The Rift In The Dressing Room

Jonathan Willis
June 05 2009 11:48PM

Orr Esposito

All season long there have been rumours about a rift, a root dysfunction in the dressing room. Respected names in the Edmonton sports media, people like Dan Barnes and John Short, have reported the problems.

Here’s what Short said on May 17th:

If you swallowed all that kool-aid about the incredible harmony that existed last season in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room, it's time for you to scan the Carolina Hurricanes roster. It's worth remembering the recent fact that Erik Cole, Sergei Samsonov and Joni Pitkanen were at least a little unhappy as Oilers. Now they're happy in the Carolinas…. A warm and welcoming dressing room climate can overcome a host of problems. That comfort didn't exist here -- not for these guys, anyway -- and the record shows that it was non-existent for others, as well.

Short placed much of the blame on the veteran leadership of the Oilers. It was a theme that Dan Barnes had touched on back in April:

There is chatter around the league that Edmonton's tight-knit dressing room is changing and not for the better, that the obvious divide between the younger players and senior leadership cadre has not been bridged easily. Captain Ethan Moreau addressed that issue Friday, saying he didn't think it was a problem. "It's still a really good room, just with different personalities and different demographics," said Moreau, who did admit this year has been a challenge made more difficult by the mood their lousy record has created in the community. "It's got to change. It's not healthy. There is way too much negativity. It seems nothing was positive all year. It's tough to play that way. The product on the ice hasn't been as good. We've got to find a way to get that positive environment back."

Both Robin Brownlee and Jason Gregor here at OilersNation have touched on the rift, with Gregor calling it “overblown”, and Brownlee said that he hadn’t seen it either. There’s a lot of truth to the conclusion that Brownlee came to – namely that winning covers over a lot of problems, while losing has the opposite effect.

I completely agree. I was reminded of all this while I was reading Stephen Brunt’s excellent book, Searching For Bobby Orr, where he talked about the divide in the Boston dressing room between Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Here’s what Brunt said:

On the ice, anyone outside of the team itself would have been hard-pressed to see any evidence of their differences, though there were times, especially when the two were duelling for the NHL scoring championship, when Orr confided to those closest to him that he thought the “Chicago guys” were quietly conspiring against him, whether they were feeding Espo an extra pass or denying Orr one, just to make sure their long-time buddy came out on top.

The Esposito/Orr Bruins won two Stanley Cups and won twice as many games as they lost (384-192-108); and while it’s just one example, there are plenty more. It’s hard to put it better than Brunt himself did:

There’s a truth that applies to all teams in all professionl sports: harmony is way overrated. Many a championship has been won with players who didn’t socialize away from the park or the rink, who didn’t say a lot to each other in any circumstance, whose personalities naturally clashed, who came from backgrounds that were irreconcilable, who rubbed each other the wrong way, who hated each other’s guts. Talent goes a long way toward patching over those kinds of differences.

And while I completely agree with that statement, Brunt follows it with one that sounds a lot like the conclusion Brownlee came to back in April:

[A] team spiralling downward will invariably begin to pick at itself, to magnify its rifts and tensions and jealousies. There is a long, long list of jerks who won many a championship, and of nice guys who finished last.

Coming back to the present, if we can agree that there isn’t a need to have a completely harmonious dressing room, than it’s probably equally fair to say that overhauling the Oilers’ leadership core shouldn’t be a priority. It is important to upgrade the team in other ways (which probably don’t need rehashing right now) but I don’t think team leaders should be traded for no other reason than because certain people have concerns about the team’s culture.

I’ve touched on this before, but this team has been radically changed since the disaster of 2006-07; in only two seasons two-thirds of the roster has been changed over. When we also consider that nearly the entire coaching staff has also been changed (with Kelly Buchberger being the lone holdover), I think change for the sake of change is pointless.

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
#51 Greg MC
June 08 2009, 08:15AM
Trash it!

@ Jonathan Willis: Thanks, Jonathan.

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