Where now, Edmonton Oilers?

It’s obvious not many people (including fans) will be fooled enough by the latest changes made by the Edmonton Oilers to start plotting a Stanley Cup parade route.

And if anyone thinks the latest series of disasters has been ex-coach Dallas Eakins’s fault, think again. How about the people above him on the totem pole, that is, the people who hired him in the first place?

As the good old saying has it, fish smell funny (read: stink) from the head down.

The club’s owner represents the head here.

Many a commentator would point to the sad fact that the Oilers are doomed because their organization, once the envy of the league, has become a dysfunctional mess.

They can hardly be more right.

The issue of misplaced loyalties has raised its ugly head again. And it will continue doing so until the fans force Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz to walk away, ride into the sunset, perform a disappearing act, simply vanish from the scene.

How can the fans achieve that? But it’s simple and straightforward: by stopping sending their money Katz’s way.

The Oilers can still claim sell-outs, but regular watchers will confirm that the number of empty seats has been growing exponentially in recent weeks. These are (mostly) season ticket seats that have been sold before the season began. Anyone who thinks they’ll be sold again once the next season rolls around is dreaming in Technicolor.

Empty seats lead directly to sponsors’ reluctance to support a losing proposition much longer. Meaning, Daryl Katz would be facing a double-whammy. He may start whining. He may start talking about Edmontonians’ civic duty, as if supporting a professional sports team was local citizenry’s solemn obligation bestowed upon birth. He may even demand that city government help him through these difficult times because his club’s presence helps increase Edmonton’s quality of life. Given his record, this is not out of the question at all: just recall how he got city council forfeit its duties to its employers (citizens of Edmonton, that is) and shell out a huge chunk of the cost of a new arena.

Just for the record: a professional sports club’s presence does nothing to enhance quality of life for the community where it happens to be sitting. In pure economic terms, it’s just another employer. Except, unlike most of the other employers, professional sports clubs use (abuse is a better word) their customers’ frightfully shortsighted (stupid is a word that describes the situation better) loyalty to the product. For whatever reason, it takes supporters of professional sports clubs much longer than an average citizen to realize they’re buying damaged goods and that they believe that snake-oil sales pitches have any merit whatsoever.

In any case, to get local supporters to the stage where they begin abandoning the brand, especially in a hockey-crazed community such as Edmonton, now, that takes sheer genius. Yet, that’s precisely what’s happening. It’s gone so far that scalpers have been trying to sell tickets to what used to be attractive games offering them at deep discounts, much less than the price they had paid to obtain them in the first place. Not only that: they’re finding no takers.

By the way, Edmonton fans are used to looking down on their Vancouver colleagues. Guess what: their Vancouver colleagues showed their displeasure with the Vancouver Canucks brand in no uncertain means. Within a few months, the entire managment crew of the Canucks was gone. Fans are coming back.

Reasons, anybody?

To be fair, general manager Craig MacTavish did his best to sound professionally and show a dose of honesty. Announcing Dallas Eakins’s departure, MacTavish would admit that he’s to blame for the mess to a degree. What a turn of events from just less than two weeks ago when he blamed everybody but himself, telling all and sundry he hasn’t been in office long enough to clean up the mess.

Of course, MacTavish’s use William Shakespeare’s kind of imagery has turned what was supposed to be a wake of almost tragic proportions into a farce.

Well, at least he was honest, as he was announcing that Dallas Eakins would no longer coach the team. This is a positive character quality, and it’s not new. After all, it was MacTavish himself who resigned as coach in 2009. He wasn’t fired. It showed honesty and loyalty to the club, despite the fact that it must have hurt him beyond belief.

But that was then, this is now.

The Oilers have started going down after two events: first, after the departure of Peter Pocklington, and, secondly, after the departure of Glen Sather.

No, not after the Wayne Gretzky trade. They did manage to win another Stanley Cup without him, too.

Granted, Pocklington’s personality didn’t attract everybody, and it couldn’t, either. His faults were many. Not as many as some of his critics would say, and not as few as some of his supporters would claim. And the fact the Oilers won five (count them: five) Stanley Cups while Pocklington was their owner, does not necessarily reflect his ownership genius. Yet, it does remain an undisputed (and undisputable) fact.

Granted, Sather’s departure was engineered to bring in some fresh air and cut the club’s ties to the past. That’s what the gang of 21, a.k.a. Oilers’ new ownership group would claim. Yet, in the interest of continuity, they would replace Sather with Kevin Lowe.

Here’s the issue: Kevin Lowe is a highly intelligent, professional, honest and loyal human being. He knows more about hockey (both as the game and as the business) than all of the members of the ownership group combined. He faced a barrage of suggestions and proposals from these people and, for whatever reasons, he didn’t tell them to go where he should have told them to go.

The ownership group, a gathering of hockey ignoramuses if there ever was one, would eventually give up and sell the club to a pharmacy chain owner.

Why? Because it hated losing money, that’s why.

What’s so new about the so-called new era?

Daryl Katz claims he’s been the club’s fan since time immemorial. As a little kid who’s never managed to grow up, he’s still incredibly proud that he can count these great stars of the past amongst his personal friends. Why, he’s even got their home phone numbers, and he can call them by their first names, too, and how many of you can do that?

Therein lies the first mistake: a professional sports club is a business like any other. While it can’t hurt if its owner likes what his or her company produces, whatever it may be, an owner’s first and foremost approach must be professional. Businesslike, that is. In the Edmonton Oilers’ media book, Daryl Katz reveals he’s not aware of anything of the kind. He waxes poetic about how much he’s a fan throughout his biographical entry. Good for him, probably, but awful for the business, for sure.

Because of this approach, he views his vice-president (Lowe) and general manager (MacTavish) as his personal buddies, and he wouldn’t do anything to cause them pain.

That it may hurt the guys in the future, nobody seems to have told him: if they continue working for Daryl Katz, their reputations around the league will be going down, if they hadn’t yet.

Frankly, Kevin Lowe’s “best before” label has expired. At least in this market. He would absolutely be a perfect leader in 29 other NHL locations. Not in Edmonton, any longer.

In MacTavish’s case, the scenario is more difficult.

After his resignation as a head coach, in addition to coaching in minor leagues and commenting on television, MacTavish went and earned himself an MBA degree. Commendable. Remarkable, even. But: business administration touches upon economics, the science that is behind it, only rarely and very briefly. Too rarely and too briefly, in fact. Which means that, it seems, nobody mentioned an advanced economics theory known as the Peter Principle to him.

Named after Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian economist, educator and “hierarchiologist,” the theory deals with the sadly undisputable fact that we all have our ceilings so far as our abilities are concerned.

Here’s an example: a car mechanic is able to hear right away everything that’s going on inside the vehicle’s engine as the customer is driving his car in. The guy is a genius. Cars that he fixes would fetch more on second-hand markets than what the original owner had paid for them to begin with.

The mechanic gets promoted. He becomes a foreman. This is still relatively OK. He still has to (and gets to) work on the shop floor. His reputation as a genius keeps bringing new customers to the shop.

Everybody’s happy. Well, not everybody, actually. The paperwork is more often than not late. The guy’s main interest is still in the engines, not behind a desk. But so famous is he that the dealer promotes him to the position of service department manager. Which is precisely where it all comes crashing down. The guy interferes with the mechanics, he’s getting in their way, and the paperwork keeps getting more and more unfinished.

What happened? The unfortunate guy is a step or two above his ceiling. It can’t work, and it doesn’t.

And that’s precisely where Craig MacTavish is right now. An honest, hardworking guy who forgot more about hockey than the rest of us will ever know, he has stumbled (or was pushed – that doesn’t matter) into an untenable position.

Proof?

How about MacTavish’s inauguration speech? Remember? He’s going to make bold moves, and he’s impatient.

That one singular turn of phrase gave 29 of his opposing numbers reliable weapons. The one about lack of patience in particular: oh, we’ll just outwait him.

Oh, he wants this or that player? We’ll demand this or that player in return. Mostly players who were on MacTavish’s “untouchable” list.

His dismissal of previous coach, Ralph Krueger, during a Skype conversation about hiring an associate coach (in Dallas Eakins) did nothing to make Edmonton more attractive to potential new talent behind the bench. Whether MacTavish intended it to look and sound like this is absolutely irrelevant. It looked and sounded incredibly disrespectful. Everybody around the league is aware of this.

After this fiasco, how many will even begin to consider Edmonton an ideal spot to work as a coach? A rhetorical question, this.

True, MacTavish has had a hand in replacing about a half of the team. How many of the newcomers have been a success outright, how many have meant no change, and how many have been an unmitigated disaster?

Change for the sake of change may make you look like the busiest of beavers in the world. It doesn’t get you anywhere.

Attacking the club’s scouting staff doesn’t go over exceptionally well, either. The scouts are told, instructed, even, what kind of players their club is after. So, they go and concentrate on looking for that kind of players. Is it their fault? Is it somebody else’s fault? How about the general manager’s?

Here’s a sad picture: Pat Quinn comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Tom Renney comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Ralph Krueger comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Steve Tambellini figures the same thing out, too. Result? Dismissed.

Whose hand do you detect here? Kevin Lowe’s? Absolutely not. He’s a hockey guy, and hockey guys’ views are much more realistic. He knows the NHL is not what junior players have got used to. He knows the NHL is superior to the AHL, too.

Lest anybody dreams that Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, both described by hockey experts as generational players (whatever THAT is supposed to mean) will turn the Oilers’ fortunes within the first few shifts of their arrival, think again.

Not even Wayne Gretzky managed to turn the Los Angeles Kings’ fortunes around and help them win the Stanley Cup. Yes, they got into game seven in the cup finals, but it took a much better-rounded club for the Kings to win it all years later. And nobody will dispute that if there ever was a generational player, it was Gretzky.

Is there a way out?

No, there isn’t, as it is. Definitely not as long fans are going to support their team in good times and bad, accepting that they’re being sold a bill of goods year after year after year.

Can there be a way out? Yes, under new ownership, there can be. Can that happen? Certainly. The owner will have to feel his club’s fans’ discontent where it hurts the most. In Daryl Katz’s case, in his wallet. Then, and only then, will there be hope that the Edmonton Oilers can begin aspiring to greatness again.

Will it ever happen? Why not? Then again: why yes?

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One thought on “Where now, Edmonton Oilers?

  1. inkavo December 17, 2014 at 15:53 Reply

    I´m no hockey expert or fan, but I found your article witty and interesting,

    Inka

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