The echoing thud of a solid rubber puck crashing into the glass can mean only one thing. It's hockey time.
The Tulsa Oilers are due. The last championship for the franchise came in the 1992-93 season. The same year the Central Hockey League was reborn. The last scoring champion from the Oilers? Luc Beausoleil 10 years ago. Last Coach of the Year? Garry Unger in the aforementioned 1992-93 championship campaign.
This isn't to say the Oilers underachieved. The team consistently challenges for playoff spots year in and year out. Tulsans turn out in droves on a regular basis for their hockey fix. Last year, more than 5,000 hockey fanatics filled the Convention Center on average per game.
The level of excitement watching hockey in person is unparalleled.
This year you ask? What is different about this year? Judging by a practice or three, a ton.
"We kind of evaluated our team at the end of last year," says general manager Corey MacIntyre. "We decided we weren't good enough. We needed to go out and bring in some talented players and quality players. Our coaching staff has done that.
"They've done a great job over the summer recruiting players -- bringing in some pretty big names," says MacIntyre. He's referring to the highly touted players who will adorn the Oilers sweaters this year.
A year ago head coach Butch Kaebel talked about his team's style of play. So what has changed this year?
First of all, his eyes light up like a cigarette in a Carny's mouth when talking about his group this year.
"This year we've got a lot more size and strength. You look at our players up front, our centermen up the middle are 6'3'' and 6'2''. They're strong. They're fast. They're very skilled, smart players," says Kaebel of his new gladiators.
The Oilers didn't pay lip service this off-season. Teams often speak of improving their lineup after a disappointing season. More often than not, it's a cheap psychological mind trick. They are feeding fans a company line. They are trying to sell more seats.
However, the Oilers front office backed up their chatter. They brought in the type of players required to make a serious run. Last year's CHL MVP played in Youngstown, Ohio. Forward Jeff Christian and his 116 points will look to light the lamp in T-Town this season.
Christian is the real deal. He'd likely say he is a little too experienced. He's played in seven different leagues by my count. His skates have hit the big time as well.
Short stints with the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburg Penguins and Phoenix Coyotes give him NHL experience other Oilers can build on.
"I think we have a lot of leaders. I think we have a very strong character in the locker room. I'm not a real rah-rah guy," says the hired sniper who arrived in Tulsa back in July to acclimate his family.
"I'm not a guy who stands up and criticizes my teammates because I'm on that ice too and I make mistakes myself. It's hard to point the finger. I'll try to encourage guys as much as I can in a positive way. Scoring was my thing the last couple of years. The team's going to ask me to continue that," says the 37-year-old, 6'2'' 230 pound vet who also managed a lofty plus/minus rating of +45.
Hockey players are a different breed. Work ethic, passion, heart and love of the game are associated with their makeup. Dog fighting, fixing games, steroid abuse and disrespecting the opposition are saved for the other sports.
Sure, you have the occasional high-sticking incident calling into question the integrity of an individual but those are the anomalies, not the norm. Speaking of moral fiber.
"You can glean off of all (Christian's) experience. He's had a lot of experience in the American Hockey League, National Hockey League and at our level. Guys can learn from him every day.
"He's just a professional on the ice and off the ice. That's the key to our hockey team. We want players who are warriors on the ice and gentlemen off the ice," Kaebel says while watching players voluntarily put in extra sweat after practice.
Two of those players, who were forced off the ice only by the ominous sound of the ice guzzling Zamboni approaching, are center David Beauregard and goalie Kevin St. Pierre.
Beauregard lined up a dozen pucks. Bam, Slap, Bang, Thump go the rapid fire slap shots. St. Pierre defended the net as if game seven of the Stanley Cup was on the line. This team is serious about success.
"Right now I think we have some new, solid players like Christian, (Brendon) Hodge, (Paul) Kelly, St. Pierre and (Rob) Guinn. They are all really, really good players with experience. We have some size too that we were missing last year," say Beauregard in his thick French-Canadian accent.
A year ago, the 6'0'' 200 pound centerman was responsible for leadership and physicality. He also led the team in scoring. He hovered over many of the smallish players from the 2006-07 Oilers squad. This year, he's just one of the guys looking to contribute.
"If we can have a great winning team it's going to be easier to have more fans for the BOK Center. It's a huge year. I have great expectations for the year," he says.
The native of Montreal lived in Tulsa during the offseason. His competitive nature found him attacking the local softball scene as well as fine-tuning his poker skills.
"My job is going to be easier. We have more experienced guys so I won't have to baby-sit anyone," says Beauregard with a sly grin and chuckle.
We might just have ourselves another championship trophy come seasons' end. Remember, the Talons are the reigning af2 king and there's room in town for another.
"It's early to think (championship) but our main goal is to have a winning year and everyone is going to chip in together.
"I think we're going to be really, really good offensively. We're going to be better defensively. Our goalie, he's my best friend, but I think he's the best goalie in the minor leagues. He's going to be a huge help," says Beauregard of the team's new net minder, St. Pierre.
Puck Stops with Him
Football's quarterback, baseball's battery, basketball's point guard, hockey's netminder. Nowhere on the ice is there a more important position.
The new puck-stopper joins the Oilers' roster as a highly touted player from the United Hockey League. He is familiar with the CHL landscape. He patrolled the crease for the Wichita Thunder some 10 years ago.
He is one of ours now. In 64 games with the UHL's Fort Wayne Komets last year, St. Pierre allowed a miniscule 2.24 goals against average. Another important stat? A .926 save percentage. For the hockey novice, that's damn good. Oh, don't forget about the 42 wins. Wins are fairly important.
"You want to be the number one goalie. It's like being the quarterback. You've got to put up the numbers and do the job. I'm not going to play well every night but most of my career I've been consistent and give my team a chance to win every night. I think as the number one goalie that's your priority -- give your team a chance to win," says the 6'3" large and in charge goalie. Large as in stature, not waistline. His height is unusual for goalies.
Honestly, this is the most confidence I've had in an Oiler goalie since . . . well, ever. Oiler fans rejoice. No more "Go back to (insert previous city here)" chants after a soft goal.
"After 12 years I've learned to sense the feeling in the locker room. If the guys are tired and don't look ready to go -- that's when I have to step up. Some nights they are going to score seven goals where I don't have to be on top of my game.
"I think if we can work together as a team -- it's worked well for me in the past. Some nights I'll stand on my head and allow one goal and we'll win 2-1," St. Pierre says.
He wore a Notre Dame cap but insisted it was a friend's gift and just happened to match his post-practice attire. "Probably not the best hat to be wearing down in Oklahoma," laughed St. Pierre as I questioned his choice in garb.
He has patterned his game after the iconic Patrick Roy. This is the year 2007 though. Times have changed and technology has rendered some techniques and training methods obsolete.
"I learned from (watching Roy) but pretty much I do a lot of video tape. I go over all the goals I got scored on and next week, in practice, I work on those things. Every week I've got something to work on," he says of his desire to compete at the highest level.
Our new goaltender doesn't lack confidence. His wife is from Wichita so he is comfortable with our geographical region. He's also comfortable with the added pressure. He welcomes it.
"My first game was against Tulsa. I remember what it used to be. The fans were great, it was loud. They had a great team. It was always going to be a battle coming here and trying to win.
"That's what I'm trying to bring back but obviously I can't do that by myself. I think with the guys brought in this year we've got a chance to do that -- bring back the Tulsa Oilers hockey that (fans) are used to seeing," he says.
Part of what makes a man are the trials and tribulations he faces down the path. St. Pierre credits his good, great friend with helping him cope with a recent setback.
"(Beauregard) helped me a lot with my injury because he's been through it--losing a body part--and he'd helped me cope with my injury." Now, as far as I could tell, St. Pierre has four limbs so what was I missing?
"I lost a finger," he recalls as he raised his left hand to reveal the missing pointer. I must say, if he hadn't mentioned it, I'd have never noticed. It's seamlessly removed. It didn't occur on the ice but rather working for his dad.
"I'm lying on the hospital bed thinking my career is over and it's the end of the world and I start thinking about my buddy, (Beauregard) lost an eye, so life can't be that bad," he says of his close friend.
"Everything worked out. I think it made me enjoy what I do even more. I take pride in what I do. I love the game and I'm going to try and play as long as I can as long as I can play at a high level," says the determined goalie.
If you can't get fired up for this team, you might not have a pulse. The collective character of this team is off the charts. From the front office to the ice and all facets in between, you get the feeling we are in for a special season.
"The guys we have here so far have so much talent. It's a plus for us," says St. Pierre before reverting back to hockey-speak 101. "Hard work will beat talent any time. That's the biggest thing. You still have to work hard all the time.
"My goal is to win a championship. We can only go one game at a time. It's a long season and we'll hit highs and lows but the thing is -- how long do you keep that low? That's were you see the character of a team.
"You can lose one or two in a row -- losing three in a row? That's when you get into trouble. As soon as you lose a couple, you've got to come back strong," says the easygoing goalie with 23 shutouts on his résumé during the past four seasons.
Besides the trio above, the new-look Oilers will be bolstered by two, new key players.
"We made a trade with New Mexico (last season) and brought in two All-Stars. Rob Guinn and Lance Herauf," says MacIntyre.
"Guinn is a veteran defenseman and will be leading our (backline). He played in the (Central League) All-Star game last year. Herauf was a rookie last year. I think he finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting for the league. He had a point a game as a rookie and played in the All-Star game as well," MacIntyre added.
New players, same arena and a healthy owner. Jeff Lund was back to work six weeks after successful prostrate cancer surgery, he continues to do well.
"This year, obviously, we want to build good habits," Kaebel says. "Drive to the net. We want to have good, quick transition. We want our defense to be able to jump up in the play.
"Guinn is a great passer. He's heads-up. He's a vet. He's going to move the puck quick for us. He's got great vision. We want to have great transition along with puck possession and play very strong. If you look at all the championship teams -- it's about defense.
"We're going to have great defensive zone coverage. Our goaltending is strong, very strong. Those one-goal games that we lost last year--this year, we're going to win," says the coach.
I don't usually hang on every word coaches say (sorry coaches) but this year the timbre is different. A year ago, Kaebel gave a solid preview to the season but it lacked spark, passion and believability. This year, I get the feeling I could garner some ice time and the team would still prevail. Well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement.
How about a prediction coach?
"We win and win big. My prediction is this. We're going to play to a standard of excellence every night, through the season, that's going to carry us. We want to peak in the playoffs. That gives you an opportunity to win a championship," says Kaebel.
Still looking for tickets? They are selling like deep fried foods and turkey legs on the Midway. Either visit HYPERLINK "http://www.tulsaoilers.com"; www.tulsaoilers.com or call 632-7825 for ticketing information. Great deals are available for season packages.
The puck drops on the season October 19 in Amarillo. The first home game takes place Friday, November 2 at 7:35 against the Oklahoma City Blazers.
Normally, in hockey, the "C" refers to Captain. This year, this team, the final year in the ol' Convention Center, the "C" means Championship.
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