WHA years (1972–1979)
On November 1, 1971, the Edmonton Oilers became one of the 12 founding WHA franchises. The original team owner was Bill Hunter. Hunter owned the Edmonton Oil Kings, a junior hockey franchise. He also founded the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League (now known as the Western Hockey League (WHL)). Hunter’s efforts to bring major professional hockey to Edmonton via an expansion NHL franchise had been rebuffed by the NHL. So, he looked to the upstart WHA instead. It was Hunter who chose the “Oilers” name for the new WHA franchise. This was a name that had previously been used as a nickname for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the 1950s and 1960s.
After the newly founded Calgary Broncos folded prior to commencement of the inaugural WHA season, the Oilers were renamed the Alberta Oilers as it was planned to split their home games between Edmonton and Calgary. Possibly for financial reasons or to allow for a less complicated return of the WHA to Calgary, though, the team ultimately played all of its home games in the Edmonton Gardens and subsequently changed its name back to the Edmonton Oilers the following year. They won the first game in WHA history 7–4 over the Ottawa Nationals.
The Oilers drew fans with players such as defenceman and team captain Al Hamilton, goaltender Dave Dryden and forwards Blair MacDonald and Bill Flett. However, a relatively little-noticed move in 1976 would have an important impact on the history of the franchise. That year, journeyman forward Glen Sather was acquired by the Oilers. It turned out to be his final season as a player. However, he was named player-coach late in the season, moving to the bench full-time after the season. Sather would be the coach or general manager of the Oilers for the next 23 years.
Although the Oilers’ on-ice performance for most of the WHA’s history was mediocre, they remained relatively well-supported and financially stable by WHA standards. In 1976, the franchise was acquired by wealthy entrepreneur Peter Pocklington. The team’s fortunes would improve dramatically in 1978 when Pocklington acquired Wayne Gretzky as an under-age player (consequently, his first year of WHA experience prevented him from being an official 1979–80NHL rookie), as well as goaltender Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll, from the recently folded Indianapolis Racers for cash. Gretzky’s first and only WHA season, 1978–79, saw the Oilers finish first in the WHA standings, posting a league-best 48–30–2 record. However, Edmonton failed to win the championship, as they fell to the Winnipeg Jets in the Avco World Trophy Final. Dave Semenko of the Oilers scored the last goal in WHA history in the third period of the final game, which the Oilers lost 7–3.
The Oilers joined the NHL for 1979–80, along with fellow WHA teams Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and the Jets following a merger agreement between the two leagues. Of these four teams, only Edmonton has avoided relocation and renaming; the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.
Entry into the NHL (1979–1983)
The Oilers lost most of the players from 1978–79 when the NHL held a reclamation draft of players who had bolted to the upstart league as they were allowed to protect two goaltenders and two skill players. Originally, Gretzky was not eligible to be protected; under the rules of the time, he normally would have been placed in the Entry Draft pool. However, Pocklington had signed him to a 21-year personal services contract in 1979 and Pocklington used the contract to force the NHL to admit the Oilers and allow the Oilers to keep Gretzky.
The Oilers were mediocre during the regular season in their first two seasons, finishing sixteenth and fourteenth respectively. However, due to the fact that 16 of the 21 NHL teams made the playoffs at the time, the Oilers were still able to get their young players experience in the playoffs (they would make the playoffs for their first thirteen years in the NHL). They won only one playoff series over this time span though, upsetting the Montreal Canadiens in 1980–81. Gretzky set new NHL records in 1980–81 for assists (109) and points (with 164). Also, they still had great draft positions. This allowed the Oilers to put together a young, talented, experienced team quickly. Within three years, Sather and chief scout Barry Fraser had drafted several players who would have an important role in the team’s success, including Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.
The Oilers improved in 1981–82, finishing second overall. Grant Fuhr emerged as the Oilers’ starting goaltender, and he set a rookie record by going undefeated in twenty-three straight games. However, Gretzky stole the show by setting the single season record for goals with ninety-two and becoming the first player in NHL history to score 200 points (with 212). Gretzky’s accomplishments helped the Oilers become the first team to score four hundred goals in a season, a feat they would accomplish for five straight years. However, the Oilers were upset by the Los Angeles Kings in five games (game three of this series, now known as the Miracle on Manchester, saw the Oilers take a 5–0 lead, only to lose 6–5 to the Kings in overtime).
In 1982–83, the Oilers finished third overall in the NHL. They advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals (losing only once in the process) before getting swept by defending Stanley Cup Champions the New York Islanders. During this season, Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, and Kurri all topped the 100 point plateau, with Coffey not far behind at 96. After the season, Lee Fogolin resigned as captain of the Oilers, picking Gretzky as his successor.
Dynasty years (1983–1990)
In 1983–84, the Oilers finished first overall in the NHL, winning a franchise record fifty-seven games and earning 119 points (fifteen points ahead of the second place Islanders). They were the first team to feature three players with fifty goals (Gretzky, Kurri and Anderson). Gretzky started off strong by scoring at least a point in the first fifty-one games of the season. Paul Coffey became the second defenceman ever to score forty goals in a season (with forty exactly). The Oilers scored a grand total of 446 goals as a team, an NHL record. The Oilers were so determined to win the Stanley Cup that they hired Roger Neilson as a video analyst. They started the playoffs strongly by sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the Smythe Division semifinals. They faced a tougher test in the Calgary Flames, but they defeated them in seven games in the division finals. They then swept the Minnesota North Stars in the conference finals to earn a rematch with the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Oilers split the first two games in Long Island, but then won three in a row in Edmonton to become the first former WHA team to win the Stanley Cup. After the series, Mark Messier was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Next year, the Oilers finished second overall in the NHL with 49 wins and 109 points. Wayne Gretzky led the NHL in goals with 73, and Jari Kurri was close behind with a career high 71. Gretzky also became the youngest player in NHL history to score one thousand points. In the playoffs, the Oilers swept the Kings in the opening round and Jets in round two. They won the first two games of the Campbell Conference Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, but lost the next two before winning the final two and returning to the Stanley Cup Finals. Edmonton lost the first game to Philadelphia, but won the next four to win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row. Paul Coffey had a playoff performance to remember, setting records for most goals (twelve), assists (twenty-five), and points (thirty-seven) ever by a defenceman in a playoff year. In addition, Jari Kurri tied Reggie Leach’s record for most goals in a playoff year, with 19. However, Gretzky won the Conn Smythe Trophy after setting the record for most points in a playoff year (47).
Despite some off-season legal issues, the Oilers were again the top team in the NHL during the 1985–86 regular season, with 56 wins and 119 points. They won the inaugural Presidents’ Trophy, the trophy given to the team with the best regular-season record. Gretzky, Kurri, and Anderson each scored fifty goals again. Kurri led the NHL in goals with 68, finishing with 131 points. Paul Coffey set a new record for most goals in a season by a defenceman (48), and he just missed setting a new record for points by a defenceman with 138 (Bobby Orr scored 139 in 1970–71). Gretzky also set records for assists (163) and points (215). However, the Oilers failed to win their third straight Stanley Cup, as the Calgary Flames defeated them in seven games in the second round of the playoffs. In the third period of a 2–2 tie during game seven, Steve Smith, a rookie for the Oilers, accidentally sent the puck into his own net on his birthday. This goal stood as the game-and-series-winning goal.
1986–87 saw the Oilers capture their second straight President’s Trophy with 50 wins and 106 points. Gretzky and Kurri were first and second in the NHL point scoring race, and Messier was fourth. Edmonton returned to the Stanley Cup Final and faced the same opponent as they had in 1985, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Oilers took a 3 games to 1 lead in the series. However, strong goaltending by Flyers’ rookie Ron Hextall forced a game seven. The Oilers still prevailed by a score of 3–1. In the post-game celebration, Gretzky immediately passed the Stanley Cup to Steve Smith, now vindicated after his costly miscue the previous season. However, Hextall won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Oilers began losing star players in 1987–88. Paul Coffey sat out the first twenty-one games of the season before getting traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Andy Moog also failed to report; he was tired of being Grant Fuhr’s backup goalie. Moog played for the Canadian Olympic teamin the 1988 Winter Olympics before getting traded to the Boston Bruins for Bill Ranford. Despite the changes, the Oilers placed third overall in the NHL. Grant Fuhr started a league-record 75 games (this record has now been broken) and posted a team-record 40 wins. In the first round of the playoffs, the Oilers dispatched the third place Winnipeg Jets in five games. The Oilers then defeated first-overall Calgary in a sweep. In the Campbell Conference Final against the Detroit Red Wings, the Oilers prevailed in five games. The Oilers then swept the Boston Bruins in five games in a best-of-seven series. This occurred because of trouble during game four. With the score tied 3–3 with 3:23 to play in the second period, a power outage hit the Boston Garden, forcing cancellation of the entire game. The Oilers would win the next game (originally scheduled as game five) back in Edmonton 6–3 to complete the series sweep. However, all player statistics for the aborted game four in Boston are counted in the NHL record books. Gretzky won the Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the playoffs in scoring with 43 points. After the Cup-clinching game, Gretzky implored his teammates, coaches, trainers, and others from the Oilers organization to join at centre ice for an impromptu team photo with the Stanley Cup. This started a tradition since continued by every subsequent Stanley Cup champion. After the season, Fuhr was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender.
After Gretzky (1988–1990)
In a surprising and shocking trade, Gretzky, along with enforcer Marty McSorley and centre Mike Krushelnyski, were traded to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988. In exchange, the Oilers received US$15 million, young star Jimmy Carson, 1988 first-round draft choice Martin Gelinasand the Kings’ first round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. The trade occurred because Pocklington didn’t want to risk Gretzky leaving Edmonton without getting anything in return. Gretzky had converted his personal services contract with Pocklington into a standard five-year player’s contract with the Oilers in the summer of 1987 with an option to declare himself an unrestricted free agent after the 1988–89 season. During the 1987–88 season, Pocklington had approached Gretzky about renegotiating the contract, but Gretzky, unwilling to give up his chance at free agency, refused, which ultimately led to the trade. None of this was public knowledge at the time. However, the Oilers and their fans were still upset. Nelson Riis, the New Democratic Party leader in Canada’s House of Commons, went so far as to ask the government to block the trade. Several of the Oilers considered launching a team-wide strike, and even considered demanding that Pocklington sell the team.
The loss of Gretzky had an immediate impact in 1988–89, as the Oilers were only able to finish in third place in their division. Mark Messier was chosen to succeed Gretzky as captain. Coincidentally, the Oilers’ first round playoff opponent was Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. Edmonton took a commanding 3–1 series lead, but Gretzky and the Kings fought back to win game seven 6–3 in Los Angeles. It was the first time since 1982 that the Oilers had been eliminated from the playoffs after only one round.
The Oilers underwent more changes during 1989–90 season. John Muckler replaced Glen Sather as head coach of the Oilers; Sather remained general manager and became the Oilers’ president. During training camp, Grant Fuhr came down with a severe case of appendicitis. He missed the first ten games of the season, and when he returned he suffered a shoulder injury that eventually sidelined him for the remainder of the season. This marked the emergence of Bill Ranford as a starter. Four games into the season, Jimmy Carson decided the pressure of playing in Edmonton was too intense, and he was traded to Detroit with Kevin McClelland in exchange for Petr Klima, Adam Graves, Joe Murphy and Jeff Sharples. The Oilers improved on their previous season, finishing with 38 wins and 90 points, good for fifth place overall in the NHL. Messier had 45 goals and 84 assists for 129 points, good for second in the NHL scoring race (behind only Gretzky).
In the first round, the Oilers faced the Winnipeg Jets. Trailing the series 3–1 and trailing Game 5 by the identical score, the Oilers rallied to win the next three and take the series. In the division final, the Oilers met Los Angeles for the second-straight season. Edmonton swept the series 4–0, outscoring the Kings 22–10. The Oilers then met the Chicago Blackhawks in the Campbell Conference Final and fell behind 2–1 in the series. However, the Oilers won the next three games to earn a rematch of the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals with Boston. The Final will be remembered for Game 1, which still stands as the longest Stanley Cup Final game played in the modern NHL. Despite being soundly outshot by the Bruins, the Oilers won the game 3–2 when Petr Klima—benched for much of the game, and thus the only player on either team who not exhausted—scored at 15:13 of the third overtime period. The Oilers would go on to defeat the Bruins in five games, and win their first Cup without Gretzky. For his superlative goaltending, Bill Ranford was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Decline in success (1990–1996)
The Oilers lost another important player before the 1990–91 season, as Jari Kurri chose to play the entire season with the HC Milano Devils. Grant Fuhr was also suspended for 60 games for drug abuse. The season itself was not a great one for the Oilers: they finished with 37 wins and 80 points, good for third place in the Smythe Division. In the playoffs, the Oilers met the Flames in the opening round. In a thrilling series, the Oilers won the series in seven games, led by seven goals by Esa Tikkanen. Despite injuries suffered in the series with Calgary, they defeated the Los Angeles Kings in six games. Their success was unable to continue into the Conference Final, however, as they lost in five games to the Minnesota North Stars, who were making their Cinderella run.
The final star players from the Oilers left before the 1991–92 season. Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson were traded to Toronto, Steve Smith was traded to Chicago, and Jari Kurri was traded to Philadelphia. Charlie Huddy was claimed by Minnesota in the expansion draft, and Mark Messier was traded to the New York Rangers a day after the season began. The Oilers even lost their head coach, as John Muckler left to become head coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. Ted Green replaced Muckler as head coach, and Kevin Lowe succeeded Messier as captain.
Despite the staggering amount of changes, the Oilers produced a comparable season to 1990–91, finishing third in the Smythe Division with 36 wins and 82 points. In the first round of the playoffs, the Oilers again met the Los Angeles Kings. Again, for the third time since the Gretzky trade, the Oilers defeated the Kings. In the next round, the Oilers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in six games to return to the Campbell Conference Final for the third straight season, this time facing the Chicago Blackhawks. However, the Oilers unexpected run in the playoffs came to a crashing halt, as the Blackhawks dominated every game and swept the series.
The departures of the stars from the 1980s exposed serious deficiencies in the Oilers’ development system. The Oilers had done a poor job of drafting during the dynasty years, and the younger players hadn’t had nearly enough time to develop before the core of the 1980s dynasty left town. This didn’t become apparent for a few years; as mentioned above, the Oilers still had enough heft to make the conference finals two years in a row. However, it was obvious that they were nowhere near being the powerhouse that had dominated the league in the previous half-decade. In 1992–93, the Oilers missed the playoffs for the first time as an NHL team. They would not return to the post-season for four years, despite the emergence of young centremen Doug Weight and Jason Arnott.