Through their first 13 seasons in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers never missed the playoffs, won five Stanley Cups, played in eight Western Conference Finals, and failed to advance beyond the first round of the postseason just once in a 10-year span between 1983 and 1992. Winning was all Oilers fans knew, and it was easy to think things were going to be this good forever. But nothing ever is, of course, and in December 1992, reality began to rear its ugly head in Oil Country.
In 1992-93, the top four teams in each division made the playoffs, and Edmonton started December in fourth place in the Smythe Division standings, with a record of 8-12-4. By the end of the month, the Winnipeg Jets had caught up to them, and the Jets and Oilers headed into their New Year’s Eve game at Winnipeg Arena tied for fourth with 31 points apiece.
The Jets won 3-2, and 1992 ended with the Oilers in fifth place, and that’s where they stayed, ultimately finishing the season 27 points behind the Jets for fourth in the Smythe. For the first time since they joined the NHL in 1979-80, there would be no playoff hockey in Edmonton. It wasn’t until March 27, 1993, that they were officially eliminated from postseason contention. But for all intents and purposes, their era of greatness met its symbolic demise two weeks before Christmas.
Lowe Trade Was a Long Time Coming
On Dec. 11, 1992, following a lengthy contract holdout that dragged more than two months into the season, the Oilers traded their estranged former captain, defenseman Kevin Lowe, to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Roman Oksiuta and a third-round pick in the 1993 NHL Draft.
Lowe had been the only remaining Oilers player that was part of all five championship-winning teams and the last of the seven future Hall-of-Famers who formed the core of Edmonton’s 1980s hockey dynasty.
Paul Coffey was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins in November 1987, only months after helping Edmonton capture its third Stanley Cup. Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988, exactly 10 weeks to the day after Edmonton won championship No. 4. Jari Kurri left Edmonton to play in Italy when his contract expired following the Oilers’ fifth Stanley Cup triumph, in 1990. Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, and Mark Messier were all traded away by the Oilers over a span of 15 days leading to the start of the 1991-92 season, the former two going to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the latter being sent to the Rangers.
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Edmonton’s first NHL draft selection. The scorer of the Oilers’ first NHL regular season goal. The sixth captain in team history. The franchise leader in games played. The heart of Edmonton. The soul of the Oilers. Lowe was the one constant, and now he too was gone.
Trade Assets Had Minimal Impact on Oilers
Lowe’s trade return never amounted to much in Edmonton: Oksiuta played 36 games with the Oilers in 1993-94 and 1994-95, before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks for Jiri Slegr, who suited up for Edmonton 12 times in 1994-95 and 57 times in 1995-96 before he was dealt to the Penguins for a third-round pick in the 1998 Draft, which was traded to the New Jersey Devils for fourth and fifth-round picks in 1998 which was used to select Kristian Antila and Oleg Smirnov, neither who ever played in the NHL, and the rights to Fredrik Bemberg, who skated in eight games as an Oiler in 1998-99 before going to Europe; the 1993 third-round pick was used to select Alexander Kerch, who spent the rest of his career in Europe after playing five games with Edmonton in 1993-94.
In New York, Lowe would win his sixth Stanley Cup, with a Rangers team that included Anderson and Messier in 1994. He also helped the Rangers win playoff rounds in 1995 and 1996. Edmonton, meanwhile, missed the playoffs four straight years, from 1993 to 1996. Oilers’ attendance had plummeted, and owner Peter Pocklington said he would move the team if 13,000 seats were not sold by the end of May.
But just as Lowe’s exit from Edmonton marked a dramatic downturn for the Oilers, his return in the 1996 offseason came at a time of renewal.
Lowe Returns to Better Days
On the momentum of a community-led drive, the season ticket target was reached, ensuring the Oilers would remain in Edmonton. The Oilers then introduced a new uniform set, with a modified primary logo and a new alternate logo, conveying the sense of a new beginning and fresh start from a period of darkness.
Finally, on Sept. 20, 1996, the Oilers signed free-agent Lowe, bringing back the veteran blueliner after four seasons in the Big Apple. The Oilers returned to the playoffs in 1997, advancing to the second round, and did the same the year after.
When Lowe retired at age 39 in the summer of 1998, the Oilers had been in the NHL for 19 seasons. They were 15/15 making the playoffs with Lowe, and 0/4 without him.
It wouldn’t be until 2006, after Edmonton’s 26th NHL season, that the Oilers won a playoff round without Lowe on the roster – and that was with a team assembled by none other than Lowe, who by then had ascended to the role of Oilers’ general manager.
Gretzky’s move to Hollywood sent tremors throughout Oil Country, where it was immediately clear things would never be the same. Lowe’s departure was felt far less profoundly in the moment but looking back three decades later, it’s clear those days in December 1992 were an inflection point for the Oilers.
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.