It’s March, there’s still 13 games left in the regular season. The Oilers aren’t guaranteed a playoff spot yet.
But the city is already going playoff crazy.
At last week’s Oiler away games, the bars, lounges and sports pubs were full, even though it was mid-week, even though it’s the quietest time of the year for the hospitality business.
Sales are piling up for Oiler jerseys, car flags, foam fingers, ball caps.
The excitement grows. Because it’s apparent to hockey-savvy Edmontonians that the Oilers are fast becoming one of the league’s better teams – with two leading scorers, two dangerous forward lines, depth up front, a fast-maturing defensive corps and two goalies shooting out the lights.
The anticipation is deeper than The Oilers. It’s the return of community.
Fewer and fewer events of community-wide interest are happening, outside of the Oilers and Eskimos. The cancellation of the K-Days Parade – basically for lack of interest – was another nail in that coffin.
You can argue – persuasively – that the “target marketing” of social media has replaced community-wide interests with hundreds of smaller specialty events every week.
But we have lost something vital to our overall sense of place, of belonging.
Except for sports.
When the Eskimos are on the march to a Grey Cup, most Edmontonians dial-in.
With the Oilers becoming true contenders, the needle is already going off the dial. And play-off series can stretch into weeks and weeks.
You can feel it in the air. There’s a spring in our steps. The snow is melting, the mid-day sun is warming up and the Oilers, barring a disaster, will be in the playoffs.
The Oilers’ fortunes are our fortunes! We are so personally invested in this team, it’s a little ludicrous, but that’s how we are. It’s like pride in our own children. We cheer as one with every goal. We are collectively deflated with every goal against.
“It’s the beauty of sports,” says Ian O’Donnell, head of Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association. “The city is as one. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that’s so much fun.”
A playoff run – even the anticipation of a playoff run- is manna from heaven for the hospitality sector, for hotels, for taxis, for UBER.
Last Tuesday’s Oilers/Dallas tilt, sales were 50% higher than a normal Tuesday evening at the 1ST RND sports bar/eatery. “The jerseys and hats are coming out,” says 1ST RND’s Mo Blayways.
Much of the economic gain for the restaurant/bar trade is dependent on micro-factors – the game start time, the day of the week, home-versus-away games, whether the Oil win or lose.
No matter. For all the eateries and drinking spots that opened downtown concurrently with Rogers Place three years ago, this is a long-awaited pay-back.
With up to 6 home playoff games, depending how deep the Oilers go, bars will be packed for both home and away contests. “They’ll be showing up right after work to get a good table,” says long-time Old Strathcona restaurant manager Jodh Singh, now GM of Lyon Restaurant.
Plans are underway for family-friendly community watching, possibly in the near-complete Ice District Plaza, or in Ford Hall.
Ice District itself, like the team, will have North American-wide TV exposure. The new restaurants in Ice District – Boston Pizza, Guru, Delux Burger Bar – will finally get a steady flow of dinner and lounge guests. The public will gawk at the (hockey) stars in the JW Marriott lobby.
As for the team, the play-offs mean NHL-wide exposure for one of hockey’s most exciting teams, millions in additional revenue per home game, and a chance to show off the nearly built-out ICE District.
It’s amazing. No matter how gloomy the current Alberta economy, so many of us will find the extra $50 or $60 per game to go to a sports bar for eats and drinks and an UBER/taxi home, to order pizza and beer for home hockey parties with friends.
More than the economic surge, it’s the civic spirit built around a playoff run that turns my crank.
For up to four series of playoff hockey, the entire city will be focused, will live and die with the team’s fortunes.
And there’s the mental reprieve. Exciting sports games truly help off-set the steady stream of depressing economic news.
If only for a few days — hopefully, weeks — we can enjoy the camaraderie, the high-fives with strangers, the agony and the ecstasy of a city 100% behind its team.
Civic pride has been so eroded as to be near non-existent.
So cherish the upcoming playoffs, and remind us that other Edmonton-wide events should also be worthy of such all-in intensity.