POSTED ON NOVEMBER 18, 2009:
The New Ice Age
Winter sports teams hope to take their games up a notch and into spring playoffs this season
Seeking Balance. Past Oilers squads relied on a scorer or two to carry the team. This year minor details such as passing and positioning are getting more attention. The skill level from players one through 20 is more noticeable.
What impact does a brand, spanking new, National Hockey League caliber arena have on a proud professional sports franchise whose tradition dates back to the days before the slap shot was invented?
Last year, the BOK Center cast an enormous shadow over much of T-Town, let alone the Tulsa Oilers. Entertainment acts packed the arena, playing to a city starved for big-time entertainment. Early on it was unclear whether tickets were being sold for the musical guests or the newness of the arena.
But, the results continue to amaze. The BOK Center ranked fifth nationally in a recent report from Pollstar. The stats compiled ticket sales through the third quarter in the United States.
That's the good news. And it made for a great opening night last season when the Oilers virtually packed the BOK with fans. The 2008-09 ticketing campaign focused on the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory of the city's iconic new arena.
"With new stadiums, it's a novelty for the public for a couple years. We hope to bring people to the seats and that makes it much more special for the players to know they have people rooting for them," said centerman Dallas Steward who played with the Oilers five years ago in the old Convention Center days.
You simply could not discuss Oilers hockey last season without mentioning the new arena. Front office, players and fans were enamored with our shiny new toy.
Then again, you have to sell the positives. For all the talk of speed and grit a season ago, the team plodded along sans intensity for much of the year.
Even a packed house of 16,000 screaming fans can't guarantee a win.
"If you're not winning games, then sure, (the organization) is going to take a positive light and that is the arena. If you're winning games then all of a sudden there are 12, 14, 15, 16 thousand people in the stands who are watching winning hockey and exciting hockey," explained defenseman Tyler Butler who is a player/coach.
Standard previews coincide with the start of the season. There is nothing standard here. This year we decided to take in a few games to gauge the product. The new intensity is palpable.
The preview for this year's team actually took place months ago when Bruce Ramsay stepped in as the new head coach. For the past three seasons he led the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League.
Ramsay's hiring is something of a departure from previous coaching choices. The front office had traditionally gone with a popular player who had strong ties to the city, the team and Central League play. Ramsey played one season with the CHL's Wichita Thunder and has no direct ties to the Oilers in the past.
"I want players that play with passion and will sacrifice for the betterment of the hockey team," Ramsay said. "We need guys that are going to care about each other. Every game they play, they are going to leave it on the ice."
Several of the players are familiar with our new coach.
"I played with 'Rammer' last year with Muskegon," said starting goalie Kevin Armstrong. "From what I know, he always puts together a good team. He's got a winning record."
The term "player's coach" is overused. However, you get the feeling it applies in this case.
"He has faith in his guys and I know he can put together a good team here," Armstrong said. "I know it's a new league for him, but he's succeeded at every other level and I know he'll do well again."
Armstrong backstopped a Muskegon run to the finals last year. And what bodes well is he is not the only Lumberjack to find a new home with the Oilers in the off-season.
This speaks volumes of the coach's impact on their games. It also says a lot about the Tulsa Oilers' hockey reputation.
Puck Puck Goose
Talk is cheap. We've heard these same hockey terms regurgitated over the years. A losing season followed by a roster shake-up has been the norm.
The team started 3-9 last season. Bone-headed penalties, arguing with referees and being out-skated on a nightly basis were their signature traits.
This season is off to a completely different start. The Oilers dug a hole for themselves during the first game of the year by going down 2-0 on the road. Last year's team would have folded like an ill-advised burger joint in Owasso.
This season, the team rallied behind Rob Hisey's opening game natural hat trick. They snatched a 6-3 victory from the jaws of defeat against Mississippi. No panic, no quit.
"We've got an excellent group of leaders," Butler said. "Guys who have been there and seen it all. Down 2-0 in the first period of your first game, if you panic, that's when you lose your game. Then it's a tailspin after that. Everyone just kept their head, and we got a big goal from Hisey and things shot from there."
The home opener spoke volumes about the attitude and demeanor of the team. A year ago the arena was center stage. An awkward ceremonial puck drop by Mayor Kathy Taylor brought sizzle to the festivities of opening night last year.
This year, the team entered the building with a record of 1-1 after dropping a hard fought game the night before on the road to Wichita. Dozens of fighting majors were handed out in a 5-1 loss for the Oilers.
Instead of coming out swinging away with revengeful intentions, the team out-skated, out-hustled and out-played the overmatched visitors. "Who is number 26?" asked many fans in attendance.
Number 26 is Canadian-born Rob Hisey. Get used to hearing his name. Aside from his first-game hat trick, he also scored an NHL-caliber highlight-reel goal in the early season. (Check online under the story for a link.)
Did we mention he leads the CHL in scoring? He slices through defensemen like Barry Sanders used to abuse linebackers.
Hisey played in Germany the past five seasons. A chance encounter in Canada this summer led to Coach Ramsay acquiring the gifted scorer. They worked together briefly about five years ago.
"He is an elite-skilled centerman that has put up amazing numbers where ever he has played," Coach Ramsay said. "He is still only 25 years old. I expect him to be one of the top centermen in the league."
So far the prediction has been as accurate as a Brett Hull slap shot.
His between the legs goal might just be the tip of the iceberg.
"It is a spur of the moment thing. I had the goalie at the other side of the net," Hisey said. "I tried to bring the puck to the back side. I mean its part of my game. I consider myself a skilled player. Every once in a while, hopefully, I will score a couple of nice ones."
Unlike previous seasons, he's not alone. Past Oilers squads relied on a scorer or two to carry the team. Mixing one or two highly skilled players with a dozen or so average skaters is hard to watch.
Sloppy passes followed by looks of disbelief do not encourage a positive outcome.
This year minor details such as passing and positioning are getting more attention. The skill level from players one through 20 is more noticeable.
Words cannot bring justice to the product. Crisp passing, phenomenal puck cycling and solid defensive zone coverage are truly a sight for sore hockey eyes.
You need another reason to cheer for the Oilers? Besides the home team aspect? How about the underdog angle?
It's been a long seven years since the organization charged into the playoffs. That makes Tulsa the underdog. So does the size of several guys on the team.
Eight players are listed standing 5'10" or shorter. Does size matter in hockey? Absolutely, the size of their heart and determination. Go ahead and tell these guys they cannot compete with the big boys.
"We've got a few small guys. Marty Standish, Alec Kirschner, Tom Maldonado," said Steward who stand 5'6". Do opponents overlook guys smallish in stature?
"You hope they (do) because that gives me an edge. On the other hand, it's something that you get used to as a young kid when you know you are done growing at age 15," he laughed.
Even the scoring leader, Hisey, stands only 5'9". Long-time Oilers adversary Standish is another powerful force who makes up for his 5'7" size in other ways.
"He's an antagonist. Tulsa Oilers fans hated him for years but now are going to love him," Coach Ramsay said of the former Oklahoma City Blazer. "He works hard every night and never gives up. He's got that in-your-face attitude."
Having played with the Blazers for eight years, he is familiar with T-Town hockey. Old school fans know his game but for new hockey converts, here is his take.
"I like to be in the goalie's face trying to get him off his game," he grinned. "It sometimes gets me into trouble with the other team."
Several intangibles go into building a winning nucleus in team sports. Football, basketball and hockey all have their franchise stars, but the winning teams rely on intangible team chemistry as a prerequisite.
How then can a team, such as the Oilers, have such a massive roster turnover but still come together so quickly? Only three players return from last year's squad: Mike Beausoleil, R.J. Linder and Jake Riddle.
"It starts early in the summer with recruiting," Coach Ramsay said. The process goes back to their intense training camp. Finding the right players for the right roles at the right price poses a challenge.
"Selfishness is not a word that I want to have in my vocabulary," Coach said in no uncertain times. "If the players are going to come here and expect to be about themselves they are most likely going to find they will not be here very long."
Minus a mid-season trade or two, the team is built. Having them bond is the next step. Playing hard for individual goals is one thing. Playing with a passion because you do not want to let your teammate down is another.
Several of the players credit early season bus rides with building camaraderie. Skating with linemates during practice certainly improves timing and anticipation. However, learning their personal traits can be invaluable.
The initial road contest began with a seven-hour bus ride down to Mississippi. You can't help but get to know somebody better if you're stuck with them on a bus for that long. Cards, movies and shenanigans ensued, but so does winning chemistry.
There is one more common bond: bringing a winning product back to Tulsa.
"The last four or five years have not been the greatest here," said player/coach Butler. "We brought in a complete fresh group. There is no lingering attitude toward last year. It's a whole new fresh attitude.
"The guys who were here are onboard all ready and have been onboard since day one. We're excited to have a whole new group of guys. It's a first-class rink and organization.
"There are a whole bunch of people in the city who want to cheer for a winning hockey team, and that's what we're going to give them," he continued.
The season is early, but the start is solid. Can they keep the momentum moving forward?
The early results are promising on the ice. But, if skilled hockey is not your cup of tea, there is still the semi-new, semi-shiny downtown arena.
"The building is beautiful" Coach Ramsay said. "I just can't wait to get behind the bench and have the opportunity to coach the team and play in front of a big crowd in a beautiful rink. Basically, it's an NHL arena at the minor league level."
Visit TulsaOilers.com for schedule and ticket information.
Much like the Oilers, the Tulsa 66ers have had a difficult time winning lately, in spite of a first rate front office and quality players. The franchise relocated from Ashville, NC to Tulsa in 2005 and began play at a newly renovated Fairgrounds Pavilion.
With only one winning season since arriving in town, they have yet to make league playoffs. But with recent changes, hoops spring eternal.
In May, the Oklahoma City Thunder named Nate Tibbetts Head Coach of their NBA Development League affiliate. Tibbetts coached the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the D-League the past two seasons, making the playoffs once.
"We feel that in adding Nate, we are bringing someone on board that possesses a commitment to the development of our players in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City," said Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti.
Tibbetts spent most of the summer in Oklahoma City working with the Thunder. His ability to mold young players landed him with the 66ers. He is charged with honing the skills of allocated players, and getting 'em ready for the NBA.
Here is a quick glance at several players looking to make an impact on the newly installed hardwood floor at the Tulsa Convention Center. That's right. So long Bixby, we'll miss the beautiful SpiritBank Arena, but we like our local teams closer to home (again).
Local favorite Moses Ehambe played his colligate ball down the street at Oral Roberts. Last year, he averaged 10.1 points and 1.7 rebounds per game with the 66ers.
He was a bright spot on an otherwise mediocre team. Another returning asset is Keith Clark. He played in 49 of 50 games while averaging 12.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists. Most notably, he wowed fellow ballers with a runner-up finish in the 2009 NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. Boomer Sooner.
A 15-35 campaign leads to revamping. New players and a new coaching staff hope to turn things around. One of the most intriguing additions is first-round draft pick Latavious Williams.
What makes Williams interesting is his previous school. Christian Life Academy in Texas. Yes, our team became the first D-League franchise to draft a player straight out of high school.
Several years ago he would have forgone college and went straight to the NBA. Today, with league rules forbidding the direct leap, he fell into the lap of the 66ers.
Williams narrowed his college choices to Memphis, Georgetown, FIU and Kansas State before deciding to enter the D-League draft.
The 6'8", 205 lbs. forward has springs for legs. He finishes above the rim. His rebounding ability is not limited to the defensive end. He attacks the glass as if the ball belonged to him.
The organization believes in change. They started with the coach and worked their way down to the team colors.
"The color change reflects the ties between our team and the Thunder, as well as their commitment to the Tulsa area," 66ers President Jim Brylewski said. "The new uniforms and team merchandise are a reminder of the close affiliation with our parent club."
Thunder Blue, Thunder Navy, Thunder Yellow and Thunder Red will be incorporated into the new look. Also redesigned is the team's Web site.
Their season tips-off with back-to-back home games on Nov. 27 and 28. Visit the aforementioned new Web site Tulsa66ers.com for ticket information including special deals to see LeBron James battle Kevin Durant down the turnpike.
The 66ers are still searching for the respect the franchise deserves in T-Town. Fans and media treat them like new kids on the block. Winning, and bringing the game back to downtown may create the synergy required.
Then too, it will be interesting to watch the attention and coverage given to the city's WNBA franchise when its season commences next spring.
Yes, It is Official
The Detroit Shock is relocating to Tulsa for the 2010 WNBA season. Thanks to Oklahoma businessmen Bill Cameron and David Box, we have our very own major league professional women's basketball team. Hip, hip.
The organization tabbed Nolan Richardson to lead the girls in a reincarnated version of his famous 60 minutes of hell.
The move would be puzzling in any other city. The Shock's coaching staff seemed capable yet did not receive an invitation for an interview. Richardson has coached many levels and many years, but female basketball is not on his resume.
Given Richardson's time at TU and the need to excite our city, the move makes sense.
One thing's for sure, we are getting a winner. During the Shock's tenure in Detroit, the team appeared in four WNBA Finals, capturing three championships (2003, 2006 and 2008). This past season, the team finished 18-16 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Then again, the 66ers won two championships prior to relocation.
Some details remain murky. Will the Tulsa franchise maintain the name Shock? It is unlikely. However, the organization does not seem rushed to make a decision. A popular choice being bandied about is Tulsa Lightning. Of course, the name being a play on words with the OKC Thunder. Thunder and Lightning. How exciting!
The team picks eight in the WNBA draft by virtue of the Shock's 18-16 finish last year. Will all former Shock players transition to Tulsa?
Visiting the WNBA Web site yields few answers. Most Shock links directed fans to a "Dear John" letter.
The wild foray into woman's pro hoops should be entertaining on many levels. If you are ready to take the plunge, season ticket are available. Visit WNBA.com/Tulsa for more information. Added bonus: You get to see a picture of a happy Nolan surrounded by balloons. Good times.
Sure football season remains on the calendar. There may even be a game of interest. However, unlike recent years, it may be time to turn our attention to teams ready to earn our trust.
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