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Gateway to the Cup? Oilers’ core growing up in Edmonton

Forgive us for blushing a bit here in Edmonton, but having players coming from around the hockey world to sign long-term deals and raise families is not something we’re used to.

EDMONTON — Zach Hyman and his wife weren’t just looking for a team to play for, or a city to live in.

A lawyer and a hockey player/author, you can appreciate it wasn’t just about the money. It was about finding a city where they could put down some roots, raise a family, and win a Stanley Cup — put those in whichever order you please.

What the Hyman family required, when the Toronto Maple Leafs' cap situation forced them out on the open market, was a roster full of like-minded people, in a city that squared with their values as parents and people.

“That’s the reason that I signed here,” began Hyman on Thursday, before a Friday night game that is expected to be his pre-season debut. “The core group wanted to be here, wanted to stay here, and I feel like when I signed here I joined that group. Then we got Kaner (Evander Kane) to come and join, and now we got Soupy (Jack Campbell) coming to join. You have guys who are really great players wanting to be here.”

This is the story of a hockey team that’s finally grown up, from a bunch of kids spending their nights at the bar to a group of couples with kids and dogs, hanging around the park.

From The Pint to the playground.

“A lot of guys aren't necessarily from Edmonton, right? They’re from Toronto and Vancouver, the U.S. or Europe,” said Hyman, whose second son (Bennett) was born this past summer. “So the girls (wives and girlfriends) are hanging out all the time the kids play together. Like yesterday: My wife went over to Tyson (Barrie’s) with the Nurses, and the three boys went and played around together and right. Just doing normal kid stuff.

“So we’re very much normal people away from the rink. Going to the park with the little guy. Go to the coffee shop, go to the rink. It’s just a great city to be a part of.”

Forgive us for blushing a bit here in Edmonton, but having players coming from around the hockey world to sign long-term deals and raise families is not something we’re used to.

It’s Edmonton, after all. Doesn’t that list come out every year that has us at the top of the “Cities Players Least Like To Play In” next to Winnipeg and Buffalo?

Hyman laughs.

“Duncan (Keith) really helped that last year coming in. I mean, the guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, waiving his no-move clause? He wanted to play in Edmonton. Then when you have success, that also fosters (the feeling) that Edmonton isn’t a bad place to play.

“It’s a fun town, a fun arena. You know, it’s a family city,” he said. “That’s what I told Soup. He’s engaged, and they’re going to start a family, hopefully. He signed here for five years. So he’s in for the long term.”

It’s been forever since we’ve tripped over players’ kids in the post-practice dressing room. Like, Josh Manson forever.

Mike Smith had a brood, but he’s gone now. In a couple of years, they’ll need a bigger Family Lounge at Rogers Place.

It’s a nice story, sure. But how does translate to the ice, you ask?

We asked Hyman.

“When you establish a core group of guys, you sign them long-term, and they know they're going to be there together,. it just provides stability to the group. Knowing that you’ve got guys who really enjoy playing with each other, who like each other, that builds an environment that is, hopefully, inclusive and positive. That reinforces the young guys to do things the right way, and helps foster and grow them. I think you see that on our team.”

Not very long ago, this was a dressing room that you never would have dropped Kane into. Today, he has a four-year deal in his pocket, he is a home owner in Edmonton, and so far, the owner of a squeaky clean record off the ice.

The Oilers have built a culture that can handle a little stress. It wasn’t like that here before.

“When a player comes into a team we take them at face value. We don’t take the past, and the things that have happened into account,” Hyman explains. “We welcome them in, and he’s just he's been just another normal guy on the team

“Evander coming in adds another type of swagger to it, I would say. Especially on the ice.”

Stuart Skinner grew up on Edmonton’s southside, but he rented a house in the west end to be closer to the guys. The Hymans are building. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins recently built. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse — they’re all invested.

“It makes you want to win with the guys because you’re not just teammates and co-workers. (They're) your best buds right?” Hyman said. “Everybody lives close to each other. Everybody hangs out.”

Speaking of winning, there is a vibe here in Edmonton that it’s no longer about being a playoff team or winning a round. It’s about winning a Cup.

What’s it like among Hyman’s crowd? Do the same expectations exist?

“I think it's fair to say that,” he said. “But I think it’s also fair to say that you’ve got to earn it every day. We know that the Final Four teams from two years ago, the teams that were in the conference finals, three of them didn’t make playoffs (last year), right?

“We’re very much aware that we’re a really good team, that we still have another level and we have another step. Seeing Colorado, it’s not like you go from the bottom of the hill to the top. You’ve got to build to it.”

Brick by brick. That’s how it gets built.

And for once, that includes what’s being built away from the rink in Edmonton.

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