Bakersfield affiliation a ‘win-win’ for Oilers, city

Photo: Mark Nessia

📝 by Patrick Williams

Keith Gretzky checked off a major item on his to-do list last month.

With the Bakersfield Condors’ lease at Mechanics Bank Arena set to expire at the end of this season, the Edmonton Oilers had decisions to make.

When the Oilers first relocated their AHL affiliate from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield in 2015, it was part of a sweeping change across the AHL that shuffled five clubs to California. Since then, the AHL has filled in the Western Conference map, setting up teams in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, British Columbia and Alberta.

The Calgary Flames became the latest National Hockey League club to find a new AHL home, moving their prospects from Stockton, Calif., to Calgary last summer to share Scotiabank Saddledome. Along with the Flames, the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets all house their AHL affiliate in their respective metropolitan markets. The Vancouver Canucks established their new Abbotsford affiliate last season, just an hour away from Rogers Arena. And the Ottawa Senators set up Belleville in 2017, which stations their prospects only two hours from home.

Could the Oilers bring the Condors north to Edmonton?

“You always have to look at all your options,” acknowledged Gretzky, who serves as both assistant general manager for the Oilers as well as the organization’s GM in Bakersfield. “But it’s been good down here.”

Oilers management also visited Bakersfield and met with city officials.

And on Feb. 9, OEG Sports and Entertainment — the group that includes the Oilers in its corporate portfolio — signed a new five-year lease with the City of Bakersfield to keep the Condors at Mechanics Bank Arena. The deal runs through the 2027-28 season, and includes an option for a three-year extension before renewal.

“You could tell right from the get-go that it was a win-win for both of us,” Gretzky said. “I think it was done quickly. It was a great thing for both the city and for the Oilers organization.

“Probably the best thing about Bakersfield is this hockey team’s the main event in town, and it’s good for the players to grow up and develop down here.”

As the organization’s point person in Bakersfield, Gretzky also said that the Oilers liked that they are the arena’s main tenant, which simplifies scheduling.

“We’ve been the main gig here, really. I think that’s the biggest thing. We work together. They (arena officials) make sure they look after us, and I think it’s a great relationship. Everything is run so smoothly. It was easy to just roll it into another five-year deal.

“Where we need something, they try to get it done for us. And we’ve also put in some money into it, too. The communication and the dedication from the city to help us out is extremely high.”

Geography also came into consideration for the Oilers. Edmonton and Bakersfield are nearly 1,300 miles apart as the crow flies, and there are no direct flights between the cities. But on the other hand, the Oilers love Bakersfield’s central location within the Pacific Division. The city is within bussing distance of the Condors’ rivals in Ontario, San Diego, Coachella Valley, Henderson, and San Jose. Less time on the road means more time on the ice for practice and time off the ice for rest and recovery.

The Condors are also covered for player movement to and from the Oilers and road trips that require flights. Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield provides direct flights to Denver, Phoenix and San Francisco, which all then connect to Edmonton. In other cases, the team can fly players out of Los Angeles International Airport, one of the world’s busiest airports.

Between the city’s eagerness to keep the Condors in town as well as strong fan support, the arrangement adds up to a quality environment in which to develop prospects.

Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, Ryan McLeod, Stuart Skinner, Kailer Yamamoto and Vincent Desharnais are among the current Oilers who are Bakersfield alumni. Even Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse have spent time developing with the Condors. Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant Dave Manson had those same roles in Bakersfield before earning promotions to Edmonton last season. In all, 55 players have divided time between the Oilers and Condors since 2015, and 19 of those players have made their NHL debuts after time in Bakersfield.

When Oilers prospects eventually reach Edmonton, they will be playing in at sold-out Rogers Place night after night. The Oilers want their prospects to gain experience dealing with fan support and pressure in Bakersfield first.

“I think it’s huge,” Gretzky said of the importance of the Bakersfield fan base. “We’re the main event in town, and it gives the players a little bit of swagger where they know that they’re supported. I always say to players the first day of camp that it’s a blue-collar town. You come to work hard, they’re going to pay to watch you play.

“This is our bread and butter in a salary-cap world… We’ve got to give them every chance possible to succeed down here to play in the NHL.”