The Edmonton Oilers opened their 2021-22 preseason on Sept. 26, when they pay a visit to the provincial rival Calgary Flames. As part of their eight-game exhibition schedule, the Oilers also hosted the Flames and played the expansion Seattle Kraken, Vancouver Canucks, and Winnipeg Jets each twice, once at home and once on the road.
As Edmonton’s first time playing the Kraken, those two games against Seattle were at least a touch noteworthy. That’s not something that can often be said of exhibition contests, which have no bearing on the season standings and are more about evaluating borderline NHL players than showcasing the game’s top stars.
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But in taking the ice more than 300 times in the preseason since joining the NHL in 1979, the Oilers have had a few memorable games where the teams gathered for an otherwise meaningless contest and a historical occasion broke out. Here are 10 of them:
Sept. 23, 1979: Oilers vs. Jets
The Oilers played their first NHL preseason game against the same team that they battled in their final World Hockey Association (WHA) playoff game that May when the Jets defeated Edmonton to capture the 1979 AVCO Cup. Four months later, it was Winnipeg getting the better of the Oilers again, winning 4-2. Edmonton’s historic first goal was scored by forward Doug Patey, who never played a regular-season game for the Oilers. The match-up took place at the Keystone Centre in Brandon, Manitoba, home of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Brandon Wheat Kings.
Oct. 5, 1979: Oilers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
The first visit to Northlands Coliseum by the Maple Leafs drew a sellout crowd of 15,415 — nearly double the average attendance for the Oilers’ first two home preseason games, against the Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota North Stars. (from “Oilers lose to Leafs but win at the gate,” Edmonton Journal, 10/6/79) Fan support was split 50/50 between the hometown team and the Original Six club, the latter who held on for a 7-6 win. When the Maple Leafs scored the first goal, half the crowd cheered while the other half booed those cheering. (from “Terry Jones”, Edmonton Journal, 10/6/79)
“You only get this kind of electricity in the old rinks, Places like Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and Buffalo,” said Leafs’ general manager Punch Imlach, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984.
Sept. 23, 1985: Oilers vs. Buffalo Sabres
The answer to a trivia question that’s guaranteed to stump just about everyone — “When was the only time Keith and Wayne Gretzky played one another?” The game took place in Nova Scotia at the Halifax Metro Centre, then home to the Oilers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.
Gretzky family patriarch Walter was among the sellout crowd of 9.459 that watched the siblings play eight shifts against each other. Wayne scored with just over three minutes remaining to give Edmonton a 2-1 victory moments after Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr had stopped Keith on a breakaway. (From “Gretzky keeps Gretzky in check” Globe & Mail, 9/24/85) “I found myself cheering for Keith to score,” Wayne admitted afterward.
Keith, who the Sabres drafted 56th overall in 1985, never made it to the NHL in the regular season. The third hockey-playing Gretzky sibling, Brent, reached the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1993-94.
Sept. 25, 1987: Oilers vs. St. Louis Blues
Gretzky returned to Market Square Arena in the city, where he began his professional career in 1978 as a member of the WHA Indianapolis Racers. The then-17-year-old phenom played just eight games for the cash-strapped Racers before being dealt to the Oilers.
The exhibition contest in Indiana was also Gretzky’s first appearance with the Oilers in the 1987 preseason. Gretzky had taken a short break after leading Team Canada to victory over Russia in the unforgettable deciding game of the 1987 Canada Cup several days earlier.
Sept. 24, 1994: Oilers vs. Las Vegas Thunder
More than two decades before the Vegas Golden Knights arrived in the NHL, the Oilers visited Sin City in 1994 for the Challenge Cup, a series of inter-league exhibition games at the Thomas & Mack Center that also included the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and the host Thunder of the International Hockey League.
After facing the Bruins on Sept. 23, the Oilers took on the Thunder, an unaffiliated team loaded with past and future NHLers. Las Vegas featured goaltender Manon Rheaume, who in 1992 became the first woman to play in a men’s professional sports league when she suited up for a Tampa Bay Lightning exhibition game.
Rheaume was set to make her Vegas debut, against the Oilers, after signing a one-year contract with the Thunder. “She’s earned the right to play in a pre-season game,” said Bob Strumm, the Thunder’s coach and general manager. “She has worked very hard through training camp and is the most improved player at our camp.”
Sept. 15, 1996: Oilers vs. Phoenix Coyotes
On opening night of the 1996 preseason, Todd Marchant scored the winner as the Oilers posted a 4-2 victory at Edmonton Coliseum over the former Jets, who were playing as the Coyotes for the first time since relocating from Winnipeg following the 1995-96 season.
Six nights later, the teams would meet at America West Arena for the Coyotes’ first preseason game in their new den. Again, the Oilers spoiled the party, winning 3-1 before just over 14,000 fans in downtown Phoenix.
Sept. 18, 2009: Oilers vs. Florida Panthers
Mike Comrie had four assists in what might rank as the all-time feel-good moment in Edmonton NHL preseason history. He exited the ice to enormous chants of his name after dropping the gloves in the third period of a 4-0 victory for the Oilers over Florida at Rexall Place.
It was Comrie’s first game back as an Oiler since 2003 when he was traded from Edmonton to Philadelphia in an acrimonious departure that left the one-time fan favorite ruthlessly vilified in his hometown. Comrie, who played for four different teams over five seasons after leaving Edmonton, had been a surprise free-agent signing by the Oilers just over a week earlier.
“It was pretty special to hear them chanting,” said Comrie, who went on to lead the NHL in points that preseason, racking up 10 in just five games. “It’s always great to hear that, but especially with what I have been through. I’m just thrilled. When I signed here, it was something I hoped could happen. You never really expect that from a crowd.”
Sept. 21, 2015: Oilers vs. Flames
Connor McDavid’s first appearance in Oilers silks came on the opening night of Edmonton’s 2015-season schedule, a 4-2 split-squad win over Calgary at Rexall Place.
The superstar rookie, who had been drafted first overall by the Oilers at the NHL Draft just three months earlier, had two assists in a first-star performance. (from “Oilers forward Connor McDavid plays solid in NHL debut, sets up game-tying goal,” Edmonton Sun, 09/22/15)
“There was obviously nerves and a lot of excitement going into the game, and it takes a little bit to settle down,” McDavid said. “I thought I was a little nervous in the first period and wasn’t patient with the puck and wasn’t playing my game. I guess that’s to be expected, there was so much hype about playing your first NHL game, although it’s not really, it’s still kind of your first taste.”
Sept. 26, 2016: Oilers vs. Flames
While the first hockey game at Rogers Place was a WHL clash between the Edmonton Oil Kings and Red Deer Rebels on Sept. 24, 2016, the first time the Oilers got to entertain fans in their new digs came two nights later.
After more than four decades of calling the former Northlands Coliseum home, the Oilers made their preseason debut at Rogers Place by defeating the Flames 4-2 in a split-squad game before a packed house of 18,500. Oilers forward Iiro Pakarinen scored the first goal in the new building.
Oct. 2, 2016: Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings
McDavid had a goal and assist in leading Edmonton to a 3-2 victory over the Kings in a nationally broadcast game as part of Kraft Hockeyville, which is an annual competition among communities to win money for upgrading their local arena and the opportunity to host an NHL preseason game.
Lumby, British Columbia, a community of just over 1,700, won Kraft Hockeyville 2016 and received $100,000 towards the Pat Duke Memorial Arena. However, because of that rink’s limited capacity, the game between the Oilers and Kings was hosted at the Kal Tire Place in nearby Vernon, British Columbia. Every resident of Lumby was offered a free ticket to attend.
There have been many other noteworthy preseason games in Oilers history, from special opponents like the Canadian Olympic team to unique locations like Red Deer, Alberta. Suffice to say, one fan’s top 10 list could look substantially different from another’s, and neither could look anything like this list. With that in mind, we’d like to know what your most memorable Oilers preseason games are. Share your feedback in the comments below.
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Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.