Coach Tom Webster knows all about adversity. In 1986 he was on top of the world as coach of the New York Rangers but he began to suffer pain, loss of balance and dizzy spells when flying with the team to other cities. He was diagnosed with an inner ear problem that made it too difficult to fly and he had to face a possible end of his career in hockey. Webster was forced to resign after coaching a mere 16 games in New York. Luckily, surgery successfully cured him and he was given the enviable position as coach of the Los Angeles Kings.
No matter what he accomplishes at the NHL level, Webster will be hard-pressed to surpass an achievement that stands out on his minor league record. In 1983-84 he took a team destined for the scrap heap and directed it to a championship nobody dreamed it was capable of winning.
Webster was coaching the Tulsa Oilers of the Central League that season. But he had major worries right from the start. The team ran into financial problems early in the year, and by the midseason, the owners packed it in. They simply quit.
But the players weren’t that easy to defeat, they held a meeting and voted to struggle on – without any owners and without a home rink in which to play.
League officials, understandably dubious about the future of the franchise, granted them permission to play out the schedule, with all their games to be played on the road.
These dedicated players left wives and girlfriends behind in Tulsa, to live the rest of the season away from home, sleeping in cheap motels or sometimes the team bus.
They changed their name to the CHL Oilers, but they might as well been called the homeless Oilers. They were hockey nomads — the only team in history without a home base.
Occasionally, the Oilers were able to practice on a rink located in a shopping mall. But they skated without sticks or pucks because owners of nearby stores feared broken windows and other damage from flying discs.
To stay in shape, the players moved a soccer ball around the ice. Webster borrowed some tennis rackets and kept his goalies jumping by whipping tennis balls at them.
Somehow, Webster’s Oilers survived their season of grueling road trips, zero fans support and in frequent paychecks. Perhaps adversity toughened them because they displayed amazing strength in the playoffs, sweeping Indianapolis aside in the final series to capture the league championship and the Adams Cup.
“I’ll never forget our victory parade,” says Webster, who was named Coach of the year. “It was held in the hotel bar. Then we marched outside and paraded around the team bus. The players on the team were very special. They accepted every challenge and overcame every obstacle. I’ll always feel very, very close to them.”