With the New Year right around the corner, we’ll wave goodbye to the 2010s, a decade filled with ups and (many, many) downs in Oil Country. Let’s jump in the time machine and go back through all of the things that defined this decade of Oilers hockey. Today, we have Ryan Smyth’s return to Edmonton.
Ryan Smyth was an Edmonton Oiler, through and through. He was drafted by the Oilers, he made his NHL debut with the Oilers, he played his best hockey with the Oilers, he bled wearing the Oilers’ uniform, night in, night out, and it was only right that he retired as an Oiler.
There’s a story written in the middle of all of that which isn’t easy to talk about around these parts. After losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, Oilers fans faced gut-punch after gut-punch. Chris Pronger asked for a trade shortly after the Cup Final, the endured a mediocre following season in his absence, and then, the icing on the cake, Ryan Smyth got traded.
Mr. Oiler, Captain Canada, the consistent presence, through thick and thin, of the team for over a decade was gone. When every other good player came and went, whether it was Doug Weight or Bill Guerin or Roman Hamrlik or Dean McAddmon or Pronger, the one constant was Smyth.
Drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft, the Banff native quickly became a key player for the Oilers during a dark and confusing time. He broke into the league in the 1996-97 season with a 39-goal performance, helping the Oilers pull off an epic upset of the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs. Smyth would be the face of the Oilers for the next decade, routinely scoring at least 20 goals while playing harder than anybody else on the ice. Even losing multiple teeth wouldn’t stop Smyth.
That all came to an end in February of 2007. With Smyth’s camp and general manager Kevin Lowe at a stalemate when it came to a contract extension, the soon-to-be free agent was shipped to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline for a package of magic beans. Later that night, the Oilers retired Mark Messier’s No. 11, and there was a noticeable awkward vibe in the building. Even Lowe, one of Messier’s long-time teammates, was absent from the ceremony because of what transpired earlier that day.
Smyth helped the Islanders reach the playoffs that spring but then left in free agency to ink a five-year deal worth $6,250,000 with the Colorado Avalanche. Two years into that deal, he was flipped to the Los Angeles Kings during the 2009 off-season. In two seasons with the Kings, Smyth was dispatched in the first round of the playoffs.
At the same time in Edmonton, the Oilers were diving head-first into their rebuild, focusing on acquiring elite talent to build around through the draft. After a 2010-11 season in which Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff spent a good chunk of time on the shelf, it became clear the Oilers needed more veteran leadership in the mix. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to lure veterans to join a rebuild like this one. Apparently, a former Oiler wanted to make a return to Edmonton.
Bob McKenzie reported Smyth was interested in a return to Edmonton, and, just a few days later, it happened. Seeking to dump his cap hit, the Kings shipped Smyth to the Oilers in exchange for Colin Fraser and a seventh-round pick. Ryan Smyth was an Oiler once again. The response was unanimously ecstatic.
Smyth would go on to play three more seasons in an Oilers uniform before calling it quits. He would finish second in franchise history in games played, fifth in goals, sixth in points, and tied for first with Glenn Anderson for power-play goals. Sentimentally, Smyth’s return virtually wiped away the messy story in the middle of his career, cementing the fact that he was truly an Oiler for life.
When it was all said and done, we got the opportunity to give a legend a well-deserved send-off. Though the image of him crying at his post-trade press conference might be the exit image that prevails in everyone’s memory, this was the farewell he deserved.