‘Don’t call it a comeback’
Oilers celebrate a rich and turbulent 90-year history
Three Oilers players pose for a promotional photo with goaltender Nelson “Freckle” Little in the center.
The current incarnation of the Tulsa Oilers has only been in action since 1992, but minor league hockey has a long and rich tradition in this city, dating back to 1928. The Oilers recently celebrated the 90th anniversary of the first game played here, commemorating the occasion on Dec. 22 with the debut of retro jerseys modeled after the ones they wore in the 1930s.
There have been many landmark moments in Oilers history over the years—multiple championships, Hall of Famers, and NHL veterans who played parts of their careers here—and less-celebratory occasions, like leagues folding, arenas burning down, and team ownership collapsing in the middle of a season.
For much of its history, the team was known locally as the “Ice Oilers,” because the baseball team in town was also called the Oilers until the Drillers arrived in 1977.
“We have a long-standing history, probably one of the longest of any minor pro hockey team out there, and a lot of people here in Tulsa don’t really remember it,” said Taylor Hall, Oilers general manager and former player. “It’s more than the Cox Convention Center and then the BOK Center … we’ve got a great history, why not celebrate it? We wanted to do something to celebrate all that and also to create a little more awareness about hockey in Tulsa.”
The Oilers started play back in the 1928–29 season, skating in the American Hockey Association. The team even won the league championship in each of its first three seasons, playing out of the Tulsa Coliseum, later called Avey’s Coliseum, which was located downtown at the corner of Fifth Street and Elgin Avenue.
The AHA, along with the Oilers, ceased operations in 1942 for the duration of World War II but returned as the United States Hockey League in 1945, continuing until 1951, when the league folded. The following year, the Coliseum was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Tulsa then had no team (or arena) until 1964, when the Oilers joined the Central Professional Hockey League, later called the Central Hockey League, skating at the new Convention Center downtown. They won championships in 1968, 1976, and in the CHL’s final season, 1983–84.
The Oilers won that last title as a team without a home, as the Tulsa ownership went bankrupt mid-season and the CHL took over the club’s operation. They actually set up at the University of Denver after that, living in a hotel and practicing at a nearby mall rink using nerf balls because pucks weren’t allowed. They didn’t play a home game the final six weeks of the season, including the playoffs, but still won the championship.
For most of the Oilers’ history up to that point, they played in leagues considered one rung below the NHL, and many times were affiliated directly with NHL clubs. Among the top-level hockey dignitaries who played here were Hockey Hall of Famers Duke Keats (who played 85 games for Tulsa from 1928–31); Clint Smith (64 games in 1947–48, when he also served as head coach); current Canadian TV personality Don Cherry (17 games in 1965–66); legendary coach Pat Quinn (140 games, 1964–65 and ‘67–70); current Team USA World Juniors GM John Vanbiesbrouck (36 games, 1983–84); and Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee (110 games, 1982–84).
It wasn’t until the CHL reformed as a lower-rung minor league in 1992 that the Oilers returned. Hall was a player on that first new Oilers team in 1992–93, a squad that won the CHL championship—its last, as of this writing—and says the atmosphere surrounding the rebirth was amazing.
“It was incredible,” said Hall, who scored 35 goals and 80 points in 58 games that first season. “I had played pro hockey for eight years—played in the NHL, the AHL, all over the place—and had no idea what to expect. This was like a Double-A league, lower than I had ever played, and the fan support was off the charts. People had missed hockey so much. We were filling up the Convention Center every night and that first year, we ended up winning the championship, so the city was just electric about hockey coming back. I was blown away.”
Hall, who skated in 41 NHL games from 1983–88, ended up playing four seasons in Tulsa. He returned as the GM in 2008. He is proud of the city’s hockey history and doesn’t want it to be forgotten, as the Oilers play their 68th season, now in the ECHL, in 90 years.
“Tulsa’s got a really cool history, and I think that’s the big thing that we’re trying to get across to people,” Hall said. “We haven’t just been here since ‘92. We go way beyond.”