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Return of the Edmonton Drillers Part One: History

What's that, the new North American Soccer League? You're expanding to Edmonton for the 2011 season? And the Vancouver Whitecaps are prominently involved? And you're not crazy enough to play every game in Commonwealth Stadium this time?

Where do I sign up?

Terry "The Only Reporter in Edmonton Who Cares About Soccer" Jones's article was like manna from the heavens. It was conclusive in almost every way that counted. It named names. It listed the backers and where they were coming from. It mentioned the Whitecaps and Bob Lenarduzzi specifically. Some of the details looked like Jones had an awfully long and awfully good conversation with Mel Kowalchuk himself. It was amazingly, unbelievably concrete considering that before November 30, the first we'd heard of professional outdoor soccer in Edmonton was USL blueskying a series of nameless, imaginary investors supposedly wanting to put some sort of team in at some point.

Edmonton's troubled history with professional soccer is well-known. The original Edmonton Drillers played in the original NASL, owned by a fellow you may have heard of named Peter Pocklington who bought the money-losing Connecticut Bicentennials (no wonder, with a name like that) and threw them into then-state of the art Commonwealth Stadium. At the time Commonwealth Stadium seated over 42,000, and in their best season the Drillers averaged just under 11,000 per game. The crowds were sufficiently miserly for the Drillers to move into not-at-all-state of the art Clarke Stadium, teaching a lesson about Commonwealth that Edmonton's soccer establishment took decades to learn.

The Drillers probably lost money every year of their existence, but Peter Pocklington was an accomplished loser of money and so the Drillers clung on for three not-entirely-unsuccessful seasons. They won the 1980-81 indoor season, made the outdoor playoffs a couple times, and brought in some players you might have heard of such as Ross Ongaro and Kai Haaskivi, who made twelve caps and three goals for Finland. Many of their most successful players came from abroad, a strategy that was a complete failure. The later Edmonton Aviators would try to save money by developing cheap local talent and Rick Titus, a strategy that was also a complete failure, so it was a difficult situation.

While the first Drillers were taking their steps onto Commonwealth Stadium's hallowed pitch, Warren Moon and the Edmonton Eskimos were banging out Grey Cups like it was their birthright in the same stadium. About a half-hour's walk away, the greatest hockey team in the history of the sport was just coming into its own. One indoor championship and a couple playoff appearances stood pretty pale in the City of Champions in those days, and the European journeymen the Drillers trotted out were no match for the legends already playing in the city. Pocklington, meanwhile, treated the Drillers as an accessory, a team he owned so he could say that he owned it. Promotion was nil, media support was nil, and while the cheques usually cleared that was all ownership ever provided.

Their complete economic failure, even after three outdoor and indoor campaigns which saw their attendance rise not an iota, meant that Peter Pocklington took a bath on the Drillers before they were taken behind the barn and shot. His losses were severe and before the decade was out financial pressure would force Pocklington (who also owned the Edmonton Oilers) to sell Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, so, really, the Edmonton Drillers were responsible for the most heartbreaking moment in the history of Canadian sport. It was not an auspicious beginning, as these things go.

Edmonton Drillers II: Electric Boogaloo were formed in 1996 as part of the National Professional Soccer League, which in spite of its name was international, only arguably professional with many players holding other jobs, and played that indoor game which is called "soccer" only because "foot hockey" was already taken. That infandous Pocklington was the wallet once again, famously calling a shabby press conference at the TELUS Field baseball diamond to announce Edmonton's third professional soccer team only because he'd recently wrested control of Edmonton Coliseum from Northlands (owned by the City of Edmonton) and was looking to fill up the schedule with the team that had once been the Chicago Power. He already had the Oilers, who were good for forty-one nights a year plus playoffs, but the Drillers would let him sell more popcorn and parking spaces and that was all he needed.

There was also an element of spite in Pocklington's rush to secure an indoor team. Edmonton had recently been granted a Western Hockey League franchise, the Edmonton Ice. The Western Hockey League brass, who were smarter than any of us gave them credit for at the time, hated Pocklington's guts and refused to give him the WHL expansion team he had sought since the late 1980s. The Ice went to a non-Pocklington consortium headed by former commissioner Ed Chynoweth, but Pocklington controlled the only decent hockey rink in town. With the Drillers and Oilers sharing the schedule, Pocklington could quite reasonably if transparently say "sorry, all booked up" and condemn the Ice to hockey hell. They wound up playing in the nearby Northlands Agricom, which is a convention hall and probably the worst venue I've ever attended a hockey game at.

It was another auspicious beginning: a club forged in the fires of spite and plunged into the fray that was semi-professional indoor soccer.

I attended a few Driller games in my time; they were my first taste of watching somebody get paid to play soccer. I never actually bought a ticket, mind you. Getting free Drillers tickets (and good tickets) was a matter of playing in a local minor soccer league and ringing the league office, or calling somebody who worked for the club, or calling somebody who worked for the Coliseum, or calling somebody who worked for the Oilers, or walking up to the ticket booth before game time and saying "so, any free tickets lying around?" The head coach was Ross Ongaro, and one of his assistants, Sean Fleming, currently works in the Canadian national youth setup.

The Drillers were crummy but they ran out some surprisingly decent players. Nick De Santis and Pat Onstad played that first year. Rick Titus, the chicken pox of Canadian soccer (everybody's had him once) also played indoor in Edmonton. As a Whitecaps fan, I remember Martin Nash, Geordie Lyall, and Jeff Clarke in Edmonton with fondness. In the days before he got his big break in Europe, Lars Hirschfeld also kept goal for the Drillers. The late Domenic Mobilio was probably Edmonton's greatest player, very nearly striking a career century in Edmonton before being traded for the return of Rick Titus, a player so ill-disposed towards the Drillers front office that he had walked out on the team and seemingly burned every bridge behind him.

In 1998 Pocklington, now well and truly broke, divested himself of his sports interests. The Edmonton Trappers were sold to the city-owned Edmonton Eskimos, who in turn sold the team to an American consortium which moved the Trappers to Round Rock, Texas. The Edmonton Oilers, after a long shadow dance involving shady Swiss bankers who didn't actually exist and potential relocation, were sold to a group of area businessmen. The Drillers were sold to the tastefully named Wojtek Wojcicki at a knockdown price. The price was important as, in common with most Edmonton soccer investors over the years, Wojcicki had no damned money.

Wojcicki was quintessentially Edmonton. A good guy by all accounts, a community-minded man and a good Samaritan, somebody who's been involved in area sports from the grassroots level. An advertising maven who made his bones as owner of the In House Advertising Group, Wojcicki wasn't your typical egotistical multimillionaire sports team owner. He was just some local businessman like every city has who wanted to take a crack at owning a professional sports team.

The deck was stacked against Wojcicki, however. He reckoned the team needed eight thousand fans a night but they never came close. Even a ten-fold increase in season ticket sales wasn't enough. Control of Edmonton Coliseum - by then Skyreach Centre, after a local heavy equipment company - had reverted to Northlands and the City of Edmonton, and the Drillers did not play on generous terms. Rents were reasonable but concessions and parking fees were hoarded by Northlands rather than partially turned over to the team as was the case with the Oilers. The Edmonton Sun estimated that Wojcicki was out $396,000 per year on concessions alone; a fortune in the NPSL.

The Drillers didn't die without a fight. A "Save Our Soccer" movement took hold, but Edmonton was worn out after the recent life-or-death struggle to save the Oilers. Wojcicki thought he had an agreement to bring in some partners who could have saved the situation, but the deal fell through. Northlands refused to give the Drillers more favourable terms shortly after all but surrendering themselves to the Oilers. Eventually, on Wednesday, November 15, 2000, the black day for soccer in Edmonton, the payroll didn't come through. It was the end. The players, financed by the league for two paycheques, kept playing while the NPSL tried to find new ownership. Good luck. Wojcicki had much more at stake and had been unable to find help. In Wichita, the Drillers players got the news that it was over. The players were dispersed throughout the league (though many did not report), and the Drillers faded into tortured oblivion.

Tortured not least because, at last, the Drillers were pretty good. When they finished the year they were 6-3, best in the league despite a tough schedule that included a back-to-back against the defending champions. The previous two years they had lost in the conference finals by the narrowest of margins. It was money, the great enemy of the Canadian game, that killed the second incarnation of the Drillers and soon the NPSL itself, which disbanded the following year.

The Drillers were not finished, however. In 2007 a barnstorming tour of hastily-assembled indoor soccer teams from around Canada was formed. The "Showcase Season", as it was known, was the product of the newly-formed Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League. There were four teams from the Canadian prairies, with names ranging from the predictable (Calgary United FC) to the preposterous (Saskatoon Accelerators). And in the middle was a little slice of history: the Edmonton Drillers, then based in the NPSL team's old home now known as Rexall Place but later playing in my old home town of St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton, in the new Servus Credit Union Place.

Four days of doubleheaders between two teams were held. The schedule was unbalanced: Edmonton played six games while Saskatoon played only two, both wins against Winnipeg. Attendance varied between 1,850 at the Stampede Corral in Calgary to 7,727 in Winnipeg for the first professional soccer game there since the CSL's Fury rode into the sunset. The Drillers, in their double header at Rexall Place, drew a crummy 2,102 from soccer fans who, in the intervening years, had been scalded yet again by the A-League's Aviators.

Good enough.

An all-Canadian soccer league playing indoor on the prairies? Folly, surely, but they made it work in the 2008 season. There were only four teams. Attendance was as often as not in three digits, although it improved as the season went on. Winnipeg had drawn tremendously during the Showcase Season but scheduling conflict meant that Winnipeg played all ten of their games on the road (probably good news for Winnipeg fans: they lost every one). On March 14, the Drillers beat Calgary in a single-leg playoff in St. Albert. Attendance was described as "sparse". What matter? For the first time in twenty-six years, the Drillers were on top again. The natural order had been restored.

That's not even the most remarkable thing about these new Drillers, playing in a crappy regional Canadian indoor league that can't get its schedules straight. The most remarkable thing is that they're still going. The CMISL affiliated itself with the American Professional Arena Soccer League, and the two played a combined season in 2009, with Edmonton beating Calgary again for the indoor title and getting to the semi-finals of the North American championship. All indications so far are that they'll play in 2010 as well. So the obvious question is "if the new NASL team is going to be the Drillers as well, what the hell?"

Then again, "what the hell?" is a question Drillers fans have asked a lot in their history.