Edmonton moved its Triple-A affiliate to Oklahoma City three years ago. The Barons have made the playoffs all three seasons. But it's doubtful the Barons will have another season like 2012-13 even if the franchise is still going 20 years from now and wins a Calder Cup or two.
“It was a tough year, a very up-and-down emotional year,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “It's hard to put into words what we went through. For us to basically finish third in the league was a remarkable accomplishment.”
The season started with four young Edmonton Oilers stars playing in Oklahoma City. Still in their initial three-year NHL contracts, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were allowed to play with the Barons during an NHL lockout that dragged on nearly four months.
“As far back as I can remember, this is one of the craziest seasons I've ever been a part of,” said team captain Josh Green, in his 16th pro season. “It felt like there were three seasons: pre-lockout, post-lockout and the playoff run we got on.”
Early in the season, rookie defenseman Brandon Davidson was diagnosed with cancer but returned three months later and played a key role during an extended playoff run.
Mother Nature even got involved. Heavy rain storms flooded the east side of the Cox Convention Center, which forced postponement of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. Coach Todd Nelson joked it was his first hockey “rainout.”
“There were a lot of things we had to get through, including tornadoes,” said forward Anton Lander. “As a team we were mentally strong, which really helped us.”
A season full of twists and turns didn't end until the 93rd game when Grand Rapids scored with 6:12 left to edge the Barons 5-4 in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
“This is the best time of the year when you go deep into the playoffs, playing in big games,” Lander said. “Those are the type of things you dream about when you're a young kid. It's a huge experience. You learn from it.”
Ironically, the young Oilers stars who left town after the NHL lockout ended will lack playoff experience when Edmonton eventually ends a lengthy postseason drought. The Oilers haven't made the playoffs since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals seven years ago.
In contrast, players such as Teemu Hartikainen have played on Barons teams that have played in 31 playoff games the past two years, having reached back-to-back Western Conference finals.
“All three years here helped me learn the North American game,” said Hartikainen, from Finland. “I played around 200 games under Nelly, which was huge for me. I got to play a lot of minutes in key situations.”
Hartikainen was one of several players who shuttled between Edmonton and Oklahoma City. Other players, such as rookie Toni Rajala, began the season in Double-A Stockton (Calif.) before earning a promotion to Oklahoma City.
“It was a long season,” Hartikainen said. “Sometimes I felt really tired traveling all of the USA. Still, it was one of those seasons you'll never forget. I wished it would have lasted a couple of weeks longer and we won the Calder Cup.”
Goaltender Yann Danis, 31, said the 2012-13 season will always rank among his favorites in pro hockey.
“Everybody was disappointed we got so close to the finals and didn't make it, but we showed a lot of character,” Danis said. “I'm really proud of the way we battled through a lot of things to be playing that well at the end of the season.”
When the season finally ended in early June, the Barons were one goal shy of advancing to the AHL finals.
“Our backs were against the wall the final two months,” Nelson said. “No one expected us to even make the playoffs. Considering everything that happened, we were only six minutes away from going to the AHL finals.”