In Edmonton, K-97 is an FM radio station known for its strict adherence to classic rock classics like Led Zeppelin — it runs a golf promotion called “Fairways to Heaven” — and for promoting major music events in the city. For the time being, it is also known as something completely different.
Earlier this month, K-97 adopted a new name: Konnor 97.
The station changed when the Edmonton Oilers began their second-round playoff series with the Calgary Flames, and it will remain in effect through the NHL’s Western Conference Finals. Konnor 97 programming director Jeff Murray can’t say for sure that Connor McDavid, the station’s namesake, likes classic rock, but that’s beside the point.
“People from outside look at it like maybe it’s a northern outpost,” he said. “We don’t think we’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re just here, and sports fans in this city are incredibly passionate.”
The Oilers last appeared in the conference finals in 2006 and promptly missed the playoffs in each of the following 10 seasons. With their long-awaited return engagement with the Colorado Avalanche, the team is putting Edmonton back on the scene, arguably Canada’s premier sports city.
A middle-aged sports fan in northern Alberta has witnessed more than one sports dynasty, first with the local Canadian Football League team, which won five straight Gray Cup titles in the 1970s, then with a hockey team led by Wayne Gretzky.
Local fans have filled Commonwealth Stadium for international athletics. They helped many Canadians introduce Christine Sinclair through the sheer crowd of fans in the seats. They can be credited – and perhaps blamed – for the NHL’s warm embrace of outdoor hockey games during the season.
The city’s sporting history even has its own Canadian Heritage Minute.
“Yes, we know it’s going to be cold,” said Reid Wilkins, a sports radio host at 630 CHED. “We know we’re further north than just about any other city of this size in the world. We know the Oilers missed the playoffs for ten years. But there are also a lot of really good things.”
Supporting big events in droves might not come with a chip on Civic’s shoulder, he said, but it’s close.
“The whole country doesn’t have to revolve around Toronto and Vancouver,” Wilkins said. “And Alberta doesn’t have to be just about Banff and Calgary. I think there’s a little something to it.”
When the Oilers defeated the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and then emerged victorious in the first Battle of Alberta since 1991, Wilkins said he saw a steady change in the city. Friends and family who aren’t typically die-hard sports fans have started discussing ice ages and depth players on the list.
There’s more writing about the Oilers and a bigger social media presence. Wilkins has hosted shows at Rogers Place when the team is away and thousands of fans have flocked downtown to watch games on big screens.
“Bars rock,” said former Oilers defenseman Jason Strudwick. “People invite friends over and watch it on their terrace. Group chats are all about, ‘Who is Kadri playing against?’ It’s amazing. That has an energy.”
Strudwick played more than 650 regular season games in the NHL, with stints in Vancouver, New York and Chicago. He chose to make Edmonton his retired home and he became a fixture as a local radio personality on TSN 1260.
When Edmonton hosted the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Strudwick bought a 10-day pass despite not knowing much about the sport. It has more to do with the environment, he said: “You go down there and the people are all experts, love it and sit in the stands.”
When a foreign correspondent attacked the city in print, it became an international incident. A reporter for the Daily Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, called the city a “visually unattractive corner of Canada” and mockingly referred to it as “Deadmonton”.
Edmonton was not amused and reporter Robert Philip published a follow-up column: “As a result of all of which I plead guilty, I now cannot walk through my hotel lobby without being shadowed by an intrepid TV interviewer and cameraman complete with lights and boom mic.”
The city was again in the news for another international event the following summer, except this time to shock the organizers with the amount of support. More than 37,000 fans paid to watch Canada beat Brazil 2-1 in the semi-finals of the U19 Women’s World Cup, prompting then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter to declare: “We wouldn’t have that many spectators anywhere in the world.” ‘ for the event.
Canada lost to USA in the final but with more than 47,000 fans in the stadium. It was the beginning of an era for the Canada women’s team, and as Sinclair told reporters, “Even when we lost, they were still screaming for us.”
In 2003, the Oilers hosted the Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium. The temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius in wind chill – Canada’s goalkeeper José Theodore donned a hood over his face mask to stay warm for the enduring image – with more than 57,000 fans watching from the seats.
“There’s something for everyone here — you can play softball here until midnight,” said Jed Roberts, who was a special team star for the city’s CFL team for more than a decade. “The winters are so long and so brutally cold that as the days get longer, everyone gets on the bricks and goes outside.”
Roberts was a second-generation CFL player after his father played with the Ottawa Rough Riders for seven years. Roberts and his father both won Gray Cups during their respective careers: “When I came here, he gave me kind of a heads-up, ‘You’re going to what’s basically the Cadillac of the CFL franchises.'”
Like Strudwick, Roberts made Edmonton his post-career home.
“I think the people who live here feed on the misconception that we’re just a bunch of suckers here and we all drive pickup trucks and we’re happy to shake our fist at anyone who doesn’t share the same values as we do .” he said. “That is not the case at all. It’s a wonderful place. Everyone just comes out in droves.”
Victor Cui is a sports executive who grew up in Edmonton and was named president of the Elks in January. He has lived abroad: “Most people in Edmonton don’t realize that that sense of community doesn’t exist in most other cities.”
He cited Shanghai as an example.
“When you get into an elevator in Shanghai, you don’t say hello to strangers — they’ll think you’re crazy,” Cui said with a chuckle. “Whereas in Edmonton, if you get on an elevator and don’t say, ‘Hey, good morning,’ people say, ‘That guy is so rude.'”
As part of the preparation for the Gray Cup, a slice of Edmonton’s city and sports culture is exported across Canada for a week each November. A group of 15 volunteers organize a party called “The Spirit of Edmonton,” which typically occupies a large ballroom at a local hotel or conference center in the host city and becomes a central social gathering place for CFL fans.
“We invite everyone to our space,” said Gerry Haracsi, Chair of the Spirit Committee. “We want you to represent every city you come from. It’s not very common for people from Calgary and Edmonton to hug, but in the spirit of Edmonton, you’ll see them shaking hands.”
The volunteers use their vacation time to oversee the week-long event, which dates back to 1974.
“You can wear a suit and tie if you want,” he said. “But we don’t encourage it. We want you to wear your team colors and present yourself as if you were in your own home, in your basement.”
Konnor 97’s coloring is a bit more restrictive. The station’s logo is some blue, it’s some orange, and it has some very obvious affiliations with a particular player.
“A handful of people are like, ‘Hey, it might be disrespectful to the other players on the team,’ until we explain the correlation of 97,” said Murray, the program director. “Also, if we listed it as ‘All-the-players-names 97,’ the name would be way too long.”
He said the station hasn’t received any official feedback from the Oilers: “And I’m assuming the other Connor 97 is way too busy to care what the hell we’re doing.”
(Photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images)