Edmonton fans make bitter shift from belief to reality

The NHL likes to consider itself one of the big four of North American professional team sports. In some corners of the continent, that may actually be true.

There is one area where the NHL is indeed miles ahead of the competition, and that is the activity surrounding its winter trade deadline.

When the NBA's last call for deals came last week, there were lots of rumors, but in the end, three minor swaps. Major League Baseball has two confusing deadlines (sort of), while the NFL has all but banned interesting horse-trading between franchises.

But if you like trades -- and what sports fan doesn't? -- you should check out the NHL.

Trades that are more reality than idle rumor are an awful lot of fun. They provide endless fuel for fan chatter and debate. They can give a team a new look three-quarters of the way through a long season with the optimism of spring still weeks away in the northern portion of the continent.

Over the years, the NHL deadline has gradually become a major happening, bigger than the June draft. Both of Canada's TV sports networks provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, more than eight hours on the final day, and the newspapers, radio and Web sites virtually crackle with excitement and anticipation. Even the institution of a salary-cap system hasn't changed all this.

There were 25 trades made by last season's deadline. This season, amid warnings that activity was going to be slow, there were another 25.

But before the clock struck midnight (albeit at 3 p.m. ET) Tuesday, there was one deal made in one of the league's smallest markets that rose above the rabble like the sound of a baby's cry in a silent church.

On the surface, it was a deal not unlike others. The Edmonton Oilers, unable to sign veteran left winger Ryan Smyth, opted instead to peddle him to the New York Islanders for two former first-round picks, neither of whom plays in the NHL just yet, and a first-round pick this summer.

No, it wasn't like Mike Ditka trading all of New Orleans' draft picks to land Ricky Williams. But in the conservative hockey world, it was a lot for the Islanders to surrender for a player who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.

But those were just the basics of the deal. The fact that Smyth was a wildly popular player in Edmonton, and a boy from nearby Banff who grew up an Oilers fan, added an emotional layer, as well. The fact it was a swap between two teams that dominated the sport in the 1980s and early 1990s, but haven't done much since, provided some context. But this trade went a lot deeper than that. It was supercharged news in Edmonton, and news of the trade sent a bolt of astonishment across the league.

But why?

Peter Forsberg had been traded earlier in the month. Keith Tkachuk had been moved two days before, and Bill Guerin earlier the same day. That's hockey. Everybody, other than Steve Yzerman, gets traded at one time or another. But it was precisely because it was Smyth and it was the Oilers that this trade had such complexity and evoked such an emotional response locally and such surprise throughout the industry.

It would be an exaggeration to compare the Smyth trade to the day Wayne Gretzky was traded by the Oilers to Los Angeles on Aug. 9, 1988. Gretzky was Gretzky, he had a Hollywood wife, and it was one of those events that left many Canadians, at least, remembering where they were when they heard the news.

But there was a similar sense of disbelief with the Smyth deal. Even with contract negotiations between Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and Smyth's agent, Don Meehan, proving fruitless after months of talks, no one believed Smyth would be traded.

Something would be worked out, even after the deadline. And the player widely known as "Captain Canada," for the many times he suited up for his country, would be retained by the only team he's ever played for.

This, you see, was what the lockout had been all about. This was why the NHL had blown up the entire 2004-05 season and did not award a Stanley Cup for only the second time in league history.

Or at least that's what many believed. They believed somehow it was the inalienable right of every one of the 30 franchises to identify one or more key players and then be able to retain the services of those players. In Edmonton, they really believed that. So they supported the owners' lockout of the NHL Players' Association and even gave NHL commissioner Gary Bettman an ovation when he came to town.

The hardy fans of Edmonton, who witnessed some of the greatest NHL hockey ever played when Gretzky and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri all skated together, wanted to believe there was a way it could all happen again.

Forget that the sport was different. Forget that the world was different. That athletes were different. That even Edmonton was different. You see, the "good old days" in Edmonton were so extraordinary, it would be hard to find a parallel in any sport. The athletes and the team forged an amazing connection with the city, and when they held an outdoor game at the city's football stadium in 2003 and brought back many of those heroes to play in an old-timers' game, they sold the joint out in subzero temperatures.

So all the promises of the "new economic order" captivated the imagination of Edmonton fans, maybe more than fans anywhere else. It would be an even playing field again. The big, dirty cities like New York and Philadelphia and Toronto wouldn't be able to steal all the good Oilers players away, and the self-proclaimed "City of Champions" would be great again.

Right out of the lockout, it seemed that way. Chris Pronger, a former league MVP, was traded to the Oilers because they were willing to pay him a salary St. Louis would not. Another well-known veteran, Michael Peca, followed. As the 2005-06 season progressed, the Oilers gorged on players, picking up goalie Dwayne Roloson, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek and Sergei Samsonov. The team finished eighth, but then ripped through three sets of opposition -- Smyth had some teeth knocked out by an errant Pronger pass in one game, but just kept playing -- to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Sadly, Roloson was hurt and the Oilers lost to the Hurricanes in Game 7.

It was painful, sure; but the basic myth remained alive. The lockout restored harmony and balance in the hockey world, and the Oilers were on top again. Or very close to it. That it would all be so cruelly dashed nine months later has come as a shock.

Pronger and Peca and Spacek and Samsonov have all gone. Smyth, on the other hand, wanted to stay, but he vowed he would not accept a penny less to stay, would not accept a "hometown discount."

The team seemed certain of its intentions. Management told Smyth before the season that it preferred not to talk contract until after the campaign had been completed. But about 60 days ago, that changed, and suddenly Lowe did want to talk money. Smyth was making $3.5 million on a two-year deal, but other, arguably lesser players had signed contracts with other teams in excess of $5 million per season. That seemed to be where Smyth was heading, and the Oilers quickly became worried.

In the days leading up to the trade deadline, the team that once traded away Messier and Gretzky and Coffey began to send out feelers asking clubs what they'd give for Smyth and his battered face, the face of a pure hockey player.

At 20 minutes before the 3 p.m. ET deadline Tuesday, Meehan told Lowe that Smyth had rejected the club's latest offer, but repeated that the veteran didn't view the trade deadline as any kind of negotiation deadline. Lowe, however, felt compelled to act. Lowe must have thought, if the Oilers couldn't sign Smyth now, they'd never be able to sign him as a free agent, particularly after losing the leverage to trade him away.

So Lowe traded him away. Far away.

Cruel reality hit Edmonton hockey fans like a prairie wind on a minus-20 Celsius day. But it was because they had believed so much.

The lockout hadn't changed history and certainly hadn't guaranteed Smyth would stay an Oiler. It had just given franchises a new complicated set of choices. Under a cap system, each player has two sets of value: his value as an athlete, and his value as a cap number.

The Oilers made their choices last summer when, while putting off Smyth, they signed players such as Roloson, Ales Hemsky and Fernando Pisani to rich, new deals. This season, the club was already spending more on its payroll than it had before the lockout; and even with the province awash with oil money, the Oilers themselves still had the same ticket market, the same ownership group of more than 30 owners and the same aging arena.

Maybe Lowe counted on that hometown discount. It sure seems so. But as a player, he left Edmonton for the Big Apple once upon a time, so he couldn't have been shocked when it became clear Smyth had to go, as well.

"He was shocked," Lowe said. "We're all a little shocked. I said, 'Hey, just go. You're a hockey player, man. Play hockey. I was able to do that and come back and maybe one day you can, too.'"

Hours later, the Oilers held a ceremony for Messier, raising his No. 11 to the rafters. Gretzky was there because his Phoenix Coyotes were the opponents. Curtis Joseph, another former Oiler who fled for big money elsewhere, supplied the whitewash as the Coyotes shut out the Smyth-less Oilers 3-0.

It all seemed like an elaborate morality play, but in the end, there was no moral. Just the churn of bodies in a league that has always embraced trades as part of the show.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."