BY COREY ERDMAN
In 2008, the sports world marveled at the New York Giants, winning 11 consecutive road games, coining them the ‘ultimate underdog.’
But what if they didn’t have a home stadium at all? Or a $110 million payroll? And what if Tom Coughlin’s office was in the laundry room beneath the bleachers?
Such was the fate of the Tulsa Oilers during the 1983-1984 season.
Despite a rabid fan following, Oilers ownership was unable to sustain the team. By February 1984, the ownership group had disintegrated, leaving the team in the hands of the Central League. The Oilers were bankrupt, which also voided the lease on their home rink, the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Pavilion.
“I don’t know if (ownership) just left town, or what,” said former NHLer John Vanbiesbrouck, the Tulsa netminder in 1983-84. “As a young player, you’re not really aware of ownership issues. All I knew was that if the team folded, we all had to go somewhere. The Rangers asked all of us where we wanted to go, and of course we all answered ‘New York.’ But, they suggested I go back to my junior team, instead.”
One of the calming influences on the Tulsa roster was defenseman Bill Baker, a member of the Miracle on Ice 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Baker was winding down his career, planning on returning to the University of Minnesota for a degree in dentistry – one he eventually earned.
“That’s the kind of strange, typical thing you encounter when you’re in the minor leagues,” Baker said. “I was never one to panic – I was never flashy, either. I always liked to lead by example. I guess in the (dressing) room I’d be vocal, trying to be a positive influence on the younger players.”
A meeting was set for February 14th, which included commissioner Bud Poile and current Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher. A dispersal draft was discussed, but Tulsa coach Tom Webster and New York GM Craig Patrick negotiated an agreement calling for the CHL and the Rangers to split the cost of keeping the team alive. Oilers players moved into a Residence Inn in Denver and the team began to practise at the University of Denver.
“(Ownership) was at one point arguing over a hundred dollars – whether to stop in three cities, or for an extra hundred dollars, to fly direct,” recalled Webster of the crisis. “But the situation ended up being better for us in Denver, because we all had to stay together. Every other night one of the wives would cook dinner, and so a lot of the single guys actually got some good grub in them.”
The Oilers – who began to be known as the CHL Oilers – fed off Webster and veterans such as Robbie Ftorek, who would become captain of the Quebec Nordiques and eventually an NHL coach.
“I learned not to kick a water bottle next to a bench support, because he (Webster) almost broke his foot,” joked Ftorek, when asked what he’d learned from Webster. “He stayed focused on demanding good play, and if you believe in what you’ve got in front of you, you can do wonders.”
Added Baker: “Tom had such an air of maturity about him, always keeping things together instead of letting them fall apart.”
But not everyone’s reaction was positive. While the accommodations at the Residence Inn were top-notch, the facilities at the University of Denver were not. Webster’s ‘office’ was in the laundry room beneath the bleachers. The shower in the Oilers dressing room was little more than a glorified garden hose. And the rink’s Zamboni was numbered 003, leaving Webster to believe that it was “the third one ever made.”
To top it all off, Colorado Flames fans were none too happy with the vagabond Oilers invading their territory.
When ice time wasn’t available at the university, the Oilers practised at a rink in a local shopping mall. Mall rules prohibited the use of pucks, so Coach Webster would use Nerf balls. “Webster really went the extra mile with myself and Ron Scott (the Oilers’ backup),” Vanbiesbrouck said. “He knew we were two young goalies that needed a lot of work, by whatever means necessary – he’d use tennis racquets or shoot tennis balls in the parking lot.”
The Oilers finished their season with a six-week road trip. In true storybook style, they won nearly every one of those games by the skin of their teeth, finishing the season dead-last in goals-for, but first in goals-against. Vanbiesbrouck took home the league’s Most Valuable Player award, as well as the Terry Sawchuck award for top goaltender.
Dave Barr and George McPhee provided most of the offense, while Bill Baker’s no-nonsense style rubbed off on young roommate Grant Ledyard, who was out to prove a point to himself and the Rangers during the playoffs.
“I kind of had to make a leap,” Ledyard said, “I had never thought of hockey as a way to make a living before.”
The Oilers beat the Salt Lake Eagles in a five-game semi-final series, riding the momentum of a Cam Connor fight with Eagles hot prospect Gerald Diduck.
“Boy, did (Connor) ever do a number on him,” recalled Baker.
The Oilers then played the Indianapolis Checkers in what turned out to be a short, unceremonious end to the season – a victorious four game sweep with all four games in Indianapolis, of course. Ledyard was named series MVP, launching a career that would see him play more than 1,000 NHL games.
“I remember being stunned that I was even considered for MVP,” Ledyard said. “But they brought out this trophy and this thing was as tall as I was. It was the biggest trophy I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t seen it since. I know I didn’t carry it out of there, because I couldn’t – it took two people to carry the darn thing!”
And then it was over.
“Can you imagine that? We won a championship in a practice facility in Indianapolis, in front of maybe 500 people,” Webster said.
“It was a magical season. We set out to prove that you didn’t need a home rink to win a championship, and we did it.”
Corey Erdman is a Ontario-based freelancer writer and cover the Blackhawks for THN.com in his blog.