Sixteen years ago, the Edmonton Oilers were a very different team. In 2003-04 they didn’t have a Connor McDavid or a Leon Draisaitl, but they had a stronger supporting cast than the current squad. Despite their lack of high-end talent, head coach Craig MacTavish maximized the potential of every player on the roster and nearly guided the Oilers to a playoff berth.
The Oilers had a decent start to the season, going 10-7-2-0 in their first 19 games. However, wins were hard to come by over the next three months, as they posted a disappointing 10-17-6-1 mark over their next 34 outings. Their playoff hopes were crushed after the Mike Comrie trade in December, but the Oilers elevated their play down the stretch run to get back into the postseason conversation.
They had only five regulation losses in their final 29 games, including an incredible 16-game undefeated streak (10-0-2-4), but they fell two points short of the playoffs and finished in ninth place in the Western Conference with a 36-29-12-5 record for 89 points.
Top 10 Individual Milestones
On Oct. 9, 2003, Raffi Torres scored his first career NHL goal in a 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks.
On Oct. 25, 2003, Ryan Smyth scored his 179th career NHL goal to pass Esa Tikkanen for seventh on the Oilers’ all-time goals list in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
On Nov. 10, 2003, Smyth recorded his 200th career NHL assist and his 383rd career NHL point to pass Kevin Lowe for eighth on the Oilers’ all-time points list and Jarret Stoll scored his first career NHL goal in a 5-4 win over the New York Rangers.
On Nov. 13, 2003, Ty Conklin recorded his first career NHL shutout in a 2-0 win over the Minnesota Wild.
On Jan. 4, 2004, Smyth scored his 186th career NHL goal in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to pass Craig Simpson for sixth on the Oilers’ all-time goals list.
On Jan. 10, 2004, Tommy Salo recorded his 200th career NHL win in his 500th career NHL game, a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
On Jan. 13, 2004, Adam Oates played in his 1,300th career NHL game, a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers.
On Jan. 24, 2004, Smyth recorded his 400th career NHL point in a 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators.
On Feb. 27, 2004, Ethan Moreau scored his 100th career NHL goal in a 7-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes.
On Mar. 26, 2004, Petr Nedved scored his 300th career NHL goal in a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
In the summer of 2003, then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe started planning a spectacular event at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium called the Heritage Classic. Lowe wanted Edmonton to host the first-ever outdoor regular season NHL and alumni games (dubbed the Mega-Stars Game) in November between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.
Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky, who never showed any interest in playing in an alumni game, made an exception for the Heritage Classic.
“It was wonderful,” Gretzky told NHL.com on the 10th anniversary of the event. “It was one of the greatest days of my career. I’m not a big believer in old-timer games. I think that people don’t want to see us play when we’re slow and old. They like to remember when you could actually play. It was one of the great days of my life.”
Related: NHL Outdoor Games Still Special
On Nov. 22, 2003, more than 57,000 fans filled Commonwealth Stadium for the Heritage Classic, despite freezing temperatures. The fans were treated to a dream matchup between the 1980s Oilers and the 1970s Canadiens. Ken Linseman and Marty McSorley each scored and Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford were stellar in goal, as the Oilers alumni won 2-0.
While the legends of the game were an impossible act to follow, the Oilers and Canadiens produced perhaps the best outdoor NHL game ever. After a scoreless first period, Montreal potted two goals in less than 10 minutes in the second frame to break the game open.
Trailing 3-1 in the third period, Stoll and Steve Staios each tallied to give the Oilers a chance. However, Richard Zednik’s marker with just over five minutes on the clock lifted the Canadiens to a 4-3 victory.
“The best time was the day or two before when we got to practice in our helmets,” former Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff told NHL.com. “We just put the skates on and went out to skate around a little bit. Inside a stadium looking around, I can’t remember how many people were there, but it was just a really cool moment. Minus the stadium, it was exactly what it was like when I was a kid.”
From the 431st Air Demonstration Squadron flying over Commonwealth Stadium, to the NHL legends shoveling snow off the ice between periods, to the iconic toque over Jose Theodore’s goalie mask, the 2003 Heritage Classic provided hockey fans with many great memories.
2003-04 Oilers Forwards
Smyth led the Oilers in goals (23), assists (36), points (59), power-play goals (8), power-play assists (10), power-play points (18), game-winning goals (6) and shots on goal (245) in 82 games in 2003-04. Despite playing without his two regular linemates from the 2002-03 season, Anson Carter and Comrie, Smyth produced close to his usual totals and led the Oilers in points for the second straight season.
After failing to score a single goal in his first two seasons with the New York Islanders, Torres found his scoring touch in Edmonton. He had 20 goals and established himself as a physical, top-six forward.
Shawn Horcoff continued to move up the Oilers’ lineup and improved on his numbers for the fourth straight season. Ales Hemsky didn’t take as big a step forward in his second NHL season as many had hoped, but he showed glimpses of the star he would become.
Staios led all defenders on the team with 28 points in 82 games, a career-high. Marc-Andre Bergeron introduced himself to Oilers fans during the 2003 Playoffs when he delivered an open-ice hip-check to Brenden Morrow. In his first full NHL season, Bergeron showed his skill as well.
Eric Brewer registered his third consecutive 25-point season and logged tough minutes in all situations. Jason Smith didn’t offer a lot of offensive production but battled harder in the defensive zone than anyone on the ice.
After six seasons and 334 games with the Oilers, Salo’s time in Edmonton came to an end in 2004 when he was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline. He was a solid regular season goalie, but he never won a playoff series.
With Salo gone, Conklin and Jussi Markkanen shared the work load until Dwayne Roloson arrived in 2006. The combination of Conklin and Markkanen wasn’t spectacular, but they kept an average Oilers team competitive.
Prior to the introduction of the NHL salary cap in 2005, the small-market Oilers were forced to build a roster on a limited budget. Still, they always either scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs or barely missed. Unfortunately, 2003-04 was one of the seasons when they fell short.
During this era, the Oilers weren’t deep enough to advance beyond the second round and even the most optimistic fans couldn’t have imagined that, just two seasons later, the Oilers would be one win away from their sixth championship in franchise history.
The 2003-04 Oilers weren’t a great squad, but they equaled the blue-collar work ethic of the city they played in, and were a team to be proud of.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.