Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers jersey history

Throughout all of recorded history it is often difficult not to lose valuable context, perspective, and nuance in the years. While the narratives of the history books, or in the NHL’s case the silver skin of the Stanley Cup, might only remember the story of the victors there are other ways to unravel the past. Oftentimes it is through analysing art that we can gain a deeper understanding of a culture, its people, and a greater multitude of perspectives of how things were, of the different opinions and thoughts beyond the list of events that one would understand as history.

In the world of the NHL, or more specifically the Edmonton Oilers, this might be expressed in the form of their uniforms and the changes they have undergone over the seasons. Although the uniforms themselves cannot speak, and might seem to have very little to do with how the Oilers perform on the ice, we might still be able to understand the team’s past, and perhaps even it’s future, through analysis of the uniforms. Let’s take a look at the various eras of Oilers uniforms and what they can tell us about the team. 

1979-96: the glory days

Although there are some frayed edges at the start and end of this era, this is the classic golden age of Oilers hockey. Prior to joining the NHL in the 1979–80 season, the blue was a bit darker, though the bright and bold colours were in full swing for one of the urgent dynasties in NHL history. The immortalization of these teams would cement these uniforms as the definitive Oilers look for many across the hockey world.

The Oilers switched back to the darker shade of blue as the team struggled to maintain its relevance into the ‘90s. The exodus would be symbolic of a long journey before the Oilers would return to the look, and an even longer journey back to perennial contention.

1996–2007: teenage angst

The brand shifted drastically in the 1996–97 season, shifting to copper instead of orange, paired with thin red detailing on a deep navy backdrop. The darker colours were undoubtedly a trend across all North American sports during the mid-90s, but were perhaps symbolic of the Oilers embracing the darkness of a post-Gretzky reality, a grievance. The sands of the hourglass haunted by the ghosts of former glory.

Though the flair of red was eventually dropped, from a narrative sense this grittier mentality helped guide the Oilers to a string of consistent playoff appearances through the late ‘90s and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance as an eighth seed in the 2005–06 season. The spirited run ultimately fell short as the Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes. Just like that the era slammed shut, as once again a star player left Edmonton for Southern California, this time with Chris Pronger joining the Anaheim Ducks.

2007–11: a turn for the worst

Though the Oilers kept their copper and navy colours, the NHL switched to Reebok jerseys prompting a change to the uniform’s striping. It’s not controversial to say that these haven’t aged well, mirroring the decaying state of the on-ice product. The Oilers would fall into a tailspin, leading to a time not so affectionately referred to as the decade of darkness.

Whatever scrappy charm the Oilers had going for their team or their uniforms over the copper and navy era were long gone, faded into the history of years past. 

2011–17 and 2017-22: indecision and whiplash

As the Oilers embraced a full rebuild from a team building perspective, this was once again narratively echoed by the uniform choices. Perhaps indicative of a yearning for better days, the Oilers switched back to royal blue and orange as the team added a number of top draft picks to the roster. Though elite talent brought some excitement to the team, building a contender requires more than a coat of paint.

While the Oilers dressed similarly to the powerhouse teams of the past, they were unable to establish themselves as quickly as fans would’ve liked. The rebuild was anything but seamless, as a rotating cast of mangers and coaches fell short of expectations, leading to years long identity crisis. Though the Oilers had a growing number top tier talents there was still something missing, some soul searching, perhaps.

This may have materialised in the 2015–16 season as the Oilers introduced a sweater similar to the one the once Alberta Oilers would have worn, the colours reversed with orange as the background and royal blue as the detailing. A trip to the second round in 2016–17, and with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl asserting themselves as world class players, the glimpse of success might have been a tempting one to chase.

The Oilers followed suit, switching to orange full time in 2017–18, albeit a less vibrant orange. The on-ice product was continuing to evolve, the Oilers chasing a grittier, less vibrant on-ice approach as well. The Oilers failed to expand upon or even repeat their success of 2016–17, as it wouldn’t be until 2021–22 that the Oilers won another playoff game—keeping in mind the loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round of 2019–20, and a sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets in 2020–21.

Though the Oilers tried a lot of changes over this stretch nothing seemed to bear fruit. The erratic search for answers was evident on the ice, in the front office, and by the very fabric of the Oilers uniforms. The two-toned, dark blue and orange uniform was introduced in the 2019–20 season, splitting time with the base orange jerseys as co-leads.

Through all the changes off and on the ice, the Oilers slowly kept climbing towards a more sustained excellence, something that had eluded them for decades. It wasn’t until the 2021–22 season that the Oilers would qualify for the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the first time since 200–01.

2022–present: return to glory? A promise

Although it is only a season into this new era of Oilers uniforms, it must be appreciated just how momentous it is for the Oilers to be at this point. Fans are disappointed the team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup with McDavid and Draisaitl, yet the Oilers have won playoff series in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1997–98 season.

Heading into last season there were still questions if a 2021–22 run to the Western Conference Finals, or the turnaround authored by Coach Jay Woodcroft were but another mirage like playoff runs in 2005–06 or 2016–17. More than 30 years since Wayne Gretzky was traded, the Oilers have finally returned to the status of perennial contenders.

In lockstep, the Oilers returned to their classic look once more. Through the years a number of changes to the look of their uniforms have loosely coincided with the state of the Oilers roster, and it’s hard not to see the team’s current mixture of individual and team excellence as reminiscent of the ‘80s teams.

Time will tell if the future holds any Stanley Cup victories for the Oilers, but we can start to see a glimpse of the future as both McDavid and Draisaitl approach unrestricted free agency. With McDavid’s former agent Jeff Jackson taking helm as the new President of Hockey Operations the team has clearly stated its intentions to maintain their current course, a team all in on the here and now built around a pair of MVP talents.

This should be somewhat reassuring based on what happened in the ‘80s, as well as the fact that GM Ken Holland is going into the last season of his contract. It is widely believed that Holland will move on after a long and successful career as a GM, leaving the Oilers in good shape for his predecessor. Having Jackson, a President above any prospective new hire at the GM position allows the Oilers a chance to build off the success they have enjoyed in recent years, as well as maintaining a strong relationship with McDavid. We could see Holland accept some sort of advisory position to help maintain the stability of this succession.

A new GM would be well insulated for success in such a role, but having Jackson and Holland in their corner would ease the burden of experience and a relationship with McDavid on this new position. As the Oilers start to invest more heavily into areas such as sports science and analytics, the Oilers might prioritise a GM with expertise in these areas, perhaps diversifying the strengths of the front office as a whole. Though for now the Oilers look similar to past versions of themselves, the hope is that some of the missteps of the past have been learned from, including a front office often criticised for being too homogenous in aptitude and opinion.

With the Adidas contract as the NHLs uniform provider ending, and Fanatics taking over in 2024–25, there is some uncertainty of what exactly this future will look like. Things are far from perfect, but the Oilers appear to be headed in a positive direction, which is as much as we can ask for.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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