By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
SELLOUT: On a historic fan appreciation night in Tulsa March 31, the Tulsa Oilers saw a sellout crowd of 16,759 at the BOK Center, the second highest-attended game in ECHL history. The Oilers lost the game to Wichita, 4-1. Tulsa drew excellent crowds all season, averaging nearly 7,000 fans a game.
Courtesy Tulsa Oilers
This is a classic tale of two seasons. For the Tulsa Oilers, it was the best of times and the worst of times.
The saw coach Jason Christie put together perhaps the league’s best team when the 2016-17 campaign began in October. By April, the Oilers were sixth from the bottom, losing 12 of their final 13 games.
“When we started out, we had a lot of talent here. We were probably the team to beat,’’ reflected long-time season ticket holder John Horton.
“We had high expectations coming into the season. They had us believing we would be wearing championship rings in October,’’ added veteran fan Victor Reynolds.
“From the beginning of the season until December, we played damn good hockey. We were in first place most of the time,’’ chimed in season-ticket holder Kevin Kittell.
Many of the franchise followers pointed toward the Manitoba Moose scooping up the Oilers’ talent and giving back little in return. Ace scorer Dan DeSalvo departed in November and became an offensive mainstay in the . Emerson Clark, Kale Kessy and Phil Brewer went up and down and goalie Jamie Phillips was called up in January after starting in the All-Star Game.
Injuries to key players, such as goal scorer Adam Pleskach missing 22 games, proved disastrous. The personnel revolving door wreaked havoc on the morale of both the team and fans alike. The major loss was that of Phillips, a rookie who won his first 10 games and finished 19-10-2 with the Oilers. After he departed, Tulsa sank to 4-21-4 and limped across the finish line.
“This was by far the worst season (I’ve had) all around,’’ said Christie, the ’s winningest coach, who arrived in Tulsa with glowing credentials in 2015. “We lost key pieces and then not having guys step up, that hurts you a lot in focus and consistency.
“Some guys were put in bigger roles that were hard to sustain. Anytime you lose your No. 1 (goalie) it hurts you. I think losing Phillips, Clark and Kessy, guys who were a big piece of the puzzle, hurt because they gave us the opportunity to win every game.
“I take responsibility for that (the goalie problem) and not having a No. 1 to step in when Philly was gone. We were playing catch up, trying to find the right guy.’’
Christie pointed toward a lengthy road trip in January that helped ruin the Oilers’ early-season momentum. It seemed as though the schedule worked against the team with most of the home games coming early and road games later in the year when winning was at a premium.
“We had a great start, then the whole month of January we were using that as a bumper,’’ said Christie, whose team was No. 1 in the league at 15-6-2 on Dec. 6. “It wasn’t as though we were getting our butts handed to us.’’
Tulsa’s offensive production did suffer some during a seven game losing streak and one-goal losses started piling up. In the end, there were simply too many narrow defeats to overcome.
One glaring problem for the Oilers was special teams. The power play unit finished last in the league, and the penalty kill corps was third from the bottom. Christie said maybe he had players on those units that weren’t capable of taking on the role. They didn’t perform up to the level he anticipated. And that was just part of the problem.
“We’ve got to be better on the backend, and we were soft at times,’’ he said. “At times, we were soft throughout our whole lineup. We’ve got to have a couple of older guys who can help out. We’re looking for guys who are a proven factor.’’
Christie said youth was a reason in how the team struggled in the second half of the season. There was no veteran captain like Nathan Lutz there to calm the storm. There was no on-ice presence to take players to task for lackadaisical play.
“We didn’t give up, but we lost our killer instinct,’’ Christie admitted. “There was no one in the room to help us fight through adversity. The guys felt defeated before they went out on the ice.
“You never want to make excuses, and I will stand by what I do. We weren’t getting outplayed in every game. But there was a snowball effect by the time we were pushing Kalamazoo (for the final playoff spot).’’
For the second straight season, the Oilers failed to reach postseason play, and fans were left wondering why teams like Allen keep their core players season after season. The Americans are title contenders every year with stars like Chad Costello and Gary Steffes leading the way.
Christie said Allen has a different salary scale than the Oilers (more to pay its stars?) and older players who are not likely to be called up by its parent franchise. Tulsa’s great young players were ripe for the picking, and it works against the team winning consistently.
It’s a double-edged sword. The entire purpose of the is supposed to be developing players to go up to the and . It’s good for them, but horrible for fans of the minor league team. What’s the answer?
Christie said after two seasons in Tulsa, he’s still trying to build a base of players who will return season and season. He wants to create depth so when a Clark, DeSalvo or Phillips is called up, there will be someone there to replace them. He said Pleskach, Brewer and Dennis Brown enjoy playing in Tulsa and could be the beginning of that base.
In the meantime, there were positives to take away from the 2016-17 season. The Oilers enjoyed their best attendance since joining the and placed third in the league with an average of 6,110 fans a game. Interest in the Oilers continues to rise.
At the end of his two-year contract, Christie said he wants to return next season.
“Tulsa is a great city and a great hockey market. My family loves it here,’’ he said. “And the fans are unbelievable here.’’
All they want is a championship team like the one 25 years ago. They hope winning will become the norm and provide an end to the good, the bad and the ugly they experienced this year. Is that too much to ask?