Heart and soul.
Sure it's contrived, it's overused, it's maybe even a little over the top - I mean can one player really be the "heart and soul" of a team? - but there's no denying it, Ryan Smyth was something special to the Edmonton Oilers. Ryan Smyth was the kind of guy who kept you going even through this miserable season, who never let it get him down, who wanted nothing more than to see everyone around him love what they were doing as much as he did. Ryan Smyth went out there and playing hard hockey every night he could and loved every single minute of it.
And now he's an Islander.
I admit it, I came into my Oilers love late. Last season I still hated them - when they crushed Detroit's hopes of breaking that straight wins record I was furious with them, I cursed them, I couldn't stand them. When they took us out of the playoffs in the first round, when Ales Hemsky who stands as one of my two favorite NHL players of all time now, then still unknown to me, crushed Manny Legace's (who it should be noted for the record is the other favorite player - ironic much?) dreams of leading the Wings to a cup victory after all those years as backup, I cursed at them, I hated them, I wanted them to get murdered in the next round. And then something changed. It started with just wanting a Canadian team to win. Calgary lost. Ottawa (ew, I know, but I was desperate!) lost. And then the Oilers were poised to take on the Ducks and suddenly I realized that not only were they Canadian, but if they won the cup, Detroit would look a little better. Maybe, just maybe, they'd resign Manny, even. So Elly and I caught the last game of the series together in Toronto and cheered for the Oilers, and they won, and it was Oilers/Canes for the cup.
I didn't know any of the Oilers then. I heard a couple names, I knew a few faces, but really know them? No, I had no idea. But I watched game one, beer in hand, and I fell in love. From the second Chris Pronger (I know, I know) made that penalty shot. From the second I watched Dwayne Roloson in net and then not in net. They became my team. And I kept watching. I promised Fernando Pisani children for that playoff magic he worked. I cussed out Ty Conklin, I marveled at Jussi Markkanen, I yelled at Hemmer to shoot the puck (but that he looked pretty even when he wasn't). But most importantly, I noticed Ryan Smyth.
He wasn't the captain (nothing against Gator who I love with all my heart), but I didn't even realize that at first. He was always there, chatting with everyone, giving advice, wishing luck, just out there playing as if there wasn't a single other thing in the world he'd rather be doing.
I cried with everyone else at the end of the season over the miserable Pronger Trade. When the team started to fall apart, when everyone started leaving, Peca, Spacek, Samsonov, all those players I fell in love with, I worried, I panicked, but I didn't give up on the Oilers because they had players who were loyal, players who were determined. They had Ryan Smyth. When this season started out and they jumped out to a great start and defied everyone's expectations I couldn't have been happier, especially when my Red Wings were worrying us all. And when they started to slip, when they started to fall, when we realized it was downhill from here and our hopes that the Oil would pull this off somehow started to wane dangerously, we believed in Ryan Smyth.
And now he's gone. The one man that no one worried about, the one man who, despite all the rumors, everyone believed Kevin Lowe would somehow sign. They wouldn't let the heart and soul of the Oilers leave.
I can't pretend I understand the reasons behind it, whether it was money and cap space issues, whether (and I cling to this hope) Lowe decided to go all in as a seller and throw him out there as a playoff rental and he'll sign back with the Oil in the summer, whether it was something no one's going to guess or ever even know at all. But Smytty, our beloved Smytty, is an Islander, maybe for month, maybe for the long haul, maybe only until summer but then to be grabbed by someone else anyway.
But I can't even imagine it. I can't picture him in any other jersey, playing for any other team. When I went to the game last Friday, when I scrambled down to the boards to watch the Oilers practice, he wasn't the first thing I saw (for the record, it was Horc making a really amazing face). But it was when I looked up and saw Ryan Smyth's hair, his ridiculous wonderful hair, flowing along behind him and the smile on his face just because there he was with his friends and his teammates and doing the thing he loves more than anything else in the world, that's when I knew this was the Edmonton Oilers. He hasn't had twenty years to grow with a team, and he wasn't even the captain, but losing him hits as hard as losing Steve Yzerman did. Even more, in a way, because at least Stevie was fair, at least we knew Stevie was doing what he had to. But Ryan was that kind of player. Ryan was synonymous with the Oilers in the way you think Stevie when it comes to the Wings, Sundin when it comes to the Leafs.
Trade deadline day hurt like usual in little pangs all over, from Marty Biron to Ty Conklin to Todd Bertuzzi (WHY?) to little things like Jiri Novotny. But this one broke my heart. All I can hope for is that wherever Smytty goes, he's happy, and doing what he loves. And that maybe, just maybe, somehow he'll come back. Until then, we will miss you Ryan Smyth, please, if you don't come back, find someone who loves you, somewhere you can mean as much as you did to Edmonton, and to me, this summer. For now, this just looks so wrong.
Edit: I think this recap of the game tonight pretty much sums it up all too well. And what irony that it's Gretzky's team they were playing like this against too. That quote from Gator though just tears me up.
27 February 2007
Heart and soul.