Here’s another book proposal, in full. (This one’s about hockey.)

A few months ago I shared, in full, a non-fiction book proposal I’d written, which was never sold but which I was still proud of, and which I hoped might help illuminate a process that’s often frustrating and opaque for anyone else who might have been trying to navigate similar waters.

But I’ve got to be honest here. Quite a Mouthful isn’t the only non-fiction project I’ve attempted over the years. Oh no. More recently—August 2016, to be precise—I tried to sell a book about my favourite sports team, which would answer a question that was nagging us all at the time: Why did they suck so bad?

This proposal didn’t sell either. But its failure came under different circumstances. While the tooth book was a swing for the fences, submitted via my then-agent to presses around the continent, this one was a more targeted affair, written, in fact, for a single editor at a single publishing house, who’d asked me earlier that summer if I had any ideas kicking around. And I did! (I always do; ideas are the fun part.) But it wasn’t a match. And by the time we both realized it, the new NHL season had started, and I didn’t have time to send the proposal anywhere else.

It happens.

But, ack, I still have such a soft spot in my heart for this idea, the book it might have been, and the season I would’ve gotten to write about in real time. So with that same eh-otherwise-it’s-just-going-to-linger-in-a-drawer mentality, I offer it here to you instead. Enjoy!

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Rebuild City: The Edmonton Oilers, 2006–?

OVERVIEW

Don’t call it a comeback. Because it isn’t. Rather, this is a sports book about failure. In Rebuild City, I will revisit the past decade of the Edmonton Oilers, the NHL’s most consistently and fascinatingly terrible hockey team, and write a lively historical account that investigates what, exactly, has gone so wrong in the erstwhile City of Champions.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Oilers were the darlings of the hockey world. In 2006, the team made a fairy-tale playoff run that captured the nation’s attention, and that ended, in heartbreak, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. There were riots on the streets of Edmonton that night, yet even the angriest fans couldn’t have predicted what happened next: a record-tying ten-year playoff drought. It’s a streak that continues to this very day. The Oilers, quite simply, have never really recovered from that final crushing loss in Carolina. These days, the team’s franchise-wide incompetence has become a running, evergreen joke among hockey fans. And seemingly no level of changeover in management, no amount of money thrown around in free agency, and no number of first-overall draft picks can change that.

At the same time, the Oilers occupy an intriguing place in the hockey landscape. They are constantly stuck at the bottom of the standings, yes. But over the last ten seasons, the team has shown repeated hints and glimmers that the worst may be behind them. They’ve drafted an unprecedented four draft picks at #1 overall — including, most recently, 2015’s Connor McDavid, heralded for years as the next Wayne Gretzky (which turned out to be fitting, given the town he ended up in) — any one of which could well have signalled the long-awaited U-turn. At the same time, the Oilers’ legacy years from the 1980s are constantly invoked by franchise management, in everything from ad campaigns to alumni games, bringing into even sharper contrast the gap between past and present. In 2008, the team was sold to billionaire Daryl Katz, who a few years later pitched — and sold — to Edmonton City Council a controversial but extremely flashy new $600-million downtown arena for the Oilers to play in. In a city where hockey has always loomed large, the Oilers, for all their woes on the ice, have now literally changed the skyline off of it. (Rogers Place opens this fall.)

In the style of Bruce Dowbiggin’s Ice Storm, Rebuild City will capture all of these developments and tell the complete story of the Oilers’ recent past in a way that has never before been attempted. These days, even the most devoted hockey fan will tell you that the constant churn of the daily sports media makes it all but impossible to keep up to speed on their favourite team. That pace has only increased with social media: critical pieces of information — about injuries, salaries, even behind-the-scenes dealings — now trickle out via stray tweets and Instagram videos. That’s why a big-picture book synthesizing all of this far-flung material into one accessible, entertaining work of sports history is needed now, more than ever.

Rebuild City will also be noteworthy for its approach to sources. In addition to drawing on the voluminous mainstream media coverage the Oilers receive (from the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson to the Sun’s Terry Jones to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector), I will seek out Oilers players and management, both past and present, for new interviews that will give unique insight into this time in team history. And in an era where traditional sports coverage is still reluctant to give analytics its due, I will also seek out number crunchers like TSN’s Travis Yost and Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Willis for their perspectives.

Everyone knows the Oilers have been bad for a decade. What we still, somehow, don’t know is why. That is the question Rebuild City aims to finally answer, once and for all.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. PROLOGUE: RACE TO THE BOTTOM (2007–2010): Following a surprise underdog run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, the most competitive Oilers team in more than a decade is dismantled, and quickly plummets to the bottom of the standings. But after a fourth straight year of missing the playoffs, and a dead-last, franchise-worst performance, in 2009–10, a new promise approaches: the #1 pick in the 2010 NHL draft. The only question is: Which of the two franchise players up for grabs will the team bet its future on?
  2. HALLWAYS (2010–11): The Oilers’ rebuild officially begins. The team opens the season with a new coach (Tom Renney), a new captain (Shawn Horcoff), and three dynamic new rookies at the helm: Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and 2010 #1 pick Taylor Hall. So committed to the rebuild are they, in fact, that TSN commissions a TV documentary, Oil Change, about their sure-to-be-forthcoming turnaround. Alas, without an NHL-calibre defense core, or proper support for their young wingers, the Oilers skid their way to a second consecutive year dead last in the NHL — and a second consecutive #1 draft pick.
  3. NUUUUUUUGE (2011–12): Two-way centreman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins becomes the second cornerstone piece of the rebuild, and he, like Hall, is thrown directly into heavy NHL duty, alongside a rash of other “grit” signings meant to bulk the team up. But the Oilers still can’t find their balance. And after two more consecutive years of failure (this year rising slightly to 29th overall), someone’s head has to roll. Goodbye, Coach Renney. And hello to an unprecedented third consecutive first-overall draft pick.
  4. YAK CITY (2012–13): The lockout-shortened season, in which the Oilers briefly flirt with a playoff spot before dropping back to 25th place, is buoyed by two more glimmers of hope: drafting Russian sniper Nail Yakupov at #1 overall, and somehow convincing highly coveted free-agent defenseman Justin Schultz to sign in Edmonton rather than every other city in the league. The core of the rebuild appears to be nearing completion. However, frustration is once again building among the fanbase, as it’s becoming clear that the upper tier of management — stacked with former Oilers greats like Kevin Lowe and new general manager Craig MacTavish — has yet to pay any kind of price for the team’s failures. The team’s owner, Daryl Katz, brought these men in to enforce a winning culture. But is there any chance the old boys’ club is actually part of the problem?
  5. CHOP WOOD, CARRY WATER (2013–14): Chaos continues in the Oilers’ offseason, as the team once again fires its head coach, Ralph Krueger, after just a half-season on the job, and replaces him with the brooding Dallas Eakins. Meanwhile, the team makes even larger waves around the city as the glitzy new downtown arena Katz sold Edmonton City Council on in early 2013 — at a steep cost to the taxpayers — moves ever closer to shovels in the ground. Without a #1 overall pick for the first time since 2009, the Oilers draft, at long last, a defenseman (Darnell Nurse). They also continue to shed former staples of the lineup, be it through trade (Ales Hemsky, captain Shawn Horcoff) or retirement (fan favourite Ryan Smyth). By the time the team limps to a 28th-place finish, not a single player from the 2006 Stanley Cup Final run is still on the roster.
  6. “THERE’S BLOOD ALL OVER MY HANDS” (2014–15): By this point, hope has given way to fatigue for even the most devoted Oilers fans. The word “rebuild” has become a running joke. The line-up remains top heavy, with a solid core in Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins, but still little in the way of secondary scoring or veteran depth. The defense is weak. The goaltending is worse. When Eakins, too, is fired as head coach that December — triggering the hiring of the team’s fifth coach in six years — nobody is surprised. The team’s rebuild has now taken so long that even the Oil Change documentary crew decides to pack it in after four seasons, their redemptive narrative arc left incomplete. The pain feels as though it will never end, and then a miracle happens: the 28th-place Oilers beat ridiculous odds and win the draft lottery, thus securing the #1 pick for the fourth time in six years. Their reward? A generational prospect, touted for years as the next Wayne Gretzky, named Connor McDavid. On a dime, absolutely everything is different for Edmonton.
  7. McJESUS RISING (2015–16): Or is it? At first, it feels as though a real changing of the guard is in the air. Much of the old boys’ club is flushed out of management, and replaced by some top-notch hires from around the league, including coach Todd McLellan and general manager Peter Chiarelli. But the team once again runs into heavy injury trouble early in the season, most soul-crushingly when the 18-year-old McDavid crashes into the boards and breaks his collarbone after just a dozen games in an Oilers sweater, keeping him out of service for half of the year. The team’s point totals improve, and McDavid nevertheless establishes himself as already one of the most exciting players in the league, but their place in the standings do not. The Oilers finish in territory that is depressingly familiar: 29th overall.
  8. PLAYOFFS OR BUST (2016–17): We close by following the team through the upcoming season. The Oilers finally make their debut at Rogers Place, the $600-million rink and concert facility that has literally changed the face of downtown Edmonton. This year aims to mark the beginning of a true new era in Oilers hockey, with a state-of-the-art arena and a healthy Connor McDavid (widely thought to be named the team’s new captain) leading the charge. But it’s also the end of another one, as Chiarelli decides to trade away Taylor Hall — the team’s original saviour, now with six seasons of NHL hockey under his belt — in the offseason to address the team’s ongoing defensive woes. It’s a year where, truly, anything could happen. Will the Oilers’ potential finally comes to fruition, returning the team to the playoffs and thereby avoiding setting a new NHL record for failure? Or let’s say the team stays in the league’s basement for an eleventh straight year. At that point, whose head is even left to roll?

MARKETPLACE

Many books have been written about the Oilers over the course of their 35-year history — beginning pretty much from their entry into the NHL, when Peter Gzowski shadowed the team during their second year in the league for The Game of Our Lives (1981). However, the overwhelming majority of these titles are concerned with the dynasty years of the ’80s: from player memoirs (Kevin Lowe’s Champions, Dave Semenko’s Looking Out for Number One) to more nostalgic works of reportage (Mark Spector’s recent The Battle of Alberta [2015]). Douglas Hunter’s The Glory Barons follows the team until 1999. Since then, silence.

On the one hand, this lack of recent book-length coverage is understandable. By and large, the Oilers haven’t been very good. And most sports books are built around some kind of arc of success, or at least a significant near-miss. Rebuild City, on the other hand, inverts the typical sports-book narrative by focusing on failure — a long-term, seemingly never-ending failure, yet one that has fascinated fans across the league thanks to both its length and its improbability.

In late 2016, there will be one new addition to the Oilers bookshelf: Marty Klinkenberg’s The McDavid Effect (Simon & Schuster Canada), which is an expansion of the Globe and Mail reporter’s year-long series about the team’s newest saviour. McDavid is an interesting figure — as well as a key symbol of hope for fans and Oilers players and management alike — but he has only played for the team for a single season, and is therefore one small piece in the larger story of the franchise’s decade-long slump. While Klinkenberg’s book will likely make an appearance in my bibliography, I do not see it as serious competition for Rebuild City.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Hingston is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed journalist and author. He has written about the Edmonton Oilers for The Walrus and The Guardian, and his journalism has appeared in Wired magazine, the Daily Beast, Salon, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Eighteen Bridges magazine, Quill & Quire magazine, and the South China Morning Post. From 2012 to 2016, he wrote the books column for the Edmonton Journal. Hingston’s debut novel, The Dilettantes (Freehand, 2013), was a #1 regional bestseller and a finalist for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. The Winnipeg Free Press said it “may well be the Great Canadian Comic Novel,” and the book was later translated into German. Hingston is also the editor and co-publisher of the Short Story Advent Calendar, a collection of 24 individually bound stories that readers open, one by one, on the mornings leading up to Christmas. In 2016, he received the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. Hingston lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with his partner and two children.

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A more current bio: Michael Hingston’s book about Calvin and Hobbes will be published by ECW Press in 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @mhingston.