EDMONTON – If Erik Cole proves to be as good a fit on the ice as he already has in the dressing room, the Edmonton Oilers will have found themselves a bargain.
Just days into training camp, Cole not only looks like a match for Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky on the first line, the big winger from Oswego, N.Y., has connected with his new teammates in a way that makes it seem he’s been around forever.
That’s something Joni Pitkanen, the talented but aloof and injury-prone defenceman the Oilers traded to Carolina to get Cole, didn’t manage during an entire season in Edmonton.
That, like Cole’s penchant for scoring big goals and making big hits, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s been good,” said coach Craig MacTavish, who has Cole playing the left side with Horcoff and Hemsky. “It seems like he’s been here a lot longer than a few days.”
Fans at Rexall Place got their first look at Cole since Game 6 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final when the Oilers opened the pre-season with a 4-3 shootout loss to Vancouver on Monday.
The 29-year-old made his debut with Horcoff and Hemsky and responded with a goal and an assist. Equally impressive has been the way the six-foot-two, 205-pound forward has embraced a hockey city that never warmed to Pitkanen.
“I’m just trying to fit in with everybody and get to know everybody as well as I can,” said Cole. “With some of the older guys, it’s obviously a bit easier because we have families and we can get together outside the rink.
“I’d like to make as seamless a transition as possible.”
A veteran of six NHL seasons, Cole is coming off a 22-goal year with the Hurricanes. He scored 29 goals in 2006-07 and 30 in 2005-06, when he returned from a broken neck in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final to help Carolina beat the Oilers in seven games.
Cole went house-hunting in Edmonton right after the July 1 trade. Wife Emily and children Bella and Landon are already settled. The kids are in school and dad’s occupying the dressing room stall next to captain Ethan Moreau.
“I wanted to have all my things in order,” said Cole. “When you’re comfortable off the ice and everything is in order, it’s very easy to come to the rink every day and enjoy yourself and the guys. When that happens, things transfer well onto the ice.”
Heavily involved in charity work through his Dream Big Foundation, which promotes everything from youth hockey to library and hospital expansion in Oswego, Cole has attended several team functions and charity events in Edmonton.
“He brings a lot of intangibles to our team,” said Fernando Pisani. “Not only is he a great player, he brings a lot of leadership qualities.
“We’ve always been a team that’s close. He’s going to fit in well with that because he wants to be here. He wants to be part of the team and a part of the city.”
With one year remaining on a three-year contract that pays US$4 million this season, Cole is comfortable in a city where the Oilers are the big ticket – a contrast to Raleigh-Durham, where college basketball and NASCAR rule the sports pages.
“I don’t think it matters what NHL city you’re playing in, the organization and fans want to see you involved in the community,” said Cole, who purchased a suite in Carolina with teammate Eric Staal so inner-city kids could attend games.
“A lot of guys get out in the community and give back as much as they can. I’m no different.”
With Cole fully recovered from his frightening neck injury of three seasons ago – he was sent head-first into the boards by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik – hopes are high he’ll be a big piece of the puzzle that puts the Oilers back in the playoffs after two years out.
“It’s a pretty good spot on the left side there,” MacTavish said. “I don’t think he’s going to come to me and say he wants to play the right side. I’d be surprised if he did.
“He’s really motivated to make that work. Conceivably, he’ll be really good there. We’ll see how it all fits.”