Work retreats. You either love them, or hate them. Either way, there’s nothing like getting away from it all with your co-workers coming along for the ride.
Coming into the season, the Oilers had a bit of a dilemma on their hands. The schedule maker gave them six straight home games to start the season. That’s a lot. In fact, no NHL team had been given a homestand this long to start a season since guys played without helmets and it was considered standard practice for players to have Fu Manchu moustaches and mutton chops when they took the ice.
The Oilers went into the season knowing the season-opening homestand was going to be an issue, and even altered their preseason schedule to allow for a fishing trip in British Columbia as a team-bonding process the team wouldn’t get early in the regular season.
“The schedule is what the schedule is,” said coach Jay Woodcroft. “It’s a little different. But what we did in preseason is, we took a trip. It’s not something we’d normally do in the preseason, but we wanted our players to have the feeling of being on the road together.”
The Oilers finished the six-gamer with three wins. The bright spots? Wins over Eastern Conference contenders Carolina and Pittsburgh. Heck, the second period of Monday’s 6-3 win over the Penguins might have been the best 20-minute stretch in Oilers’ history. The Oilers launched a team-record 26 shots on goal in that period.
Yet, in the end, no one is going to be jumping for joy about a 3-3-0 homestand. But, really, is this the best we could have expected?
Make no mistake, no one in hockey thinks it’s a good thing to start a season with a homestand that long. You want your home games piled up at the end of the season. It’s standard for NHL coaches to tell you that they’d rather start the season on the road; it gives a chance for a team to bond, to get away from the pressures of home, whether it be family, being recognized every time you go out to eat, or just, well, being too comfortable.
Major sports are not that different from minor sports. When the U-13 team goes on a road trip, their first overnight stay at a hotel, a team get-together at the waterslides, they become more tight knit. While NHLers don’t go to hotels that boast “the best waterslide on the prairies,” they do benefit from the times they spend together away from their home cities.
In the early part of the season, getting players away from the distractions of home is a good thing (coaches will tell you they like their teams to be on the road around major holidays, as well). While modern, analytics-heavy hockey journalism would make you think that most players are automatons, the truth is these are flesh-and-blood human beings, who are affected by things like the kids’ grades at schools, visits from the in-laws, holiday shopping, family illnesses, furniture deliveries, moving hassles. And, in that critical early-season bonding time, it’s nice to be able to get your players away from all of that.
The preseason “boys weekend away” trip has been tried by other Edmonton sports team. In 2019, FC Edmonton of the Canadian Premier League, at the suggestion of then-goalkeeping coach Lars Hirschfeld, undertook a wilderness survival trip. The players traveled 100 km west of Edmonton, to a remote area, and had to depend on nothing else but each other, in wintry conditions.
“The plan was to get them out of their comfort zone, and they came through it with flying colours,” Hirschfeld said at the time.
Back to the Oilers. Of the six teams the Oilers faced in the opening homestand, four are clubs we wouldn’t be surprised to see playing deep into the spring — Carolina, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and, dammit, Calgary.
“I thought there were some good moments, and I think there were some moments that are going to make us better going forward,” Woodcroft said as the homestand came to a close. “And the quality of opposition that has rolled through here, that was the third undefeated team in a row that we just saw. That’s a credit to the quality of competition that we’re seeing. But, in the end, we’re just worried about us — and getting better every day.”
“We played some really good teams early on,” said Leon Draisaitl, who has 11 points through the team’s first six games. “We’re a good team, but we’re not necessarily happy with where we’re at right now. But, it’s a great chance for us to go on the road, build our road game and just be with the guys.”
Now, boys, get outta town.