Photo by Steven Christy
I don’t recall which season it was or what month it happened, but my very first encounter with Linus Omark was deliciously awkward. My then family of three (now four) headed to the Cox Center on a warm evening to watch the Oklahoma City Barons face a Western Conference opponent. It was sunny when we left our house, we felt excited to be at the rink, and the crowd was unusually largish by OKC hockey standards. My daughter, being a daddy’s girl, hand crafted a sparkly sign from a giant piece of poster board which only hours before had been a blank canvas. Strewn across the sign were glitzy letters that read “I’m Teemu’s #1 Fan (and I’m only 3)”. Teemu Hartikainen, being the heartthrob-like hockey player that he always has been, was an easy target for my families amusement. He was the type of hockey player we liked watching. Skilled, agile, smart, and altogether fun – he was our player, and we loved him.
We arrived at the rink an hour before the puck dropped due to some over-planning on my part, so we nestled in for the team warm-ups. My daughter raised her sign high above her head as Hartikainen entered the ice. Despite her valiant attempt at getting his attention, he was extremely focused on the task at hand. Frustrated, she asked me if she could take the sign down along the boards. “Then maybe he could see it,” she said honestly. I obliged, sorta became giddy myself, and we meandered our way rink side.
As my daughter, then three, stood their with her sparkle-filled poster sign stuck tightly to the glass, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a player stretching with his eyes fixated on the sign. It wasn’t Hartikainen checking it out, it was Linus Omark.
He gazed at the sign as if he were burning it with a laser beam, his lips were drawn up, his scowl ferocious. I immediately took offense, for I knew the work that went into that sign. Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting. As the ferocious scowl remained on his face, he stood from his stretching position, wandered over to the far boards, whispered something to fellow teammate Teemu Hartikainen, and then went back to his pregame ritual. Thirty seconds later, Teemu skated to the pane of glass where my daughter was standing, gave her a wink and a wave, and forever won her smile.
A week later I’d watch Linus Omark score five goals in regulation followed by another in the shootout to lead his team to victory.
Omark has always been perceived as a two-headed monster. On the ice he could dazzle and dominate in the AHL, but even after one really strong showing with the Oilers in his rookie season, he proceeded to be stashed away in hopes that he would sizzle again. Off the ice he was pegged as a self-promoting showboat, willing to speak his mind (in his native tongue) when given the chance. Yet he was always very kind, cordial, and entirely personable to me. It is somewhat bittersweet that his tenure with the Oilers became a highly critical mess because he remains one heckuva player, and the greatest we have seen in the young history of the Oklahoma City Barons.
To understand the Omarkian perspective you have to realize the situation that was thrust upon him. YouTube highlights promised us a magician on the ice, and indeed he was that in the minors. As the Oilers continued to struggle and struggle and struggle the need for a savior continued to grow rapidly. Despite the three-in-a-row number one picks, fans/media/management tried to put Omark, a square peg, into a round hole. This unjust need for him to rise above quickly clobbered his opportunity at success. That and the ultimate mismanagement of an entire NHL team.
When you take a step back, consider the weight of importance, and count the ways in which Linus Omark impacted an Oklahoma City Barons squad, there is no denying his greatness in brevity. He knew what he wanted, but he also understood who he was. As the Tambo era soldiered on Omark felt out of place, misused, maybe mistreated. With the assurance of a contract in the new MacTavish era, Omark gained a quickness in his step. A mindfulness towards defense. A closed mouth, and open ice pass where he normally would have dangled. But again, whether it was Steve or Craig or Ralph or Dallas, sneaking Omark into the lineup in the mode with which he played was a difficult task.
Another time, another team, another place – Omark has NHL success beyond his stat lines as an Oiler. The offensive guns were present in Edmonton, how could you squeeze in just one more? And so they didn’t. Oh they swore that he was a part of the plan, he would get his shot, he would have healthy consideration, but in the end you can’t take the prowess out of the naturally gifted warrior. When you do some things well, the same things that have carried you through most of your early life, you tend to stick to those things. Omark is an offensive player capable of being a juggernaut. The Oilers wanted him to be less that, and more something else, and despite a yeoman like attempt at the end to make those things change, he found it in vain.
Perspective is best viewed through the 20/20 vision of the brain long after events take place. Of course riding on the handlebars of my neighbor Brian’s BMX bike down an incredibly steep hill was dumb, I knew it 30 seconds after I knocked out two of my front teeth. And so we can now look back on the white hot minor league career of Linus Omark, and slowly inhale what we actually witnessed.
Bryan Helmer. Teemu Hartikainen. Jeff Petry. Mark Arcobello. Alex Plante. Chris VandeVelde. Linus Omark. These are bedrock guys. Players forged into the legacy of Oklahoma City hockey regardless of where they ended up or how they finished as an Oiler. Two on that list have graduated to NHL play having been tended to by Oklahoma City coaching. But a few have sought refuge elsewhere, and for them that’s good news. They have found success in other corners of the hockey globe, and I believe they are better for it.
As we bid a fond farewell to Linus Omark as an Oiler the hope is that we can speak fondly of him as a truly great hockey player who began in Oklahoma City. That we can be grateful for having seen him spin, dangle, criss-cross, and wrist shot his way through the better part of three AHL seasons. He will now head north, but much further east than before, and the likelihood of his success has probably never been at a higher level. He is finally getting a shot within the outstretched arms of a team that genuinely needs what he offers. Regardless of where you land – hate or love – when it comes to Omark, there is no denying that he is a fabulous hockey player. One with which we were able to watch with our own eyes.
My daughter still has that sparkly Teemu Hartikainen sign. It sits behind the closed door to my children’s play room. Occasionally it gets knocked over when someone is vacuuming the rug, or when the kids rough house, or when I drop my keys. The message on that sign was intended for Teemu, but knowing that he never would have seen it without the prompting of Linus Omark, makes it valuable. It reminds me that behind the scowling, self-promoting, and sometimes painfully direct Linus Omark was a pretty incredible fella. One who gets what it means to be a player in the professional hockey leagues, and one that is okay with doing things on his terms. I’ve never wanted to watch a Buffalo Sabres game more than I do right now. And so I’ll cheer.
Go get ’em Sir Linus.