So-named by my Carolinian buddy Wade, it seems as fitting a title as any. Captain Canada is now an Islander, which comes as news to virtually nobody reading this, I'm sure. I'm equally sure the 'oilogosphere' is full of tributes, gnashing of teefs, wailing, breast-beating, clothes-rending... well, I'm sure you get the point. Nevertheless, I shall attempt a short essay myself, cut for your reading pleasure.
When I first read the news on ESPN, I was Jack's complete lack of surprise. We've all seen it coming since new contracts came for Horcoff, Moreau, Staios, Pisani, and Roloson, and nothing for Smytty. We knew when it was possible he said "no more hometown discount." When last week's non-announcement of "we're having talks" was made and nothing ensued, the writing was likely on the wall - just some last minute wheeling and dealing, but I expect that was as much to keep Smyth's price and the interest up as anything else.
In my lifetime as an Oilers fan, I've seen almost everything. I saw the Oilers struggle at first; I witnessed The Game of Our Lives as it was being written. I saw the rise of the young guns. I was lucky enough to go with my dad to a game of the 1984 Campbell Conference finals and watch the Oilers stomp the guts out of the Minnesota North Stars. I was jubilant as they reeled off Cups, beating all comers like rented mules. Later, I watched the franchise get torn apart. Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Coffey, Anderson, Fuhr, all traded. Even Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, gone; others lost to retirement or free agency. Later on, more money problems; Doug Weight, Curtis Joseph, and Bill Guerin blew town, and their replacements too. Other valuable players like Jason Arnott, Janne Niniimaa, Roman Hamrlik, all gone too - some to greater success than others.
All this was supposed to change last year. The Oilers heralded the Coming Of The Cap with big trades for Chris Pronger and Michael Peca. The team surpassed the expectations of even the most ardent of us fans. They put together an amazing run, and now... it's 1991 all over again. Chris Pronger leaving was one thing. Like it or not, he had at least a novel reason for wanting out. Michael Peca and Sergei Samsonov, sometime-heroes of the playoffs were understood to probably not be returning anyway. Playoff heroics were not enough to erase the craptacular regular season Mr. Peca turned in, and I think he really did like it better in the east anyway. Samsonov was unlikely to ever be anything but a rental, and his performance in Montreal this season upholds the decision to let him go. (Say what you want about Lupul, at least he's making 2mm less for one less point and 6 more goals.)
Things were even going ok as the Oilers were able to sign Ales Hemsky to a long-term contract at what is likely to be below-market rates, warriors Ethan Moreau and Steve Staios got extensions, and Fernando Pisani and Dwayne Roloson got new contracts at heroic rates. With the Oilers still under cap, it looked good for Smyth.
And then this: "We can afford to spend the money necessary to have the kind of elite players expected. This was about the Oilers staying true to a plan. I know our hockey strategy is sound." (Pat Laforge, email to the Oilers Pipeline.) "I want everyone to know that our decision was much more to do with a plan than a reaction. Ryan is taking a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our opportunity is to have a sound strategy for the future." (Kevin Lowe, same source.)
Bollocks. Even if there's some truth there, bollocks again. I'm sure Pisani and Horcoff would have understood if Smyth had come first and necessitated they each get a few hundred k less apiece - even 500k. They'd still be getting paid quite generously for the total of their past contributions, and Horc's favourite LW would still be in Oilers uniform, and things would still be good. Not entirely palatable given how poorly the team's done at times this season, but overall, not bad.
I don't care what pedigree Ryan O'Marra and Robert Nillson have. Maybe they'll each go on to be 20-40-60 or even 40-50-90 players. Edmonton now has three first round picks this coming draft and will be in excellent position to trade up, and maybe finally other teams' spin doctors will be saying "we tried to move up to select Joe Bloggins, but the Oilers just beat us to him" instead of Terry Matheson saying it of some other team. Maybe, maybe, maybe. For every Ales Hemsky and Martin Rucinsky mid-late first rounder though, there's three or four Joe Hulbigs and Matthieu Descoteauxs, to say nothing of another couple of Steve Kellys and Jason Bonsignores.
I've seen them all come in, and I've seen them all go. Biggest trade since Gretzky and Messier, as the sports reporters are saying? Arguable. I'll advance the notion that this is perhaps even bigger than any of the aforementioned worthies. Maybe this was about money, like Gretz and Mess were. Maybe it was a bit of money and a bit of something else, like Mike Comrie and Jason Arnott. Maybe the Oilers really do have a plan, although I really question a plan that involves trading your leading scorer for futures but is somehow not classified as giving up on the season. (Either way, why is Petr Sykora still an Oiler?)
This wasn't supposed to happen. Even if you believe that this was planned and not a reaction to Smyth wanting more dosh than the Oilers were willing to pay out - and it's entirely within the realm of possibility he wasn't looking for 5mm like some thought, or even 5.5 or 5.75 like others (more reasonably, I suspect) thought. It's possible he was wanting a contract like Chris Pronger had: 6.75 million. Maybe he wanted more, considering the years of hometown discounts, the lost teeth, the training camps without contracts. Maybe he wanted Marty St. Louis or Zdeno Chara money. But it's not financial, this was a plan, right?
Whatever way you put it, however you spin it, this stinks. Completely and absolutely. Gretzky and Messier and the other kids grew up and succeeded, despite the odds sometimes being stacked against them. Smyth started out as an Oiler you could depend on for at least a couple of weak turnovers at centre ice, an icing or two resulting from a pure-greed shot at an empty net, a 4th liner power play specialist, and has since turned into Captain Canada, the guy you can count on for the big goal, the guy who takes a hard clearing attempt to the mouth and gets up bloody mouthed asking for more, the guy who plays top line minutes against tough opposition, taking a Derian Hatcher crosscheck to the small of the back and risking a Jean-Sebastien Giguere meltdown to get the tip-in goal, the guy who played centre when the Oilers needed him to even though he sucked at it, the guy who lost the Stanley Cup in Game 7 after years of first and second round disappointments and then came back next season saying that was fun, let's go again. Ryan Smyth was, in short, The Man. The Dude. The Everything.
I still love guys like Jason Smith and his bent over in your face skating style, Ethan Moreau and his blue collar work ethic, Ales Hemsky and his electrifying skill, Shawn Horcoff and his willingness to be whatever the team needs him to be without complaint, but none of them have been with the team as long and done as much as Ryan Smyth.
I'm not afraid to say that a little bit of me died inside when I read that headline, despite my simultaneous lack of surprise. Heroes come and heroes go, and I understand that, but still the same, this team is going to be a lot harder to cheer for without Smytty.
Extra special bonus: If I were a betting man, I'd go a bit further and say that Smyth is unlikely to re-sign with the Oilers this summer. Does that make it easier or harder? I can't decide.