By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
There will be hockey in Tulsa for Christmas. The ECHL (the Oilers hockey league) and Oilers coach Rob Murray are banking on it.
After a promising finish for the Oilers to the 2019-20 season was wiped out by Covid-19, Murray said his team will take up where it left off when the 20-21 campaign is scheduled to open on Dec. 4.
“We were definitely playing our best hockey of the season. We had found our rhythm,’’ said Murray. “I liked our team. We had consistency. Our team was as strong as it had been all season. I think we would have advanced (over Allen) in the playoffs.
“You never know what could have been. I was excited for sure. There will be a season coming.up and we have to get ready. The time between now and Dec. 4 is like our normal time in the summer (between seasons). We’ve got our affiliations in place and we will be ready to go in December.’’
The Oilers are starting a three-year affiliation with Anaheim of the NHL and San Diego of the AHL when the 69th season of pro hockey in Tulsa begins with the 20-21 slate.
ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin is optimistic all pieces will be in place to open a new 72-game season.
“Our board of governors, along the Professional Hockey Players Association, have approved a start date and we are eager to return to hockey,’’ said Crelin. “We believe this (the starting date) is prudent for the safety of our players, employees and fans. The ECHL is focused on the 20-21 season and optimistic about reopening our venues all across the country.’’
Murray said the delay in play for the Oilers hurt the franchise less financially than others. He said Tulsa lost just three home games after the ECHL suspended play while Toledo lost nine. There is a rumor that some already cash-strapped teams will not return at all. Coronavirus simply exacerbated existing problems.
“When the NBA shutdown and then the NHL, it was the right thing to do,’’ said Murray. “I don’t know how we would have kept going. Some leagues were wanting to play without fans, but our league wouldn’t have survived. The NHL can get by with sponsorships and TV revenue. We don’t have that. We could not put fans in the seats so there was no option but to shut down.
“Starting in December this season won’t hurt hockey. If anything it will make fans and players more excited. It’s a different world now and we’ve got to make the best of it,” he said.
The pandemic has had unforeseen problems for some players. Murray said there have been cases where states closed ice rinks and players, just to get ice time, have actually moved to other states where rinks are open. The coach spent much of the summer on the ice with his son’s team in Virginia. Recruiting was done by phone and through players.
“We’ve signed a lot of guys we haven’t announced. We’ve almost got a full roster,’’ Murray said, adding that as of mid-August, seven or eight players from last season will be there when camp opens on Nov. 20. “The protocols are in place, so it’s just a matter of filling out the roster and getting this team together. I’m very confident with the guys we’ve got coming back.’’
Anaheim and San Diego are expected to provide help and Murray is looking favorably at announced signees Devin Williams, Joey Colatarci and Dino Balsamo. Williams, 24, will enter his fourth season in goal for the Oilers with a 52-32-11 career record in 105 games, a 2.46 GAA and a .914 save percentage. Williams led the ECHL with a 2.12 GAA in the 2018-19 season. He played in two AHL games in 18-19 with San Antonio.
Colatarci and Balsamo are rookie from Adrian College and both are Division. III All-Americas. A 6-2, 170-pound defenseman, Colatarci had 15 goals and 45 assists in 106 games at Adrian. Balsamo, a forward, collected 46 goals and 62 assists in 101 games.
Murray Is also high on 6-foot, 205-pound defenseman Miles Liberati who played in 56 games for Tulsa last season, netting 11 goals and 46 assists. Cory Ward is expected to show up on the Oilers roster along with D-man Nolan Gluchowski. Cord played 34 games for Murray last year and managed seven goals and eight assists. In two seasons at Idaho, Gluchowski piled up 49 points in 79 games.
“As of right now, I know we’re playing and that’s good news,’’ said Murray. “I’m sure there will be mandates on how this will work, but I don’t know of any players (who have Covid-19).’’
By GLENN HIBDON