During a jersey retirement ceremony prior to the Edmonton Oilers game against the New York Rangers at Rogers Place on Nov. 5, 2021, Kevin Lowe’s No. 4 finally took its rightful place in the rafters alongside the banners of his teammates from Edmonton’s dynasty era: Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Mark Messier.
(The Oilers also have retired the number of Al Hamilton, a standout from the franchise’s days in the World Hockey Association, and raised banners honoring legendary coach/GM Glen Sather and iconic broadcaster Rod Phillips).
Of what has been dubbed Edmonton’s “Group of Seven,” blueliner Lowe was among the first to hang ‘em up, officially retiring on July 30, 1998. But Lowe has by far had the longest wait of the group for his number to be retired by the Oilers; The first was Gretzky in 1999, and the most recent was Anderson, was nearly 13 years ago now, on Jan. 18, 2009.
Why so long? For one thing, Lowe has been employed by the Oilers from the moment he retired, first as a coach, then general manager, and President of Hockey Operations. Retiring his number while he was a key figure in the Oilers front office could have come off awkwardly as self-congratulation. Since 2015, he has served a role outside of hockey operations as vice-chair of Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) and Oilers’ alternate governor.
Then there’s the Oilers’ unstated policy only to retire numbers of those elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The other six all had their banner raising ceremony within months before or after their HHOF induction ceremony. Philips and Sather, meanwhile, are also both HHOF members. Only Hamilton, who had his number retired in 1979 before such supposed standards had been established, is not.
Lowe was finally elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2020, which was announced in June 2020. Their enshrinement ceremony was canceled last year because of the pandemic and will take place on Nov. 15 in Toronto.
But there’s another likely reason that that the Oilers couldn’t have retired Lowe’s number sooner, and it’s frankly a bit shameful.
Fans’ Feelings About Lowe Shifted
As the player that won five Stanley Cup championships with the Oilers became an executive that presided over many consecutive years of missing the playoffs, Lowe went from revered to reviled in Edmonton.
A segment of the Oilers fanbase held a burning dislike of Lowe and wasn’t afraid to express it. Things got so ugly that in 2014, an organization called “The Kevin Lowe Must Go Facebook group” took out a full-page ad in the Edmonton Sun newspaper demanding that the Oilers fire their hockey operations president. That was after running an electronic billboard reading “This is as Lowe as we go” for several weeks on one of Edmonton’s busiest roads. Such sentiments were not necessarily limited to a vocal minority: the Facebook group had 16,500 fans.
In this environment, there was no way the Oilers could ever hold a ceremony honoring Lowe. The likelihood of negativity directed at Lowe from the stands was far too great.
If you had a heart, it hurt to see Lowe treated like this. Criticism of his job performance was more than fair, and the Oilers were a disaster on the ice in the last several years of Lowe’s time in hockey operations. But to harbor such contempt for the man was different than finding failure in his work. The irony is those fans so enraged because of the Oilers’ shortcomings wanted exactly what Lowe wanted: for the team to succeed. Only Lowe wanted that so much more because there has arguably never been anyone who cares more for team and city than the native of Lachute, Quebec, who made Edmonton his home.
Lowe is an Oilers Original
The 21st overall pick in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, Lowe was in uniform for Edmonton’s first NHL game and played the first 13 seasons of his career with the Oilers, and was a big part of the team winning the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990.
As the ‘80s dynasty turned into the ‘90s rebuild, there was a mass exodus of star players from Edmonton, but Lowe was the last of the Group of Seven to depart. He was the captain in 1991-92 and stayed with the ship before being traded to the Rangers on Dec. 11, 1992. Lowe won a sixth Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994. And then he came back.
Gretzky never played again for the Oilers. Nor did Kurri or Messier. Ditto Coffey and Fuhr. Anderson did, but it was against his will. Like all veterans, they understandably were looking to close out their careers with one last shot at a championship, and that was not going to be in Edmonton.
The Oilers were absent from the playoffs each of the four springs following Lowe’s departure. They had a young, talented lineup that wasn’t going to be contending for the Stanley Cup but had a legit shot at the postseason and just needed a veteran leader to show the way. This was a pivotal time for the franchise, which had just survived its first real threat of relocation, holding a successful season-ticket drive that kept the Oilers in Edmonton.
Related Link: Oilers History: The Day Edmonton Saved the Franchise
So rather than chase another championship, Lowe decided to be part of returning the Oilers to relevancy. On Sept. 28, 1996, at age 37, he signed as a free agent with his original team, and he hasn’t left Edmonton since.
The Oilers made it back to the playoffs in 1997 and did so again the following year. Lowe’s final NHL game was against Kurri and the Colorado Avalanche in the 1998 Western Conference Quarter-Final series.
Lowe Has Contributed Greatly to the Community
It bears mention all the time Lowe has given to make the city a better place. For nearly 40 years now, he has served as honorary chairman of the Christmas Bureau of Edmonton. He received the Oilers Community Service Award multiple times and won the now-defunct NHL Man of the Year Award in 1989-90, recognizing sportsmanship and involvement with charitable groups.
Lowe is hardly flawless nor without his share of missteps. There was, of course, his infamous “two types of fans” comment and the trade of Ryan Smyth that broke Edmonton’s heart and sent the Oilers into a tailspin that proved to be the dawn of the “Decade of Darkness.”
But it appears all this is finally in the past. The bitterness many felt towards Lowe has subsided, and Edmonton is in a place now where this long-overdue fete can go forward.
Friday’s ceremony is the chance to celebrate the Oilers’ all-time leader in games played, the scorer of the first goal in Edmonton NHL history, the first NHL draft pick in franchise history, a six-time Stanley Cup champ, a six-time NHL All-Star, and moreover, a man who bleeds orange and blue and has poured every last ounce of himself into that jersey. It’s a chance for Oil Country to make good, to show Lowe how much he is appreciated. He’s owed that much.
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.