Category Archives: Edmonton Oilers

Oil Change closes its season April 20

The times, they are ’a-changin’ … and so are we. If Bob Dylan, the American songwriter, ever thought the idea was his, he could hardly be more wrong. Still, he was right.

What differs is the way we remember changes, no matter how significant or otherwise.

It could be a poem set to music. A song, in other words. A novel of hundreds of pages.

Or, it could be a documentary television series about a professional sports team that shows its viewers that those finely tuned and shaped bodies belong to people with their own minds and emotions.

And that’s what this season’s final installment of Oil Change, the award-winning series about the Edmonton Oilers, will tell us.

It airs on Sportsnet Sunday, April 20, as follows:

  • EAST & ONTARIO – 9 p.m./ET
  • WEST – 9 p.m./MT
  • PACIFIC – 9 p.m./PT

First replays on Monday April 21:

  • EAST & ONTARIO – 12:00 a.m./ET
  • WEST – 12:00 a.m./MT
  • PACIFIC – 12:00 a.m./PT

We can expect more replays on Sportsnet, and on the NHL Network, later on.

With season’s end, it’s time for some reminiscing. In fact, reminiscing helps put matters in perspective.

Let’s begin with this minor fact of major proportions: compared to the same point last year, more than half of this season’s roster has changed. General manager Craig McTavish did, after all, promise that there would be changes galore under his command.

He has been as good as his word, and this installment of Oil Change is documenting it in considerable detail.

Thanks, Smytty

With Ryan Smyth announcing his retirement after all these years, a behind-the-scenes tour of the memory-filled trophy room in Nr. 94’s home delivers a meaning all of his teammates, past and current should remember. Come to think of it, Smyth’s future teammates would do well to keep it in mind, too: he’ll remain an Oiler no matter what, it’s in his blood.

Taylor Hall, captain Andrew Ference, several other key players and MacTavish share some candid and insightful final reflections on this season and next.

A retrospective look at all those who’ve donned an Oilers jersey in the past four seasons of Oil Change forms another chapter of this season’s finale.

This episode starts where the previous one ended: at the trade deadline. Oiler veteran Ales Hemsky (the team’s first-round draft pick in 2003) is gone. So is veteran blueliner Nick Schultz. They were traded to Ottawa and Columbus, respectively, for draft picks. Victor Fasth arrives from Anaheim, to share the goaltending load with Ben Scrivens.

Just to make sure nobody forgets it, fate deals the Oilers a few more blows. Ryan Jones, Jesse Joensuu, Anton Belov, Andrew Ference and Nail Yakupov are all out of the line-up. Injured. One and all.

There are reinforcements coming up from AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons. Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick and Will Acton get return trips to Edmonton, while rookie defenceman Oscar Klefbom makes his long-awaited NHL debut and quickly shows he’s not out of his depth up in Edmonton. Except: the OKC Barons are in a tough battle to secure one of the final AHL playoff spots, and the call-ups don’t help he Oilers’ farmers much.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Oil Change will deal with the memories of this season, one that can be called – without any exaggeration – season from hell.

See you in front of your TV Sunday night.

Oil Change nominated for Golden Sheaf

North America’s longest-running film festival has nominated Oil Change for its 2014 Golden Sheaf Award.

Yorkton Film Festival’s jurors listed the Edmonton-based Aquila Productions’ series in their Lifestyle category.

The Yorkton Film Festival (YFF for short) was established in 1947. Guided by the Yorkton Film Council, it opened in 1950.

This year’s edition of the festival runs May 22 to 25.

The festival features Canadian productions or international productions directed by Canadians. It focuses on films that are under 60 minutes in length.

This is not the first time Aquila Productions and Oil Change have been in the spotlight. The company has also received seven AMPIA (Alberta Media Production Industries Association) nominations for Oil Change: Game On.

The series that has developed a cult-like following across North America is now in its fourth season, documenting the rebuilding of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club.

Broadcast on TSN in its first season, it has become an integral part of Sportsnet’s programming. NHL Network airs it regularly for its audiences in the U.S.

Oil Change has become known not only for its crisp camera work, dramatic editing, effective use of sound and music and for letting the pictures do most of the talking.

It takes viewers behind the scenes to show what makes a professional sports team work. It tackles the issues top-notch athletes face both on- and off-the-ice. It doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but it handles them with tact, making sure it does not embarrass either its subjects or its fans.

Oil Change is an honest documentary series, and that is what brings viewers back again and again.

And that is what YFF jurors must have noticed when they nominated Oil Change for their award.

Aquila Productions is one of Canada’s most accomplished television production and entertainment companies. Known for more than 30 years as one of Canada’s leading independent producers of original television, Aquila has also gained international recognition for covering the world of athletics through broadcast and long form documentary programming. Aquila was recently honoured with a Canadian Screen Award as part of TSN’s CFL 100th anniversary football series, Engraved on a Nation.

What ails the Oilers? Oil Change looks for a diagnosis

So what is this thing called professionalism all about, anyway?

Does it mean that whoever performs whatever job gets paid for it, and that’s it?

Not one bit of that.

Professionals, real professionals, that is, are paid to perform their jobs to certain standards, day in, day out. They never ever sink so low as to perform under that set standard. And true professionals accept, too, that once they exceed a standard, that becomes the new standard that they have to perform to day in and day out.

That’s what professionalism is all about.

And that’s what the fifth episode of Oil Change is all about, too.

It aired early evening Sunday on Sportsnet, with first set of repeats scheduled for broadcast for Monday, March 17, thus:

Sportsnet EAST & ONTARIO – 12 a.m./ET

Sportsnet WEST – 9 p.m//MT

The fifth segment of Oil Change opens with assistant coach Steve Smith and Oilers captain Andrew Ference leading young Edmonton kids through a hockey practice, while the Stanley Cup (the REAL thing) arrives in their dressing room. The kids’ expressions upon their return to their dressing room to see every hockey player’s dream trophy right there – where they can touch it and have their pictures taken with it – are priceless.

And so are the gems of wisdom Smith and Ference share with them. They speak of years of self-sacrifice, of hard work, of team work, and of individual effort, and their words carry substantial weight. Both their names are engraved on the cup, after all.

Cut: Ference and new arrival Matt Hendricks are trying to define what has gone wrong with their team that many (local fans, at least) thought would be contending from now onwards all the way to eternity, to say the least.

Judging by the fact each of the two speaks in different environments, it would be quite safe to assume they are expressing themselves independently of one another. And yet, what they are saying and how they are saying it can hardly be much more similar.

What the Oilers lack is consistency, Ference and Hendricks agree. While they concede that some would say that it may be due to youthful exuberance, they reject this notion forthwith.

Here, they are perfectly in tune with their head coach. Dallas Eakins told all and sundry prior to the opening of this season last October that he hated anybody calling this club young. It would be a built-in excuse, he insisted, and he could hardly be more perfectly right.

Hendricks put it best: it’s one thing to play beautiful attacking hockey in your opponents’ zone, but that alone doesn’t win you hockey games. Playing from one backboard all the way to the other, with the entire team subscribing to this plan, that is the only way. From the way he said it it seems not all members of the team’s “talented future core” have yet signed on the dotted line that this would be the only way they would be playing from now on. As Hendricks put it, that would be the only way to play hockey the right way.

Neither Ference nor Hendricks did (or could) offer ways how to solve this conundrum. Neither of them holds a doctorate in group psychology, either.

But what they said was serious enough to force the other guys on the team to sit up and take notice.

A serious documentarist must be able to know what it is that is the most important issue concerning their subjects.

Aquila Productions crews quite obviously are keenly aware of the biggest issue the Oilers face. They approached what they kindly called “lack of consistency,” but what some others might call less charitably “lack of professionalism.” They tackled it with all seriousness. It couldn’t have been too easy for the two veterans, either, to speak on the record as frankly and sincerely as they had.

Hats off to both sides: the people in front of the camera, and those behind it, too.

The fifth episode of Oil Change captures much more than game highlights or unusual behind-the-scenes occasions. The meeting coach Eakins arranged for his young defenceman Martin Marincin, to meet Boston Bruins’ (and Team Slovakia Olympic squad) captain Zdeno Chara was touching, and so was the visit by a couple of Oilers’ players with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in his New York office. And the scenes surrounding the wheeling and dealing around deadline day were breathtaking.

Thanks to the Olympic break, the Oilers’ management, and an Aquila Productions crew, hopped on the chance to spend some useful time with the Oilers’ farm team, the Oklahoma City Barons. Some eye-opening conversations with players most in the know view as coming up to Edmonton in the very near future. Open, frank insights from Barons’ coach Todd Nelson, as well as observations from Oilers’ GM Craig MacTavish.

All of this leaves the viewer much better informed.

But the gist of it all was and is elsewhere.

Such as: where are the Oilers going? Are they aware of the challenges they face with their consistent inconsistency that only a most forgiving person would describe as a sign of immaturity? Do they realize that they happen to have a window of opportunity right now because two of their most respected players have recognized the trouble and are willing to risk their necks by talking about it openly?

This episode, as has become the series’ habit, has turned the spotlight on the issues, with its usual mastery of their television documentary craft.

For fear of repeating oneself: crisp camera, sharp editing, a lot of action (it’s hockey, after all, the fastest team game on earth), no overwhelming verbiage, great music selection, authentic sound.

And an insight into a hockey team to end all insights into a hockey team.

Oil Change offers sneak preview

For those who can’t wait till Sunday, Aquila Productions have set up a sneak preview of Oil Change’s fifth episode that all and sundry can watch right now.

The full show will air Sunday, March 16, thus:

Sportsnet EAST & ONTARIO – 8 p.m./ET

Sportsnet WEST – 8 p.m./MT with an 11 p.m./MT replay

Sportsnet PACIFIC – 6 p.m./PT

Sportsnet will broadcast the first set of repeats Monday, March 17, as follows:

Sportsnet EAST & ONTARIO – 12 a.m./ET

Sportsnet WEST – 9 p.m//MT

What’s the show going to be all about?

The story picks up at the end of the Olympic Games, moving through the trade deadline, and onwards.

The newest episode will go along several tracks.

The first one inspects a development not many outside of the team thought they could expect: the Oilers have begun heating up, and all that amidst one of the harsher winters on record. Yes, any thought of this season’s playoffs seems to be gone, but not the fighting spirit. It may be a sign of things to come next season, but, in any case, the arrival of goalie Ben Scrivens, high-energy forward Matt Hendricks and hard-nosed blueliner Mark Fraser seem to have had more impact than many would have anticipated.

These moves happened even before the Olympic break so, officially, they do not count as trade deadline acquisitions. Except, there was a roster freeze in effect during the Olympic Games, so, why not be a bit more generous, right?

Three Oilers went to Russia: Ales Hemsky to play for the Czechs, Anton Belov for the Russians, and Martin Marincin for the Slovaks. The few games after the Olympic break would be Hemsky’s swan song in Oilers’ silks: he would be gone on trade deadline day.

But the new goalie, Ben Scrivens, would endear himself to the team and its fans even before the break: an NHL-record, 59-save, 3-0 shutout victory over the San Jose Sharks would do that for you.

Oil Change used the Olympic break to send its crew down to Oklahoma City and see how some of the younsgters are doing. They weren’t the only ones to make the trip to see the Barons, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate: general manager Craig MacTavish was on hand, too.

While Oil Change was there to report on the progress of people like Martin Gernat, Oscar Klefbom and Tyler Pitlick, MacTavish’s role was a tad more involved. The idea was for him to see, first-hand, the depth of his organization so he knows what moves he can (and can’t) afford come the trade deadline day.

You can be excused if you hadn’t known, but now you will: the Oilers’ Andrew Ference and David Perron dropped in by the NHL New York office on the club’s day off during their eastern swing, and they got to chat with the commissioner, Gary Bettman, himself.

This episode of Oil Change will take us all the way through the trade deadline day. We’ve all heard the rumours, and we know now what’s actually happened. Thanks to this episode of Oil Change, we’ll know how it happened and why, too.

And while we’ll be digesting the latest documentary by the award-winning (and Edmonton-based) Aquila Productions, they will be hard at work on the next segment.

Such is the life of documentary filmmakers: it doesn’t stop. And neither do they.

Oilers fortunes at a crossroads in Oil Change’s fifth episode

Now that the dust has settled and we know who brought gold from the Olympic Games and who will remain on the Edmonton Oilers’ roster till the end of the season (at least), it’s time to reflect.

The fifth installment of Oil Change will help us do exactly that. It will air on Sportsnet, both on the national and regional networks, Sunday, March 16.

As has become a useful tradition, re-broadcasts will follow.

The newest episode will go along several tracks.

The first one inspects a development not many outside of the team thought they could expect: the Oilers have begun heating up, and all that amidst one of the harsher winters on record. Yes, any thought of this season’s playoffs seems to be gone, but not the fighting spirit. It may be a sign of things to come next season, but, in any case, the arrival of goalie Ben Scrivens, high-energy forward Matt Hendricks and hard-nosed blueliner Mark Fraser seem to have had more impact than many would have anticipated.

These moves happened even before the Olympic break so, officially, they do not count as trade deadline acquisitions. Except, there was a roster freeze in effect during the Olympic Games, so, why not be a bit more generous, right?

Three Oilers went to Sochi, Russia: Ales Hemsky to play for the Czechs, Anton Belov for the Russians, and Martin Marincin for the Slovaks. The few games after the Olympic break would be Hemsky’s swan song as an Oiler: he would be gone on trade deadline day to the Ottawa Senators.

But the new goalie, Ben Scrivens, would endear himself to the team and its fans even before the break: an NHL-record, 59-save, 3-0 shutout victory over the San Jose Sharks would do that for you.

Oil Change used the Olympic break to send its crew down to Oklahoma City and see how some of the younsgters are doing. They weren’t the only ones to make the trip to see the Barons, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate: general manager Craig MacTavish was on hand, too.

While Oil Change was there to report on the progress of people like Martin Gernat, Oscar Klefbom and Tyler Pitlick, MacTavish’s role was a tad more involved. The idea was for him to see, first-hand, the depth of his organization so he knows what moves he can (and can’t) afford come the trade deadline day.

You can be excused if you hadn’t known, but now you will: the Oilers’ Andrew Ference and David Perron dropped in by the NHL New York office on the club’s day off during their eastern swing, and they got to chat with the commissioner, Gary Bettman, himself.

This episode of Oil Change will take us all the way through the trade deadline day. We’ve all heard the rumours, and we know now what’s actually happened. Thanks to this episode of Oil Change, we’ll know how it happened and why, too.

And while we’ll be digesting the latest documentary by the award-winning (and Edmonton-based) Aquila Productions, they will be hard at work on the next segment.

Such is the life of documentary filmmakers: it doesn’t stop. And neither do they.

Oil Change won’t sugarcoat Oilers fans’ anger

The opening can hardly get more dramatic: an angry fan sends his Oiler jersey flying through the air, and it lands right on the Rexall Place ice.

It happened seconds after final horn ended the shellacking the Oilers had suffered at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.

Oil Change, in its fourth episode this season, doesn’t shy away. In fact, it goes even further: it touches in some detail upon the debate that would follow. To Oilers’ coach Dallas Eakins the jersey-throwing stunt would be a sacrilege, to many a disgruntled fan, it would be a perfectly justified sign of perfectly justified discontent.

It aired on Sunday on Sportsnet, and the first series of repeats is scheduled to happen Tuesday evening. It’s worth every second of your viewing time.

There are several firsts in this episode.

We get to see a bit of the anatomy of a trade as the Oilers sent goalie Devan Dubnyk to Nashville. We get to listen to coach Eakins’ explanations, views not shared earlier with anybody, be it in interviews or regular scrums. Those explanations are very revealing. Not only of the coach’s thought process, but also of the situation (or, to put it bluntly, the plight) the team has been in.

Whether one agrees with the explanations is perfectly irrelevant. They are Eakins’ explanations, they reflect his philosophies, and the players had better heed them, if they know what’s good for them. Why? Simply because a huge number of them will be looking for new contracts at season’s end. And – something more important for the team than for individual players – because their customers have begun showing signs of losing their patience with the group they have taken to calling a bunch of underachievers.

Is it fair? Not necessarily. Is it important? You bet. If those who are paying the piper start rejecting the merchandise you’re offering, you’re in trouble.

Of course, there’s always the future to hope for. Now, this is an old song-and-dance routine for Oilers’ fans and the percentage of those who have been bored to distraction by it has been growing by leaps and bounds lately.

Oil Change is not singing and dancing about the future, bright or dark as it may become. Instead, it puts faces on it. Two segments give us interesting insights into the lives of Mitch Moroz, currently with the Edmonton Oil Kings, and Darnell Nurse, currently with the Soo Greyhounds. Moroz’s junior days are coming to an end (that’s what happens when you’re growing up), and Nurse was so pretty close to making the Oilers the last training camp out, his cut must have come as a surprise, nay, shock, to many.

Neither of these two guys will be a saviour. In fact, the Oilers should consider abandoning this short-sighted notion that once they pick somebody as the first-overall choice at the draft, that player must perform forthwith or else he’s a failure, and so is the club. And the fans should shelve this view, too.

This episode of Oil Change is a stark document of what’s really going on the Oil Country. And it’s not too funny.

As is Aquila Productions’ habit, the pictures are crisp, the editing is fast (but not overwhelming), the music enhances what we see and hear, exchanges made during action on ice appear in subtitles bringing us that much closer to the team, the commentary is laconic, precisely as it should be, not a word wasted.

Great documentary making. Truthful and fair. What more can we ask for?

Winds of change to blow in part four of Oil Change

Will the Christmas break and the arrival of yet another year help improve the Edmonton Oilers’ fortunes?

Judging by what’s been happening thus far, this is not a fair question.

But the fourth episode of Oil Change will give us a few interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses to show the club isn’t just waiting for miracles to happen.

While in Minneapolis, general manager Craig MacTavish puts together two quite bold moves, moves he had promised in his inauguration speech. The Oilers have just lost in Chicago and Dallas and MacTavish sends goalie Devan Dubnyk to Nashville, getting forward Matt Hendricks in return. Then, he turns around, and before people can start asking questions about the goalie position in Edmonton, he acquires Ben Scrivens from Los Angeles, giving up a third-round pick in exchange.

And, Oil Change promises, we will get to see how it unfolded.

Episode Four of the hugely popular Aquila Productions’ show will air on Sunday, Jan. 26, on Sportsnet, as follows: at 5 p.m. in the East and in Ontario, at 3 p.m. out West, and at 2 p.m. in the Pacific. The first re-broadcast of Oil Change’s fourth episode is scheduled for Tuesday, January 28, for 7 p.m., across the entire network.

The trade sequence helps culminate this episode of Oil Change, but the timeframe this episode covers includes much more drama. Such as that fan who sent his Oilers jersey flying over the glass on the ice following the home team’s ignominious defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Coach Dallas Eakins, instead of keeping his sentiments to himself, proclaims his club does not really need quitters. That sparks a wide-ranging debate in the Oil Country that calms down somewhat only after the Oilers beat the Winnipeg Jets in their last pre-Christmas game.

If there’s one consistent theme, it’s the Oilers’ inconsistency. Capable of shutting out the Flames right in their Saddledome barn in Calgary, they go and blow a two-goal lead against Philadelphia the next day. Playing like boys against men in games with San Jose, Anaheim and St. Louis, they manage to defeat Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, that Pittsburgh that features Sidney Crosby in its lineup.

Oil Change faithfully records all that. But it also lets us see two intriguing bits of the club’s future, as its crews spend time (both on and off the ice) with a couple of promising draft picks. Mitch Moroz is a power forward drafted in 2012. His major junior career with the Edmonton Oil Kings will be over by the end of this season. Darnell Nurse, the Oilers’ first-round (7th  overall) pick last June, captains the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League and is that team’s star defenceman.

Time isn’t standing still, and the Oil Change episode, fourth this season, promises to reflect precisely that.

Katz offers disgruntled Oilers’ fans a pacifier

We can view Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s letter to the fans as a public relations move worthy of a genius. Or not.

But no matter how the long-suffering Oilers fans view the apologetic denial of everything that’s gone wrong with the club, it’s still nothing more (or else, for that matter) than public relations, pure and simple. It is, also, a sign of the times that the letter keeps sliding on the surface of the matter, rather than at least trying to get at the substance.

To concede for all reasons and purposes that this season has been a washout when the club still has 30 games to go may sound outrageous, if it wasn’t realistic. Of course, what this does to the athletes is another matter altogether. Yes, they are professionals, and they should play to professional standards game in and game out, no issue here.

But they are also human.

When Ryan Smyth forced Kevin Lowe’s hand with a few minutes to spare before the trading deadline a few years ago, many a player said he felt the team has written that particular season off. That the season had been long lost by that deadline, they could care less. It was the symbolism that stunned them.

And the team that had been stumbling before, just continued on its uncontrolled slide.

And now, the owner himself throws in the towel while there still can be a mathematical chance that things might change. Not a realistic chance, mind you, but still, a chance.

The fans’ wrath has been directed at former defenceman, later assistant coach, then head coach, general manager afterwards, and now, president of hockey operations, Kevin Lowe.

That the wrath hasn’t been justified is one thing. That Daryl Katz is somewhat ingenious (and this is putting it mildly) in his defence of his employee is – again – another matter.

Hockey people from all over the league would tell you that Daryl Katz is getting too involved with stuff he has no business getting involved with. There have been stories galore, told by reliable hockey people independently of one another, that where the Oilers’ hockey staff were angling for budding defencemen in recent drafts, they were overruled. Guess three times who could it have been to have sufficient power to do that.

If that is Kevin Lowe’s fault, then he’s also guilty of the volcano eruptions in Iceland several years ago.

And it doesn’t seem Daryl Katz plans to change his ways any time soon.

While boasting the club’s recent acquisitions (Andrew Ference, David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Anton Belov, Justin Schultz, Ben Scrivens, Matt Hendricks and, yes Ilya Bryzgalov), as if he deserved the credit for finding them and signing them up to join the Oilers, Katz goes on to say he doesn’t anticipate any quick-fix trades. Considering this statement is just a few lines removed from his assurance that the roster and its changes are GM Craig MacTavish’s call, and nobody else’s, this is a salto mortale (full somersault, a.k.a. deadly jump) that ought to have readers scratching their heads in shock and disbelief.

So, who’s running what?

The logic is perfectly simple: Daryl Katz has hired Kevin Lowe, a capable hockey guy. Lowe, in turn, hired Craig MacTavish, another capable hockey guy, whereupon MacTavish, in yet another turn, hired Dallas Eakins. Lowe knows better than to stick his nose into MacTavish’s business, and MacTavish knows better than to stick his nose into Eakins’ business.

What if their employer took a correspondence course from them?

You are either satisfied with your employees, or not. If you are satisfied, you leave them alone. If you are not, well, there might be others available to fill these jobs.

Whether Katz’s message to Oilers’ fans will end up having the soothing effect to help heal Oilers fans’ long-hurting pride remains to be seen.

While it’s the fans who, all things considered, pay the piper, it doesn’t mean they are always right. Except, any business owner worth her or his salt knows they better handle their customers as their bosses. Simply because they are paying for the fun.

It’s most unfortunate: the word fans comes (basically) from a version of the word fanatics. If they were to entertain sober second thoughts, they would have long ago come to the conclusion that watching adult people perform in children’s sports, earning shamelessly adult money is an insult to their own intelligence.

Of course, it doesn’t sound too cynical to suggest that Daryl Katz’s love letter to his paying customers was supposed to meet one more objective. It seems citizen support for city council spending taxpayer dollars on a new arena has been decreasing relatively significantly during the last few weeks. The gradual decrease turned into a freefall after the recent demand that city employees leave their current offices and move into a new downtown office tower, one proposed and owned by (who else?) Daryl Katz.

Yes, it does sound cynical, does it not?

But so does Daryl Katz’s recent attempt at pacifying his customers.

Edmonton’s fata morgana

An office tower and a hotel will revitalize Edmonton’s downtown. That’s what proponents of taxpayer-supported new arena for the Edmonton Oilers are trying to make us believe.

Why and how, they don’t say. We ought to believe in the tooth fairy, too, perhaps. Their reasoning is difficult to fathom, and no logical explanation has been forthcoming. Next time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, a mirage of Sahara desert proportions will keep us linked to Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz through an invisible umbilical cord. We’re going to be the mothers. He would be the embryo we’re going to feed.

It was bound to happen. As part of the highly suspect deal that has the city of Edmonton involved in building a private entrepreneur’s playground, taxpayers will be on the hook for moving their employees from their present location to a brand new office tower that Daryl Katz proposes to build downtown.

To Daryl Katz the new tower is supposed to be a cash cow. Based on his experience with Edmonton’s city council, he now knows where to find ready cash, neatly packaged and bundled, in no particular numerical sequence, so he can just pick it up and laugh all the way to the bank.

That’s what this deal is all about. The shovel hasn’t hit the ground yet, and the tower already has tenants galore. Who? We are the tenants. We as in we, the taxpayers. Wonderful.

How an office tower and a hotel can pretend to be places where people gather to enjoy their leisure time? That’s a question nobody has seemed to ask yet.

Let’s go back to the basics

Daryl Katz wants his Oilers to have a brand new arena. He’s of the view that he can’t build it all by himself. Despite being listed all over the place as one of the richer (if not richest) people in the country, he wants the taxpayers to kick in.

Why?

Because, he claims, the new arena will help revitalize the downtown area of Edmonton.

How? Somehow.

Let’s forget the question whether the Oilers really need a new arena. In all generosity, let’s accept this wish for a fact. After all, Rexall Place, formerly a.k.a. Northlands Coliseum, is an old building. It will turn 40 this coming November. It cost just above $17 million to build, about $81 million in today’s money. If we accept the publicly budgeted $450 million as the price tag for the new arena (and only a perfect fool would accept that amount), its bells would have to be closing in on 24 karats, pure gold, that is. And its whistles would have to be 100-carat diamonds. (Note: there’s a world of difference between karats and carats. You can look it up. The former describes purity of gold, the latter, gemstone mass.)

Anyhow, the Oilers’ owner says he needs a new arena. The almost-40-year-old building no longer suffices.

Let’s put aside the fact that if a 40-year-old building really is as decrepit as some proponents of the new arena claim, it doesn’t speak too well of North American building industry in general, and of Edmonton’s building industry in particular. Considering there are buildings aged centuries all over the world, still in overwhelmingly good shape and serving people, the comparison is shocking.

Of course, there’s another angle to consider: economic case studies after economic case studies after economic case studies show that professional sports organizations’ owners are wont to call 30-year-old stadia too old. They do so especially in cases where they had managed to get the original structures built with taxpayer participation. Now, they’re coming for seconds. The points they make are repetitive to the point of being boring: they claim that they want to revitalize whatever area they want to use. Except: economic case studies after economic case studies after economic case studies show those new buildings might attract visitors (not permanent residents) only as a consequence of what has been dubbed as “novelty effect.” There’s no permanency.

Downtown areas throughout the world, not only in North America, have been suffering for quite some time now. Office towers and sundry such buildings are not people places. They have pushed people as living creatures out. People who used to live there have been moving out to the suburbs. Once they have matured to the point of getting married and starting families, they prefer living in their own homes rather than condominia or rental apartment buildings.

The facts are simple: a new attraction, such as a new sports arena, with all the attendant bars and restaurants and whatnot around it, may slow down emigration from downtown for a few years. It will not stop it. And it will not reverse it, either. In fact, once the novelty effect wears off, the emigration returns to its previous levels.

Why oh why?

Why Edmonton city council bought into the downtown revitalization bluff in the first place will remain an enigma wrapped in mystery. It may very well happen that some intrepid forensic accountants will tell us in the not-so-distant future that not everything had been above board, but for now, this is pure speculation.

The only certainty we have here is that this city’s taxpayers are supposed to be on the hook up to their teeth for a private entrepreneur’s private playground.

And now, the city will be involved in a new office tower by moving its employees whence they’ve been working thus far into new digs.

Some say the city (its taxpayers, that is) will save money on this deal. Saying it is one thing. Proving it is another. Where’s the beef?

If the new idea is so incredibly beneficial, why did councillors have to debate it for hours on end behind closed doors? One would have expected such beneficial ideas to be aired with as many employers (taxpayers, that is) present.

Even the report that councillors would vote on remains secret. The only thing we know that the vote went 10 to three for.

And we also know that a former journalist (and city columnist) for the Edmonton Journal  heaps praise on the whole thing, without mentioning the details but once. Since it’s the details that matter, it’s rather surprising how low could a former intrepid reporter stoop.

City employees have been working in city-owned structures that, the city says, need renovations. Some city employees work in leased spaces, and the deals are coming up for renewal next year.

How are the savings going to happen? First and foremost, we are told that working space would be used more efficiently. Meaning: each employee will have less shoulder room. How’s that for efficiency?

The palatability quotient

Daryl Katz has been quite open about the fact an office tower would make his arena plan more palatable. For whom? Guess three times.

Here’s an interesting fact: the city has received more than a dozen proposals just last spring from potential landlords who had been hoping to house city staff in new and existing buildings.

But no, we need a new office tower. Not only spanking new, but also potentially the tallest such structure in the neighbourhood.

Some developers are licking their fingers: the new office tower would be the first swallow of the spring. It would signal the arrival of more such towers in the near future.

If anyone thinks building office towers downtown spells downtown revitalization, they’re dreaming in Technicolor.

One wonders what would have happened if city council was more responsible and told Daryl Katz that if he wants to build himself a new arena, here’s the development permit office, file your plans, pay the fees and build it.

Some have feared the Oilers’ owner would pick his toy and go to find himself another sandbox. Not only would it have been wise to remind him we had a similar experience with a former Edmonton Oilers’ owner, and look where he is now. It would have been prudent to call his bluff.

But no. City streets are close to impassable because city council has not the wherewithal to make sure crews keep them clean 24 hours a day, seven days a week. City infrastructure has been crumbling for years, closing in on decades.

But city council is spending money that isn’t its own on dubious projects that make no other sense than saving a local entrepreneur a pretty bundle while doing nothing to revitalize downtown.

We voted this gang in. Judging by election numbers, quite a few voters chose not to turn out and exercise their basic civic right. Things wouldn’t change if we voted, anyhow, many of them said.

Well, things will not change. You didn’t vote. That’s why they won’t. And that’s a shame.

Who wins or loses on the ice? What came first: chicken or egg?

It’s bad form. Improper. Not done. All nibs are agreed on it. Do NOT do it, for heaven’s sake!

Right?

So, here it comes: a disclaimer.

I have never received a cent, I am not receiving a cent, and I do not anticipate or expect receiving a cent from the Edmonton Oilers.

Why should I be doing what all nibs agree on that I shouldn’t be doing? Well, and why should I not call myself a nib, too?

Anyhow, here’s the reason for the disclaimer: contrary to popular opinion, I insist that Kevin Lowe and/or Craig MacTavish are NOT the main culprits behind the Oilers’ freefall of the last several seasons.

Yes, fish start stinking from their heads down, but this is not the case with the Edmonton Oilers. Not altogether, that is.

Ladislav Smid had it right when he said a few days before being traded to Calgary (he said it publicly, too) that it’s not the management, and it’s not the coaching, either. The issues the Oilers have, he said, are in the room.

Most interestingly, head coach Dallas Eakins, speaking dejectedly and somewhat angrily after the home-ice 6-0 debacle the Oilers suffered in the hands of the St. Louis Blues, said the same thing. He would elaborate, but the gist was exactly the same. It’s in the room.

Here are some facts

As of this writing, the Oilers have played 38 regular season games. In an informal survey among players from 21 of the about 30 teams the Oilers had skated against, one common denominator emerged. When promised complete anonymity, opposing players revealed what their coaches tell them during pre-game video sessions. The Oilers are perfectly vulnerable because of their erratic forecheck.

“They have one guy forechecking, and then three, and then two, and all that on the same shift, and the way they do it shows no rhyme or reason for how they forecheck,” said one.

“It seems the Oilers have no system, or if they have one, they don’t play within it,” said another.

Oilers’ forward David Perron bristled when he heard about the talk that the Oilers have no system. They do, he told Dan O’Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But, he would concede, they do not play within it often enough.

What could be the reason for that?

“Some of them seem to think they are smarter than their coach,” suggested yet another opposing player.

Are they?

“No,” replied that player, “and their results prove it.”

And yet another opposing player chimed in: “Look, what Lars Eller (of the Montreal Canadiens) said about the Oilers playing like a bunch of juniors, well, he shouldn’t have said that.”

Why not?

“It shows a bit of disrespect. Lack of respect for your opposition not only can come back to bite you, but it’s also unsportsmanlike. Except,” he added, “Eller definitely isn’t the only player who thinks that.”

And, they all said independently of one another (but if they were in one room, it would have sounded as if they were speaking in unison), it’s the Oilers’ first and second line players who are the most guilty part.

“These guys are talented and skilled, no doubt about that,” an opposing defenceman said, “and you have to be on your toes whenever they are on the ice, but despite all that ability and skill and creativity, they have become quite predictable.”

Ouch!

“It’s more players than just the first line,” another opposing player, also a defenceman, suggested. “The Oilers seem to be building around a potential core, but on occasion, that core seems to be rotten.”

HUH?

“You know how it is. You bite into an apple that looks shiny and colourful on the surface, but inside, it isn’t,” he explained.

There were other observations, too. Some of them damning. Such as that the so-called core (or future core, if you wish) hasn’t really embraced the existence of Nail Yakupov.

Having watched a few games after hearing this statement, one begins to wonder. It’s called body language, and – how to put it politely – well, it seems that the player who made this observation wasn’t wrong. Whether it’s subconscious or knowing on the “core” players’ part is irrelevant.

Who is the guilty party then?

Can you blame Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish for these woes?

Here’s your simple answer: no.

And here’s your more involved answer: no.

Let’s try to take a more detached look.

First, there’s this thing known as context of history.

Most Oilers’ fans feel betrayed that their beloved club has been doing so poorly. They seem to forget that all hasn’t been sunshine and glory for (at least) two decades. Remember, before the salary cap, the Oilers served almost as a farm team to their richer NHL counterparts. They would develop a young, up-and-coming player to the level bordering on stardom. That’s when that player would feel free to begin demanding more money in his new contract. The Oilers wouldn’t have it. What would they do? They would trade away the budding star, and get in exchange someone whose salary they might be able to afford. The newcomer would be either worse than the dearly departed budding star, or it would be a youngster whom the Oilers would develop – and lose again within a few seasons.

Talk about re-building!

The early Oilers lucked out. They would get Wayne Gretzky because his previous owner, Nelson Skalbania, needed ready cash, and he needed it now. The Oilers’ then-owner, Peter Pocklington, was ready to oblige, but he didn’t have sufficient funds to pay in cash the full amount Skalbania asked for. So, he threw a few paintings in. Art Skalbania would be able to sell and thus get the missing dough.

Their first few years at the draft, they would hit several homeruns by getting, in no particular order, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri.

Compared to today’s standards, Barry Fraser’s ways of picking players to be drafted were highly unscientific, and Glen Sather would go with them because they had been successful.

Successful? Yes, to a degree. There were some unforgettable flops, too. Jason Bonsignore, anyone? Or how about picking Steve Kelly instead of Shane Doan?

Between them, Sather and Lowe can’t say their drafting record has had no blemishes. Steve Tambellini had an easier time of it, selecting first three consecutive seasons, even though some question why the Oilers would go after forwards who might have been talented and skilled and whatnot, when there were NHL-ready defencemen of relatively high calibre available, too. Seth Jones, anybody?

So, granted, all regimes made their share of mistakes. But here’s an interesting point: you only make no mistakes if you don’t do anything.

Basic economics

One of Edmonton’s basic limitations is the size of its market potential. A successful professional sports team is, first and foremost, a success when it breaks even, at least. Very rarely would you find a professional sports team in such a limited market recording too much surplus. Yes, the Oilers haven’t lost money as of late. They even made some. But not enough to trade for a bona fide star and pay him accordingly.

Edmonton is a proud home to two former professional sports champions (remember the Eskimos?). Edmonton’s fans can fill both teams’ stadia game in and out, no problem. Except, this no longer suffices. Neither in the CFL nor (and even more so) in the NHL.

Some of it is geography, some of it is the tradition of electing asinine city councils.

Asinine? You bet. You can’t call decisions that endanger a city’s economy anything but that.

An example?

How about that ruling decades ago that whichever flight is headed to the then-newly-built Edmonton International from any place north of Edmonton, including northwest or northeast, it has to land at city airport first, then take off, fly another few minutes, and land in Leduc?

It would be convenient for those who want to conduct their business downtown was the official explanation.

Utter nonsense, of course. City airport had been here long before the international airport was even conceived, and a number of businesses moved to the city airport area expecting brisk action. Owners of those businesses were not only voters, but some of them might have even contributed to individual candidates’ campaigns.

Tradition? History? Who speaks of tradition and history when dollars are at stake?

Except, many of those flights that only intended to have an intermediate landing in Edmonton, on their way to Calgary or elsewhere, changed their routings. (Notice: they would be fine with one landing. Not two. One.) When they found successive city councils could not be swayed, those flights would simply go directly to Calgary or elsewhere, without any landings in Edmonton.

And there went the idea of Edmonton as the north’s airline hub and gateway to Canada’s north, and whatever else you wish to call it.

Anyone who thinks this kind of decisions helped grow Edmonton’s economy (as well as the economies of the capital region) is dreaming in Technicolor.

But professional sports clubs need more than income from seat sales. They need to sell sponsorships and advertising. Such deals must be available for use both in-house and for their broadcast rights holders. With a limited market, what chances are there that the clubs would generate enough advertising and sponsorship income to be able to pay for their high-priced stars?

Yes, stars attract fans like bees to honey, but, not only is there a limit on the number of fannies clubs can accommodate in their facilities, there is also a limit on how much they can charge their fans for the pleasure.

Is that something Kevin Lowe and/or Craig MacTavish generated?

Again, the answer is simple: no.

Management record

Many fans contend Oilers’ management could have and should have brought in more real players (preferably stars, one assumes) through trades and/or free agent signings.

Could they have? And should they have?

We will not know the answer to the former question. Trade negotiations are conducted in full secrecy worthy of nuclear war planning sessions. Many reasons, most of them perfectly valid.

We do know the answer to the latter question. It’s yes. Absolutely, Definitely. And add your own list of players whom you’d like to see wearing Oilers’ colours and turning the club’s fortunes around.

Except, this is where the answer to the former question enters the picture. Could they have? Were players they thought might be of major help available? Were they willing to waive their no trade/no movement clauses to go to Edmonton? Did their current clubs ask for players in return that the Oilers wouldn’t part with, at least, not yet, or not now?

What this is to say is that it’s rather impossible to judge a professional sports club’s record on what kind of players management managed to acquire. Even in drafts. When you’re picking among 18-year-olds, it’s as unreliable as defining the sex of freshly hatched chickens.

And so far as free agent signings are concerned, they have got some lately, and they haven’t panned out that bad. Andrew Ference comes to mind, and so does Boyd Gordon.

So, you may ask, why have other teams been more successful than the Oilers? What gives THEIR management that invisible something that the Oilers’ management seems to lack?

Back to square one

Judging by the remarks made by those opposing teams’ players, it seems that the Oilers’ top players have been reading too much into their press clippings. Yes, these clippings tell all and sundry that they are talented and skilled and whatnot. What they do NOT say is that these guys are the second coming, that they are right up there, with sliced bread and the original Swiss-made Nestle chocolate.

They should come back to earth, and pronto.

As it is, they are endangering the business model a.k.a. the Edmonton Oilers. How much longer will Oiler fans endure such blatant lack of success? How optimistic can these fans be? Meaning: how stupid are they expected to be, selling the Oilers’ arena out every night?

Any solutions?

Not really. But one school of thought is interesting. Here’s the outline.

Rid the Oilers of their owner, first of all. Why? Because he’s too closely connected with his management team as friends and would hesitate to clean house.

A new owner, unconnected to the club thus far, would have no such hesitations.

Would it be fair?

Absolutely not.

Would it help?

Who knows.

Yes, the school of thought continues, the current Oilers’ top poohbahs know a lot about winning. They have won it all. Indeed they have. As players. And it’s a different matter to win as a manager.

Of course, as an aside, Craig MacTavish coached the Oilers to within one game seven goal of the Stanley Cup (empty netters don’t count), and it’s difficult to believe that he’s become a moron between then and now.

And, also of course, fans assign responsibility based on their years of suffering, not on the time in responsible office guys they criticize have spent.

The school of hard knocks is also of the view that amateur scouts should be fired every five years. We’re talking about the people who are supposed to find new talent for a club to pick up on draft day or get some other way. It’s a tough life, schlepping all season long from one junior barn to another, trying to find a gem nobody else notices, getting as much relevant information on players who you think might help your club without giving your interest away to competition. They must be burnt out after all these years, thus this school of thought.

Is there any truth in it? Who knows? Nobody’s asked the amateur scouts, and even if one were to ask them, they would deny being tired in the slightest, lest they lose their jobs.

In any case, would such (admittedly cruel) kind of rotation work? Nobody’s tried, and experience shows that, for example, the Detroit Red Wings’ amateur scouting has been tops for a convincing period of time, and yet, you wouldn’t see too many changes through the years.

Again, this is a result-based and result-oriented business. So, the answer to this question must differ from club to club.

The single question remains: who wins the games? And who loses them?

If you’ve figured the answers to this question, you know who is responsible for the Edmonton Oilers’ woes and who can fix them.

Is it easy to do?

No.

Is it doable?

Yes.