Thursday, April 7, 2011

Loyalty Admired in Alberta with the Edmonton Oilers

I am an Edmonton Oilers hockey fan. I continue to learn about loyalty.

Though I don't dissect roster moves or organizational strategy with the Oilers like I do the Seattle Mariners, when the conversation turns to hockey, I have a reference point with the Oilers. I began following the Oilers when I was about 10-11 years old, watching CBUT out of Vancouver in my homes in the Puget Sound area. With Hockey Night in Canada and The National with CBC News, I became acquainted with Canadian life. My youth soccer team also participated in game exchanges between the two countries, and I traveled to Surrey and Vancouver, BC. My interest in Canada grew to where it is a hobby to follow Canadian life now in politics, culture and sport. During my early teenage years, I latched on to the rage in Canadian NHL hockey--the Edmonton Oilers, and I grew to enjoy watching Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Esa Tikkanen. They were a great team--an NHL dynasty. After Gretzky left, I continued to follow the team through thick and thin (and very thin right now).

Almost nine years ago, I checked off a line on my unofficial bucket list and made the trek to Edmonton with my wife, eight months pregnant. We flew into Calgary for my brother's wedding (I was jazzed he was marrying into a Canadian family), rented a car and fulfilled my longtime dream of attending an Edmonton Oilers home hockey game. Melanie was a good sport to attend this sporting event. Not a sports fan, she uses these opportunities to sample local cultures, exploring the arenas and stadiums to test cuisine and people watch. However, she noted it was hard to explore during the game because no one left their seats outside of intermission. About 90+ percent of the fans were wearing an Oilers sweater (jersey), or some other Oilers garb. The only other experience close to that in the 'States for professional sports was the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Club--but Edmonton even had them beat. Melanie almost felt she couldn't leave during game play because eyes were glued to the game. The Oilers lost the game to Brett Hull and the Dallas Stars, 5-4 in OT, but if my hockey allegiance was ever in doubt, it was solidified that day.

During my recent trip to visit my brother and his family (Jimmy is working on his dissertation in Sports Management at the University of Alberta), we took in the must of every trip, an Oilers hockey game. The Oilers are a poor team this year. They are a team in transition--getting younger and faster, but also suffering a significant amount of injuries. Some nights they are barely competitive, and we saw them soundly defeated by the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0. It wasn't even that close. The Oilers have the worst record in the NHL this season, but the fans still turn out, they still watch the game. They pay high prices for tickets, beer and other concessions. Their sweaters aren't cheap, either. This game made me notice something that would surely be present in the United States with a bad team. US professional sports fans tend to vote with their feet. They tend to not show up for a bad team. The ones who do show up will boo their team. During the game we watched, the Oilers would have earned loud derision from the fan base. But not in Edmonton that night. They still lined up at the souvenir boutiques on the concourse to purchase a tactile piece of hope--new sweaters depicting the numbers of their developing heroes: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, to go along with their current stars, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff.

Sometimes I question blind loyalty, but I admire the loyalty on the banks of the River Saskatchewan to the Oilers. Though the team heroes are admired, it is also recognized that players come and go. The team and what it provides are the focal point for community, encouragement and camaraderie. These points are not lost on the hockey fans of Edmonton, Alberta. I wonder in the midst of such social phenomena whether there are equivalent applications for my life in the church. How much loyalty is too much? When does loyalty blind people to the opportunities of the future? How does God work in the midst of community? These were good questions for me to ponder as I admired my very small part in a community to which I admire from afar through my television, computer, and the occasional visit.

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