Fifty-two seconds into the final period of a Barons win last December, fans threw hats onto the ice after Jordan Eberle scored his third goal of the night to record his first professional hat trick. Playing in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout, Eberle chipped in an assist that night and scored another goal, an empty-netter.
Eberle's four-goal game a week before Christmas was the highlight of his remarkable run in the American Hockey League.
The Edmonton Oilers' talented 23-year-old right winger was so dominant he still owned the league scoring lead six weeks later despite rejoining the Oilers in early January.
Eberle and the other young stars who played in Oklahoma City last year return to the Cox Convention Center on Friday night when the Edmonton Oilers face the Dallas Stars in both teams' NHL preseason finale.
“I'm excited,” Eberle said. “We were there four months. I met a lot of people we'll get to see. We also can show some of the Edmonton guys things we've talked about, where we lived, things we did. Those were some good memories.”
Scoring 51 points in 34 games, Eberle finished among the league leaders in goals (25) despite playing only 40 percent of the AHL season.
“Jordan is a very special player in the NHL who is highly skilled. He has a knack of scoring goals,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “People in Oklahoma City need to realize a player like that will never play here again. It was a unique season, an unbelievable player who played at this level.”
In a combined 82 games with the Barons and Oilers, Eberle compiled 88 points, including 41 goals.
What stood out those three months the young stars played in OKC was the Barons' power play was exceptional, a weapon Edmonton's young core transferred to the NHL.
“I'm still a young guy. Just getting a chance to continue to develop my all-around play gave me a lot of confidence,” Eberle said. “Taking three or four months off would have been the worst thing for us.”
The time in Oklahoma City turned out to be a fun four-month adventure, a nice change of pace. When Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz talked about mid-60s days in November and December, they smiled, knowing it was a stark contrast to snowy, chilly forecasts back in Edmonton. One perk to playing in OKC was golf season was extended.
Eberle is a scratch golfer. He and his buddies played numerous rounds, many at nearby Lincoln Park, before it finally got too cold a few weeks before the lockout ended.
But the primary benefit to playing in OKC was Eberle and company laced up their skates while frustrated NHL veterans listened to rhetoric from the players' union and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. At one point Eberle was convinced he might play all season with the Barons.
“Oklahoma City was the best option,” Eberle said. “It's good hockey. It was good we all got to play together. All of us got to work on our games. It was a great steppingstone to get to play together.”
Already possessing superior puck-handling skills, Eberle worked on finer points in the AHL, which promoted itself as the best hockey in North America during the lockout.
“I had played in the American League before so I knew what to expect,” Eberle said. “It's a tough league. There are a lot of guys that have played in the NHL. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but knew it would be easier coming in with Taylor and Nuge.”
Eberle and his Edmonton pals made it look easy, especially on the power play.
Rookie defenseman Justin Schultz made a smashing pro debut, racking up eye-popping stats as the power-play quarterback. While in OKC, the Barons' power play scored 39 goals in 34 games.
Eberle, 23, is the veteran on the Oilers' talented, but still extremely young, No. 1 line. Hall, 21, and Nugent-Hopkins, 20, are younger than juniors and seniors in college but already have played a combined 273 NHL games.
Hall and Nugent-Hopkins were No. 1 overall picks. Schultz, a defenseman, was worthy of a high pick after he used a loophole to sign with the Oilers following a three-year career at the University of Wisconsin.
Getting a year or two head start on his linemates, Eberle, the 22nd overall selection in the 2008 draft, has been the most consistent of the young stars. Labeled “too small” in his junior days, Eberle, at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, has played big since turning pro.
Eberle represented Edmonton in the 2012 All-Star Game. He's a viable candidate to play for Team Canada in next year's Winter Olympics. Last summer he signed a $36 million, six-year extension.
“He's got good habits,” hockey guru Billy Moores told the Edmonton Journal. “You would be surprised how many kids when they shoot the puck don't get squared around. You watch Jordan Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins and they don't do that. That's how they get second and third shots.”
The Oilers made slight progress last season, but the shortened 48-game season overall was as a disappointment. Edmonton management's offseason goal was to upgrade its overall depth, a glaring deficiency last season.
Can the Oilers can end a seven-year playoff drought?
USA Today surveyed 29 of the NHL's top players. They were asked to choose one team that will rise to become a powerhouse the next three seasons. The Oilers received 16 votes. No other team accumulated more than five.
“We're trying to put that rebuild tag aside,” Eberle said. “At some point, you have to step up and start winning. We've had a good training camp. I'm looking forward to this year, building off what we've done in the past.”
Part of that past was four months spent in OKC.
Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz and Hall all purchased bicycles last year during training camp. Week after week they pedaled around Bricktown to eat dinner, catch a movie or attend a Thunder game.
“I had never been to an NBA game before,” Eberle said. “The fans in Oklahoma are so passionate about that team. The atmosphere was incredible. It was a lot of fun to experience that.”
The Oilers hope to emulate the Thunder's blueprint. They're a young team that hopes to evolve into a viable Stanley Cup contender.
“Every time someone brings up Oklahoma City we have some good laughs,” Eberle said. “We had a young team where guys liked hanging out together. It was good times.”