As they start their latest attempt to bring the Stanley Cup back to the Alberta capital, there is something poetic about the Edmonton Oilers beginning this most abnormal of NHL seasons on Jan. 13. When the Oilers host the Vancouver Canucks in an empty Rogers Place, it will be exactly 25 years since a transformational night for the organization.
Looking at it on paper, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the Oilers’ 5-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 13, 1996, to set it apart from any other game in the middle of a season that was going nowhere.
But goaltender Curtis Joseph’s debut in Edmonton marked the Oilers finally turning the corner from their post-dynasty depths. It marked their charting a path back to the playoffs and re-engaging a fanbase at a time when the franchise’s future hung in the balance.
The 11,589 fans who were there that night, along with the night owls up watching the late half of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader on CBC, saw the Oilers surge out to a 4-1 lead before blowing that lead, then prevailing on Doug Weight’s goal with 12 seconds left in overtime. The winning goal-scorer and winning goalie shared a moment of jubilation, and Joseph received a standing ovation – or what passes for one in an arena at two-thirds capacity.
A Glimmer of Hope
For the first time in what felt like forever, there was a glimmer of hope, a genuine sense of optimism that better days lay ahead. The addition of a franchise goaltender in his prime gave fans something to latch on to.
Joseph’s stay in Edmonton lasted 30 months, from January 1996 to July 1998, but he joined the team during a period of monumental transformation. When “CuJo” arrived, the Oilers were on their way to missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season; a franchise that under the ownership of Peter Pocklington was perpetually on the verge of moving south.
When Joseph left, the Oilers were in the midst of five straight trips to the postseason; owned by a group whose sole purpose was keeping the team in Edmonton, a city that cared again. In between, Joseph played 201 games, regular and postseason combined, and created some of the best Oilers moments since the Dynasty Years.
The Dynasty Years
Ah, the Dynasty Years. Almost from their first NHL game in 1979, the Oilers were among the elite. They reached their first Stanley Cup Final in 1983 when they lost to the New York Islanders, then won five championships between 1984 and 1990.
Even as one future Hall-of-Famer after another was traded away – from Paul Coffey to Wayne Gretzky to Jari Kurri to Mark Messier to Glenn Anderson to Grant Fuhr – the Oilers continued to make deep playoff runs. In 1992, they reached the Conference Final for the eighth time in 10 seasons, without the Boys on the Bus.
Then the wheels came off.
In 1992-93, the Oilers missed the playoffs for the first time, finishing only ahead of the second-year San Jose Sharks in the conference standings. In 1993-94, they sank to the bottom of the Pacific Division. They were on the outside for a third straight season in 1995 when a lockout delayed the season until January and limited the schedule to 48 games, which further frustrated fans, who had already tired of the team’s lack of success and off-ice drama.
Attendance was in slow decline since the late 1980s but reached red-alert levels in 1995-96. A weak loonie that hovered around 72 to 74 cents against the American Dollar, made it increasingly difficult for Canadian franchises to succeed. Set against the backdrop of the Quebec Nordiques having recently relocated to Colorado and the Winnipeg Jets soon headed for Phoenix, the specter of an Oilers move south haunted Edmonton. .
On Jan. 9, 1996, only 9,702 fans were in the stands as the Oilers were embarrassed 5-1 by the Hartford Whalers. It was their seventh defeat in 10 games, leaving the Oilers with one of the worst records in the league. It was also the 10th time that season that fewer than 10,000 fans had turned out for a game Edmonton Coliseum.
Before the 1995-96 season, in August 1995, Oilers GM Glen Sather made a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues to acquire Joseph, a 28-year-old goaltender who was both an All-Star and Vezina Trophy finalist. The deal raised eyebrows, given the Oilers already had a starter in Bill Ranford, also a 28-year-old former All-Star who was named MVP of Edmonton’s last Stanley Cup run in 1990. The crease wasn’t big enough for both of them, and many expected another trade to follow.
But the Oilers and Joseph couldn’t agree on a contract before the season, so management rolled with Ranford and sent Joseph to the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL, where he could stay sharp.
Slats Pulls the Trigger
Finally, on Jan. 11, 1996, as his team lost games and relevance, Sather made his move (from ‘Edmonton Oilers History: Team Signs Curtis Joseph, Trades Bill Ranford to Boston Bruins, Jan. 11, 1996’, Edmonton Journal, 1/11/17).
He sent Ranford to the Boston Bruins and signed Joseph (who had gone 12-2-1 during his Vegas stint) to a three-year contract. The symbolism in Sather’s moves were there if you wanted to find it. Ranford had been Edmonton’s starter for more than six seasons, and his departure left captain Kelly Buchberger as the only remaining member of the championship teams. Joseph was so new the paint had barely dried on his CuJo mask.
Joseph started eight straight games, sat on the bench for one, then played the next 23. He began his Oilers tenure with a three-game win streak and later backstopped the team to eight wins in a 10-game stretch in March. He finished the season with a 15-16-2 record, while the other Oilers goalies combined went 15-28-6.
The Oilers didn’t make the playoffs – never even got that close – but they strung together their best results in four years in the second half. Weight became the first Oiler since Mark Messier in 1989-90 to score 100 points. Attendance, meanwhile, climbed from an average of 11,531 pre-Cujo to 13,362 after his arrival, with nearly 2,000 more fans per game.
Upward momentum could not have come at a better time. Pocklington had hinted that he would have to move the team if they didn’t sell 13,000 tickets and 90 percent of corporate seats by May 31 to qualify for $2.5 million CDN through the NHL’s new CCAP (Canadian Currency Assistance Plan). The CCAP had been created to assist Canadian teams struggling with the exchange rate. (from ‘How Citizen Cal Nichols Saved Hockey in Edmonton’, Edmonton Journal, 12/14/07′).
A ticket drive led by local businessperson Cal Nichols and others in the community helped push the Oilers past 13,000 season tickets before the deadline, more than doubling the season seats sold in 1995-96 (from ‘NHL Highlights: The First Big Save of Cal Nichols’, Edmonton Journal, 2/11/08).
At the same time, the Oilers unveiled a new uniform set, overhauling their look for the first time since they joined the NHL. Orange became copper, the blue went from soft to midnight, and they added a shoulder patch with a new logo.
The result was a more modern esthetic; the Oilers dressed like a team of the present, not the past – glorious though the past might have been.
Back in the Playoffs
The energy was palpably different heading into the 1996-97 season. The Oilers started 3-0 and were in a playoff position for most of the season, ultimately clinching the seventh seed and a first-round date with the Dallas Stars.
With the foundation of the 13,000+ season-ticket base, the Oilers total attendance jumped by more than 150,000 year over year. An average 16,043 fans turned out per game, the most since 1991-92.
Joseph played 72 games and recorded 32 wins, which, at the time, ranked second and third in franchise history for a single season. He became the first Oilers goalie to register a goals-against average below 3.00 and a save percentage above .900 while playing more than 10 games in a season, and set the team single-season record with six shutouts.
But his finest work was yet to come.
Back in the postseason for the first time in five springs, the Oilers were equal to the heavily-favoured Stars. Joseph recorded two shutouts in an instant-classic series that went the distance and then some.
Edmonton’s overtime victory in Game 7 is as much a part of franchise lore as any of their Stanley Cup wins, and it’s remembered for two signature plays in the fourth period. Foremost, of course, is Todd Marchant’s series-winning snapshot past Stars netminder, Andy Moog. But Joseph’s impossible save on Joe Nieuwendyk moments earlier was the only reason the game was still going.
The Oilers advanced to the second round where they ultimately fell to the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, 4-1. Edmonton barely had time to savour their first playoff run in five years, before Pocklington announced in June that he was selling the team.
Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander later bid for the team with the intention of moving it to Texas. A local group, again headed by Nichols, had until March 13 to make an offer to buy the Oilers and keep them in Edmonton. Hours before the deadline, the Edmonton Investors Group (EIG) made a $5 million deposit. The Oilers were staying put.
To Trade or Not to Trade?
Possible relocation wasn’t the only ominous cloud hanging over the Oilers for much of the 1997-98 season. Joseph was headed for free agency at the end of the season, and the cash-strapped Oilers couldn’t afford the huge payday he was due. Sather could either trade his star goalie before the deadline or keep him in hopes of another deep postseason run and risk losing him for nothing during the offseason.
With the Oilers clinging to a playoff spot, the March 24 trade deadline came and went, and CuJo was still in town. Free from questions for the first time all season, Edmonton won 8 of their remaining 11 games to lock down the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and a return date with the Avs.
In his second full season with the Oilers, Joseph played 71 games, picked up 29 wins, and recorded eight shutouts, which still stands as the single-season franchise record. Again, he saved his best for the playoffs.
The experienced Avalanche won three of the first four games and took a 1-0 lead into the third period of Game 5. They didn’t score again.
The Oilers rallied to win Game 5, 3-1, then took Game 6, 2-0, and sealed it with a 4-0 victory in Game 7. Joseph was unbeatable, blanking the Avalanche for the final 163:40 of the series.
They then ran into Dallas in the second round and were eliminated in five games. Joseph blanked the Stars in his team’s only win, giving him the franchise record for playoff shutouts.
The Oilers averaged 16,245 fans in 1997-98, their highest attendance since 1990-91. For the first time in what seemed like forever, their future in Edmonton was secure.
The same could not be said for Joseph.
After two and a half seasons and two memorable playoff runs, Joseph signed a 4-year, $24 million contract with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs (from ‘Plus: Hockey — Toronto; Joseph Signs Four-Year Deal’, The New York Times, 7/16/98). As an Oiler, CuJo went 76-76-14 with 14 shutouts (second all-time on the club, behind Tommy Salo) in the regular season and 10-14 with 5 shutouts in the playoffs.
The Oilers made the playoffs in the next three seasons, and four of the next five, but lost in the first round to Dallas each time. Joseph’s exit was emblematic of the post-Post Dynasty Oilers: they could succeed as far as their budget would allow.
Over two decades later, times have changed. The Oilers are now one of the most viable teams in the NHL, with two of the top players in the world signed to long-term contracts that would have been inconceivable when Joseph was headed to free agency. But it hasn’t translated to postseason success. Yet.
A quarter-century later, Jan. 13 will present an opportunity for a new beginning.
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.