With apologies to novelist John Updike, the dressing room was soggy, the Oilers were exhausted.
None was more fatigued than defenceman Igor Ulanov, slouched at his stall, wearing a towel and a look of weary resignation that the Oilers late-season playoff push had fallen short. "Nice tie," Ulanov said when a visitor approached. "That is happy tie, springtime tie."
That is Ulanov, as open and human in difficult circumstances as he is tough and competitive, but there was, understandably, precious little happiness in the Oilers locker room after the Canucks eliminated them from the playoffs on Saturday night.
"It feels pretty bad," Ulanov said. "You know, all the guys deserve to play in the playoffs, especially the young guys.
"It would be nice for them to get a taste of the playoff games, the atmosphere and all that stuff. But they have a long career ahead of them and I'm sure that the next year will probably be a different year."
That much we know. With the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association set to expire on Sept. 15, the 2004-05 NHL season may not come off at all, which would certainly be different.
It may well be necessary in order to rearrange the economic framework of the NHL so that teams like the Oilers can reasonably expect not merely to make the playoffs, but have a reasonable chance to compete and advance to the later rounds.
The Oilers believed that had they found a way to squeak into the post-season tournament this year, they would have had a good chance to advance, and maybe they would have.
But if that's true, a big reason why would have been Petr Nedved, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe's plum trade deadline acquisition. The rangy centre with the nasty wrist shot jolted the Oilers' moribund power play in the direction of respectability, gave the club a front-rank pivot to assemble a first line around and provided his teammates with a genuine reason to believe in their playoff chances.
He also demonstrated that Lowe was dead right in his apparent assessment that Mike Comrie was not the centre to build a team around. Leaving aside the messy handling of the Comrie salary dispute, you watched Nedved and realized what an elite centre is. The ability gap between the two is significant.
After Nedved's arrival, the Oilers very nearly hauled themselves out of a deep trough that took most of a mediocre season to dig. Had they succeeded, the bad memories would have been erased, or certainly eased.
Nedved, of course, did this at little cost to the Oilers, since the spendthrift New York Rangers were picking up what remained of his $5-million salary, a number the Oilers cannot afford. Still, the Oilers want to keep Nedved, even if Lowe has to get creative about it.
The challenge for the NHL is to find a way for all 30 teams to have a crack at players like Nedved, which, in simple terms, is what the CBA negotiations, if they ever get going, will be all about.
The theory is that by installing a salary cap between $30 million and $40 million US, many teams will have to off-load high-end talent to stay under the cap.
That will lead to talent redistribution, with salaries depressed because it will be, at least initially, a buyers' market.
A luxury tax on the cluster of teams -- Detroit, Colorado and the Rangers spring to mind -- that would be prepared to keep spending, even while paying a penalty to do do, would provide an equalization fund to enable less well-off teams to afford an elite player or two.
This spring, there was an extraordinary amount of talent redistribution as teams rid themselves of high-priced talent to prepare for the hoped-for new hockey economic order.
The talent diaspora has helped make for lively playoff races in both conferences, but the circumstances were somewhat artificial.
What is needed is a structure that permits a more rational flow of talent around the league, so the competitive balance can be more permanent, more predictable and manageable on an ongoing basis.
Many of the components of a competitive team are in place with the Oilers, starting with a splendid pair of goalies, a solid NHL defence with a young prospect like Jeff Woywitka on the way, impressive depth at forward and a decent pipeline of up-and-coming talent in the system.
The potential the Oilers have is not lost on a veteran player like Ulanov, who was rescued from hockey oblivion by Lowe and played some of the best hockey of his career down the stretch.
"I would love to be back and have another year with the team," the 34-year-old Ulanov said.
"We'll see how the CBA negotiations will go, but I would love to be back. I think I belong here."
No question, Ulanov is a fit for the Oilers, not just with his cowboy grit and leadership, but because he's a financial bargain, at a pro-rated $600,000 US.
But Nedved, or a player or two like him, should also be a financial fit for Edmonton, not merely as a late-season freebie.
And if the fight for a new CBA to make that possible is a long and costly one, so be it.
In the long run, it's worth it.
I listened to Lowe's interview on the main site and I agree with the things he said, namely that he feels more comfortable with the team going into next season despite missing the playoffs than he did last year going into this season even though they made the playoffs.
I feel alot of the things have been addressed that had concerned the fans, namely goaltending. It's amazing what Nedved did in retrospect, the team was playing decently before he came, but what a huge difference an elite #1 centre makes, to their confidence and especially to the powerplay. Wow. If they can't resign him, then they need to do everything they can to get someone like him. I know Nedved has a tendency to not put in his best effort but coming to a true hockeytown like Edmonton seemed to have changed that.
I like these 2 points from the article because I've believed this for a long time:
1) Mike Comrie is NOT a top line center on any decent NHL team
2) the Oilers already have their salary structure in order and CAN afford a real top line center next year after the CBA is fixed. Other teams will need to re-organize the own salary structures - and if that happens - we are 3 years ahead of the curve.