Are the Edmonton Oilers’ players dancing to the same music?

What’s wrong with the Edmonton Oilers? Loaded with talent galore they resemble casino winners in Vegas (or Monte Carlo, even). But when they play a real team, say, the Chicago Blackhawks, they wilt like wild flowers in the scorching desert sun after six weeks without a drop of water.

Analysts are scratching their heads. Fans, coaches and managers are losing their sleep.

After the Oilers put together a modest three-game winning streak, it was obvious right after the opening faceoff last Monday (November 25, to be precise) that the Hawks will have their way with them.

It was, yet again, men against boys.

And no, Oilers’ goalie Devan Dubnyk was not really the only one to blame. Ilya Bryzgalov came in to mop up after the fourth goal in the Oilers’ net, and he’d let only one in, but that was too little and too late.

It’s not as if there was no effort.

So, what was it?

Here’s an observation that might seem outrageous, but it has its own logic.

The Oilers consist of what we might call “future core players” and a few veterans who perform what we might describe as “support roles.”

It might be more complicated than this, but it seems that the “future core players” aren’t core players, not yet, at least. Still, they behave as if they were, already. The few veterans who are still with the club might resent that. It doesn’t matter whether this resentment is conscious or not. It does matter that it might be there.

It’s called “group dynamic,” and it’s a minefield not many highly experienced and skilled psychologists dare tread upon. As I’m not a psychologist, neither highly experienced, nor skilled, I will have the gall to try a few initial steps. After all, as a life-long student of the theory of games I have seen a few books (with pictures, too) that touched upon the object. Yes, those books dealt mostly with the theory of games and economic and political behaviours, but some of the “group dynamic” rules seem to be general enough to apply them to teams that differ from group concepts in the field of economics.

Imagine: you are a part of, say, a company. You’ve gained experience throughout the years and you expect some rewards. Recognition, celebratory mentions in your owners’ New Year’s speeches, pay raises, bonuses, perhaps, even. You may be getting some of it. Next thing you know, the company hires a young punk (excuse the expression). The reputation that precedes her or his arrival is that of a genius. If your company was slowing down lately, it would be attributed to its employee core’s aging, and this new guy will be expected to turn its fortunes around on a dime. That would be the fanfare surrounding her or his arrival on the scene. The U.S. Marines are here. Doesn’t happen, of course, so, new and newer young punks will be coming through the front door, each celebrated as a genius and as a saviour before they even had been assigned their working stations.

This kind of dynamic holds true even for companies that have been doing well. They bring in young geniuses in an attempt to continue with the trend. If not handled just right, it may backfire on them.

In any case, will you be happy with this kind of development? Be honest with and to yourself and make it biblically simple: yes, yes, no, no.

What happens next?

Well, first of all, as mentioned, those young punks will not turn your company’s fortunes around. They will not help it grow, either. Not right away, in any case. Logically, they can’t. Not without your willingness to share your experience, and not without your cooperation.

Besides, even a genius has to gain some experience, and that takes time.

And yet, they will continue getting pats on their backs in your owners’ celebratory New Year’s speeches, pay raises and bonuses, even, while you might be mentioned in passing, and that only if you’re lucky.

What the geniuses will get is known as a feeling of entitlement. It takes special strengths to resist it.

Will you resent that? Again, be honest with and to yourself and make it biblically simple: yes, yes, no, no.

Now, this is definitely NOT to say that something like this is happening in the Oilers’ dressing room. Players honestly believe in the mantra that what happens in the room, stays in the room, after all. Similar to that perfectly obnoxious television promotion slogan: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

But, generally speaking, this kind of group dynamic exists, and it makes one wonder.

If you watch Oilers’ games regularly, more often than not you walk away with a strange feeling that the players haven’t got much faith in one another. That they struggle with the new systems their new coach has introduced. That latter observation might be correct. Even the coach admits it. Time only will tell if it’s true, and time only will fix it if it is.

But there are some things that make an eyebrow or two go up in wonderment.

The new coach introduces himself by disparaging reporters’ eating habits.

The new coach rearranges the dressing room and surrounding areas: gone is the wall that listed all the players who have ever worn Oilers’ silks, under the motto that once an Oiler, always an Oiler. Gone are the pictures of former stars. These were replaced with pictures of players who may, one day, become stars. And the wall is replaced by a graphic that proclaims that the Oilers never give up, no matter what. One would have expected all professional players to know this by heart. We play till the fat lady sings.

At least the victory banners and retired numbers stayed where they have been.

Absolutely, the logic is simple: this is a new team.

Except, such clubs as the Montreal Canadiens have made the symbolic displays of their traditions (most of them winning) a part of their dressing room culture. Where are the Habs? In the hunt. And where are the Oilers? A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

So, the following question seems logical, too: why such gimmicky innovations? Winning has been the Edmonton Oilers’ tradition. Nothing to be ashamed of.

One major issue: fans are getting restless. Those who keep paying the piper losing year after losing year are getting sick and tired of hearing (yet again) that next year, your darlings will make the playoffs for sure, and once there, who knows where it will end.

Come to think of it, the last time the Oilers made the playoffs they managed to squeeze in thanks to last-minute heroics, and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.

The Oilers, as an organization, are doing everything they can to make their group of players a team. A real team. The veterans are trying to help, too. See, for example, Ryan Smyth organizing an elaborate celebration for Joey Moss’s 50th birthday right in his house. See, for example, Andrew Ference leading his teammates in reaching out to the community.

But: no matter how much players love Joey Moss, such celebrations don’t win games.

No matter how useful Andrew Ference’s attempts to instill community feeling, that doesn’t win games, either.

Alas, professional sports are about winning. Nothing else matters.

And that’s where the group dynamic rules come in. The basic rule: to win, all team members must be on the same page. They must be singing the same song. In unison.

Are the Edmonton Oilers?

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