As a kid growing up in the Edmonton suburbs, AnneMarie Brown wore Oilers pyjamas. On her way to bed each night, she walked down a hallway, past framed photographs of Stanley Cups.
On Thursday morning, she stood at the exit of the players' parking lot at Rexall Place, clutching a sign she made herself in team colours.
"Lifelong fan from London, Ont.," it read. "May I please get an autograph?"
It was hours before the Oilers home opener, the most exciting sporting event in Edmonton in years. The franchise's bleak recent history was an afterthought; Connor McDavid was front of mind.
The No. 1 draft pick wasn't even born in 1990, the last time the Oilers' won a Stanley Cup. He was nine in 2006, the last time they reached the playoffs. He is 18 now, and in Edmonton seen as Moses, about to lead the Oilers out of a barren desert.
It is hoped that the prodigy, fresh off scoring his first NHL goal in Dallas on Tuesday night, will have returned them to form in a season or two.
McDavid was welcomed to his first with thunderous applause, the largest by far of any Oilers' player. After that, he had a relatively workmanlike but quiet night. The Oilers went down to their fourth defeat in a row, 4-2, going 0-for-5 on power-play chances.
Vladimir Tarasenko scored the go-ahead goal to make it 2-1, after that the Oilers never could catch up. McDavid had no assists or points.
"I think this is the first step toward a return to the Oilers' glory years," said Brown, 37. A friend passed on their season tickets so she could attend the game. "I'm excited for the city."
Brown waved her sign and winger Teddy Purcell stopped and rolled down the window of his Tahoe.
A minute later, another Oiler, Justin Schultz, pulled up in a Range Rover and did the same. Luke Gazdic came next in a 4x4 Chevy pickup, with Taylor Hall and Mark Fayne riding shotgun.
Then along came McDavid, seated beside his mother, Kelly, at the wheel of a rented Kia. She and her husband, and Connor's 22-year-old brother Cameron, flew into Edmonton from Toronto on Thursday morning. She rolled down the windows and chatted as fans surrounded the vehicle, getting autographs and photographs with the player the likes of which this city hasn't seen since Wayne Gretzky.
"This is sick," one fellow said, inspecting his No. 97 jersey, now with a fresh signature. He meant "sick" in the good sense.
Toronto has lost its mind over the Blue Jays, but Edmontonians are in a frenzy over McDavid. On Thursday night, he would play the St. Louis Blues for the second time in a week. A much tougher, bruising team, they are almost always bad news for the Oilers. But forget about that, and the team's 0-3 record, for the moment.
Twenty minutes earlier, outside the Oilers' dressing room, Brian McDavid, the prospect's father, held a scrum for news media. There were about 30 reporters, give or take, scribbling down notes, jabbing microphones in his face. It's highly unusual for the parent of an NHL player to have a news conference.
"To watch him play in the NHL, words can't describe the way I feel," Brian McDavid said. "There are moments when it is a little difficult, but it is a nice problem to have. The hardest part is that this is playing out on a stage that's so visible."
At the Oilers' morning skate, Bob Nicholson, who oversees all team operations, watched from the stands. Peter Chiarelli, the team's new general manager, sat at his elbow. At one point, Chiarelli stood up and talked on the phone. Rumours have the Oilers shopping for a big defenceman who can help protect their young superstar-in-the-making.
A standing-room crowd of about 17,000 was expected for last night's game, the Oilers' final home opener in Rexall Place. The next one will be played in the new arena that is being built downtown. Across the street, there is a tavern. Its owners plan to name a hamburger after McDavid.
All along the Avenue of Champions, the roadway in Edmonton that leads past Rexall Place, there are businesses with long connections to the Oilers.
It took Tony Mazzotta 34 hours, including flight delays and a missed connection in Toronto, to get from his home last week in Lago, Italy, to Edmonton. The city's former pizza king, now retired, returns each fall for the start of the NHL season.
"I used to be crazy for the Oilers," said Mazzotta, 78, seated at a table in the restaurant he opened near their home arena 30 years ago. "I bought season tickets, and my mom used to come with me, climbing up the stairs at 100 years of age. She'd curse at the referees in Italian."
Mama Mazzotta passed away at 105, still rooting for the Oilers on a TV in her room in a nursing home. Now, her son is no less dedicated.
When he ran the kitchen at Tony's Pizza Palace, he placed a TV in the corner so he could follow the games. When the Oilers were at home, he would toss pizzas during the dinner rush, and then sneak over to watch a couple of periods. With about 10 minutes left, right after a Tony's Pizza Palace advertisement with lively music was played in the rink, he would rush back to the restaurant and be ready for the postgame crowd.
Wayne Gretzky would occasionally come. So would Glen Sather, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Dave Semenko, Glenn Anderson and Craig MacTavish.
"When the hockey players came, I had no time to talk to them," he says. "I was always too busy making pizzas. I made so many, now I don't eat pizza anymore."
A dozen years ago, Mazzotta turned the business over to his son, Tony Jr., and nephew, Sal. He still comes back every year, in time for the Oilers' first home game. He has done it even if watching them has been like viewing a train wreck in recent years.
Sitting at a table, the smell of garlic and pizza rising around him, he talks about the day in 1988 when Gretzky was traded. His heart was broken along with that of thousands of other Edmontonians and hockey fans across Canada. He was so upset that he drove, seething, to Molson House, a former brewery where the news conference was conducted.
"I went there, still covered in flour," he said. "There were thousands of us, gathered outside, shouting."
He had tickets to the Oilers home opener on Thursday night. He likes what he has seen so far from Connor McDavid.
"I hope people leave him alone," he said. "There is too much pressure on him. No one player can make that big a difference. Gretzky had Kurri, Anderson, Messier and so many others."
He sat, drinking a coffee and mulling a slight conflict. His son-in-law is arriving in Edmonton early in the evening, and expects him to pick him up at the airport. It would likely cause him to miss the game.
"Oh, to hell with him," Mazzotta said. "He can get a cab."