It began as a bet between Steve Ott and Mark Fistric: which of the two Dallas Stars’ bumper cars could inflict the most damage on the visiting Edmonton Oilers?
It was a specific dare against a targeted opponent because, really, which Oiler was going to push back? Theo Peckham? Ben Eager? And even if they did, were they enough of a threat to keep Ott and Fistric from seeing which of them could put the most dings in the other side’s chassis? Apparently not, because in a November, 2011, game against Edmonton, Ott and Fistric had their way on the ice, helping Dallas roll to a convincing 4-1final.
For the Oilers, it was a brutally educational loss. They learned that to be better, they needed to be tougher, particularly on defence. Little did Fistric know that by beating on Edmonton he had essentially sealed his fate of one day becoming an Oiler. Traded here earlier this week by Dallas for a 2013 third-round draft pick, Fistric is now a pivotal presence on the Oilers’ blueline.
As a group, Edmonton’s defence is well-suited for its high-octane forwards. There are good puck movers, good shooters and capable stay-at-home types and now, with the Edmonton-born Fistric on guard, there’s some honest-to-rotten grit to keep opposing forwards from getting too close to goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
It’s an important ingredient for the Oilers, who watched in horror as Peckham, another potentially pugnacious defenceman, showed up for training camp looking sadly out of shape.
“I’ve always believed you defend your teammates. It’s part of the game,” Edmonton head coach Ralph Krueger said when asked about bringing in the 6-foot-2, 233-pound Fistric. “If [other teams] go beyond the boundaries, we’ll be there.”
Taking liberties with the Oilers’ young stars is an expected theme this season, and rookie defenceman Justin Schultz is going to face a steady attack of large forwards trying to plant him in the crease. Schultz signed with the Oilers as a free agent after attending the University of Wisconsin. He appeared in 34 games in the AHL this season and was an offensive whirlwind, scoring 18 goals and 30 assists. While he impressed his teammates with his defensive positioning, he has yet to see NHL forwards at ramming speed. If he’s concerned about that, he’s learned to suppress those feelings. “Guys are bigger up here,” he said. “For me, I have to be smarter, have good sticks [to deflect passes] and make sure I’m in good position all the time.”
Schultz will play alongside Nick Schultz, a heady veteran not known for his punishing checks. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry were paired together last year and will stay that way until changes are necessary. That leaves Ryan Whitney with either Corey Potter or Fistric – and Fistric, who out of uniform looks like a refrigerator on legs, is acutely aware of what is expected of him.
“Just bring what I brought to Dallas to Edmonton,” he stated. “Just making sure I’m a guy on the back end when teams play they’re sore at the end of the night. Just allowing the [Oiler] skill guys to do their job and doing everything I can to stop goals from being scored on us.”
For Fistric, being in Edmonton is a personal highlight. Not only did he grow up watching the Oilers, he has continued to come home every summer and play in a supervised ball hockey league. His squad? The Division 8 Dirty Danglers. He was quick to give a shout out to all his ball-hockey mates. “I take great pride in having those guys around me in the summer time. They’ve definitely developed me along the way.”
As for his Oiler teammates, Fistric wouldn’t say he and Ott hand-picked Edmonton for their hit bet, nor did he reveal who won. Instead, he offered a series of compliments, insisting the Oilers were a “fast-paced, skilled team … They’re going to come at you. They were always fun games to play.”
And Dallas usually won, right?
“Maybe that’s what they were always fun to play against.”
But no more, vowed the Oilers. When it comes to getting hit this year, all bets are off.