that most
have not really had the opportunity to see play on a regular basis. Some, like Tony Salmelainen and
Bishai have made brief appearances with the Oilers recently but top prospects
like Jeff Deslauriers, Brad Winchester, Joe Cullen, Lynch
and Baum are known by local fans on reputation alone.
By the end of the AHL season, many players from the junior
or college level join the farm club on amateur tryout contracts, like Jason
Platt, Kenny Smith and Zack Stortini did last year. Stortini is expected to make the same end of
the year appearance in March of 2005 unless his Sudbury Wolves find themselves
still in postseason action. Players
this year who would also be eligible to make their first professional visits to
Edmonton would include Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Jean-Francois Jacques,
Matt Greene and Tom Gilbert.
The players will be motivated to play because they have the
NHL carrot being dangled before them, so fans can expect strong efforts from
the teams every night. Unlike the
multi-millionaire superstars of the NHL, these are players that fans can still
Roadrunners’ training camp begins in late September and the
inaugural season for the club in its new home will begin in earnest by
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