Oilers expect assist from raucous fans in Game 3 of Western Final

EDMONTON — Bob Nicholson and Ken Holland were driving in from Edmonton International Airport on Friday when they saw a symbol that brightened their collective mood.

Nicholson, the chairman of the Edmonton Oilers, and Holland, the team’s general manager, were returning from Denver where the Colorado Avalanche had taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference Final.

As they approached the Walterdale Bridge leading into downtown they were greeted by the large orange “PLAY LA BAMBA BABY” sign that appeared two weeks ago. “La Bamba” is the song played after each Oilers victory at Rogers Place and was the favorite tune of Joey Moss, the longtime Oilers locker room attendant who died in 2020.

“Kenny and I started talking about the vibe in the city, the excitement, the anticipation, how it’s off the charts,” Nicholson said. “It’s going to be so great. It was already crazy during our win over the [Calgary Flames] in the Battle of Alberta in the last round, and this is going to be upped to another level.

“These fans have been waiting a long time for this. It’s going to be crazy.”

For the first time since 2006 the Oilers will host a conference final game when they meet the Avalanche in Game 3 at Rogers Place (8 pm ET; TNT, CBC, SN, TVAS) Saturday. It’s a 16-year drought that Edmonton players said will end with their rabid supporters being at their most vocal.

“We love playing at home,” forward Leon Draisaitl said. “We love playing in front of our crowd. I think we have the best fans in the League, and it’s going to be loud. It’s going to be exciting.

“So we have to make sure we use that to our advantage and make sure that it’s in our favor.”

The party won’t be limited to inside the arena, which opened in 2016. Thousands of fans will be outside at the fan area known as the Ice District, part of a $2.5 billion mixed-use project in the heart of Edmonton spearheaded by Oilers owner Daryl Katz.

“We still have a long way to go but this was Daryl’s vision, to inject life into the downtown area and bring people together,” Nicholson said.

It already has.

The area’s 50,000-square-foot public square has hosted more than 30,000 people to date from the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as part of the Ford Tailgate Party. Crowds at the event have swelled to more than 6,000 for home games, and 3,000 when the Oilers are on the road.

There will be a special addition this time around.

Workers spent part of Friday there constructing the set for the TNT panel, which will feature Wayne Gretzky. The 61-year-old, who is the NHL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,857 points (894 goals, 1,963 assists), spent his first nine seasons with the Oilers and helped Edmonton win the Stanley Cup four times. Saturday he’ll be sitting on a set across the street from the front doors of Rogers Place where a statue stands of Gretzky hoisting the Cup.

“I mean, you think of how stoked all those people will be, and then you add the presence of the Great One,” Nicholson said. “That will make it even more nuts.

“Who knows what people will come up with?”

How about a pizza named after Connor McDavid?

A couple of blocks west of the Ice District and Rogers Arena is Campio Brewing Co. One of the most popular items on the menu there is the Big MacDavid, a pizza named in honor of the Oilers captain that also pays tribute to McDonalds’ Big Mac by featuring seasoned ground chuck, cheddar cheese, diced onion, chopped pickles, iceberg lettuce, sesame seeds and “secret sauce.”

“I don’t know if Connor has ever eaten one officially but we’ve seen video clips from behind the scenes in the dressing room with a bunch of Campio pizza boxes,” chef William Griffiths said. “Maybe he already has.”

Griffiths said the Big MacDavid is one of the establishment’s most popular food items and will continue that way the further the Oilers go. He isn’t the only one with a vested interest in the team’s success.

For Nicholson, it’s the perfect storm. At home game. Saturday night. “Hockey Night in Canada.” The lone Canadian team in the NHL’s Final Four. And a community thirsting for a victory.

“We’re all part of it, the entire city is part of it,” Nicholson said. “It’s going to be a special night.”

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