Nichols, fans keep Edmonton from losing its lifeblood

As Edmonton and Carolina square off in the Stanley Cup finals, ESPN.com takes a look at the front offices of the two teams, front offices that, in their own ways, saved the franchises. Last week, we looked at Peter Karmanos and the Canes. As the series has shifted to Edmonton, we check out the Oilers.

EDMONTON, Alberta -- For the Edmonton Oilers and their legions of fans, there is a dream-like quality when discussing what might have been. Like those who survive a terrible car accident or any near-death experience, it's the head-shaking kind of thing often accompanied by an involuntary shudder.

Oilers GM Kevin Lowe recalled getting calls from reporters and friends back in Edmonton in the mid-1990s, asking for his thoughts on what seemed to be the Oilers' imminent demise.

"It was really difficult for me. Even though I was in New York, was playing on a different team, it tugged on my heart strings because of the possibility of the Oilers not being in Edmonton," Lowe said. "And I was thinking at the time that I'm never going to have the opportunity perhaps to bring my kids, because they were young at the time, to Edmonton to see where I played and where we won some Cups. So I think that's well behind us now, and I know my kids, who are a little older now, are enjoying this run like the next-generation Oilers' fans."

Just as those who've come close to losing everything hug their partners and children a little tighter, so too have the fans embraced this team. And it seems fitting that it was a fan who sparked the Oilers' survival.

Technically, Cam Nichols is the chairman of the board. In more practical terms, he is the man who saved the Edmonton Oilers and with it, who knows, maybe a city. Certainly, a city's identity. Because, really, what is Edmonton without the Oilers?

There are other community-based pro teams. The Green Bay Packers are often mentioned in comparison. And other teams have large ownership groups, like the Seattle SuperSonics. The San Francisco Giants appeared headed out of town before local ownership came in and turned the team around.

"But Edmonton is a kind of a special situation because it's a very small market," said sports investment banker Sal Galatioto. "It's also a market where 99 percent of the population is hockey fans, so it magnifies the market. No one would really think of Edmonton if it weren't for hockey. What they did is something you probably couldn't do in a lot of other places.

"They've let the hockey people run the hockey end of the business," he added. "They run the team extremely professionally. What's better than that in terms of civic pride?"

In the windows of small, working-class houses, placards encouraging the Oilers are as common as curtains. Murals with playoff themes adorn the windows of downtown banks and other business. On game days, workers are encouraged to wear their Oilers jerseys to offices. Across from Rexall Place, a giant ad is painted across a building featuring five Stanley Cup rings and the tagline: "And now for the other hand." Below it, someone simply spray painted "Go Oil."

"It's been a long time coming," Nichols said. "It's just been so much fun for everybody. For me, that's the payoff."

In many ways, all of it has been a long time coming. This spring, this team, the feeling of finally being able to come into this building and not wonder how long it might last or when time was going to run out.

"From the get-go, it was high-risk. You kept asking yourself, 'Is there ever going to be a future here?'" Nichols said.

A native of Paradise Hill, Saskatchewan, Nichols made his name in the petroleum industry. After moving to Edmonton, he was a season-ticket holder when former owner Peter Pocklington announced in 1996 the team would need to boost its season-ticket base from 6,200 to 10,000. Nichols got involved and was a key member of the Friends of the Oilers (FOTO), knocking on enough doors to see the season-ticket base jump to about 13,000.

That was a haiku to the War and Peace exercise in which Nichols found himself immersed several years later.

By the late 1990s, Gretzky was long gone. The Canadian dollar was taking a beating, salaries were going through the roof, team revenues were fragile and Pocklington's business empire had hit the skids. As a result, the Oilers were put up for sale in 1997 and Nichols found himself again knocking on doors, this time not looking for people to buy seats but to buy the entire team.

Nichols' challenge -- find $60 million (Canadian) in capital with which to secure an additional $50 million in bank loans to obtain the team and continue its operation in Edmonton.

"It made no sense from an investment perspective," Nichols admitted.

And he made this clear to the friends and associates and business leaders to whom he visited trying to drum up the cash. Instead, he sold these men and women on the idea of investing not in a sports team, but in their community. There was the economic impact of having an NHL team, an estimated $85 million annually at the time; a figure Nichols estimates has doubled. And there was something less tangible but perhaps more important, something about the community's profile or presence or, for want of a better term, its soul.

"This is pure hockey country, which tells you it's in their blood. They're passionate about it," Nichols said. "The risk, or fear, of losing a major asset in the community was just too important not to do."

For a long time, the process stalled between $30 million and $35 million.

Then, Pocklington received an offer from a businessman in Houston in early 1998 to buy the team and move it to Texas. Suddenly, there was urgency.

With the clock ticking, and amid concerns such a large ownership group would be too unwieldy, the Edmonton Investors Group took over the hometown team. The final group of 36 investors is a diverse group, but they have one basic, unifying quality. "They had to start out as hockey fans," Nichols said.

The traditional ownership model is of one single owner or a small group that has the deep pockets with which to fix problems (or not) as they see fit. There is little to connect those people to the folks who buy the tickets.

"We're the opposite of that," Nichols said. "We're a collection of moms and pops. We're just like the rest of the season-ticket holders and advertisers."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged having such a large ownership group presented a much different challenge.

"But I knew we would have to be creative," Bettman told ESPN.com.

The commissioner recalled an Alberta advertising slogan, "made-in-Alberta solutions," and it was something that applied directly to Nichols' group.

"Alberta's a place where hockey matters as much as anywhere in the world," Bettman said.

Manuel Balsa is as representative of the 36 men who bought into Nichols' dream as they come. A native of northwestern Spain, Balsa has spent more than half his life in Canada, having moved to Edmonton in 1975.

A machine shop operator and metals expert, Balsa enjoyed economic success as a result of his connections to the oil industry, and when Nichols came calling in 1998, he believed it was his civic duty.

"I felt it was my obligation to give something back," said Balsa, whose speech still bears the distinctive lilt of his homeland. "It may sound cliché, but it's not all about the money. I could have invested my money in New York or Atlanta."

But this was his home and this was where he would spend his money. Did his bankers and financial advisers think it was a good deal?

Balsa laughed.

"They didn't ask me if I was crazy, they told me I was totally stupid. And I quote," Balsa recalled.

Even after the sale was completed, the rough times didn't end.

In 2000, Oilers icon Glen Sather, the architect of those championship teams, left for New York. He and Nichols had warred over a variety of issues relating to the team and there was a split among the ownership group.

Then, in 2001-02, the ownership group faced a $14 million cash call. "That was agonizing," Nichols recalled.

This spring's run to the Cup finals will go a long way toward paying down the owners' $30 million debt, but by no means will it mean dividend checks for the investors. But it's never really been about dividend checks and profits for them.

The season-ticket base has topped out around 14,000 and it's possible every seat for every home game next season, with the exception of those kept aside by design, will be sold long before training camp begins next September.

"You always dream about winning and you hope you can do it," Nichols said. And so this spring has been the ultimate tonic for Nichols and the rest of the ownership group, the ultimate payback. "I've eaten, drank and lived this thing. The whole idea of running deep into the playoffs and maybe winning it all, it's one incredible rush of excitement."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.