It wasn't more than ten years ago when the Oilers' future in Edmonton was in serious doubt. Then owner Peter Pocklington had exhausted his financial resources, and was set to cut his losses with a relocation of the franchise to Houston, Texas.
Seemingly every Canadian NHL club without "Toronto" or "Montreal" in its name was facing the same prospect. While the Oilers were ultimately saved by the Cal Nichols-led Edmonton Investors Group, their future hung in the balance, while their best talent priced themselves out of the Alberta capital.
The Canadian dollar was weak, as was the promise of this club to recapture some of the glory it enjoyed in the 1980s. Words like "cost certainty" and "the dollars don't make sense" were thrown about by the ownership on a daily basis.
After a season-long lock-out and the advent of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2004, however, the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers took a turn for the better. That is, in the financial sense.
Terms like "salary cap" and "level playing field" are now in vogue. We won't get into the Chris Pronger debacle, and the exodus of free agents after the improbable '05-'06 Stanley-Cup run, but the idea of signing such enormous talent (both in skill set and price tag) was an alien concept to Oiler fans. Weren't these players supposed to be too expensive for the likes of a "small-market" like Edmonton?
With the surging Canadian dollar, and a franchise in the top 10 in league revenue, the Oilers have never been in better financial health. Soon, the ownership of pharmaceutical billionaire Daryl Katz will take hold. As a part of his massive investment into the franchise, Katz has made a new arena, practice facility, and a re-newed financial commitment to the team a priority.
Today, we sit and listen to Oilers' General Manager Kevin Lowe explain why he "overpaid" for the likes of free agents Sheldon Souray and Dustin Penner. Recently, the latest high-dollar signing was of young blueliner Tom Gilbert, who was inked to a six-year deal at $4 million per season.
The talk in Edmonton today isn't centred around players who must be traded because they're set to hit the free-agent market, and have priced themselves out of Oiler blue. It's about the rising salary-cap figure, and how Kevin Lowe will appropriate his new-found wealth to keep his young, talented core together.
The talk around town is no longer about mere survival, but to push this club into annual contention among the Western Conference elite. The days of small-market Oiler hockey are over. Edmonton is back in its rightful place as one of the NHL's strongest and most promising franchises.