Kevin Lowe: “It’s A Business First”

Jonathan Willis
April 27 2012 05:32PM

If there’s anyone who understands the difficulties posed by separating the personal from the professional, it should be Kevin Lowe.

During Kevin Lowe’s time as Oilers general manager and then president of hockey operations, the Oilers have been forced to make a variety of decisions that ultimately involved personal feelings. One imagines the behind-the-scenes dismissals of the Tambellini regime – such as Kevin Prendergast, a 20-year man, and that business with the trainers back in 2010 (including the then-head trainer, Lowe’s brother Ken) – roused some personal feeling.

According to Lowe, however, it’s best to take personal feeling out of the mix. Here’s what he told Jason Farris in the book Behind the Moves:

Probably the strongest lesson I got from Glen [Sather] was that it’s a business first and you have got to learn to appreciate that. Yes, we can be friends once we get the business done, but let’s get the business done first. Maybe at times I’ve appeared to take a hard line with people, but I can really separate the feelings… [For instance,] the Gretzky trade. Wayne is still a very good friend of mine and always has been, and I have the greatest respect for him, but a lot of my teammates took it much harder than I did because I just saw it as business and [I took the attitude of], ‘What are you going to do about it?’ … We had to move on. We had to play.

It’s quite possible that Lowe is talking from experience on that one; during his time as general manager the Oilers made a few decisions – most notably the scrapped trade that would have seen Mike Comrie go to Anaheim in exchange for Corey Perry and futures – that seemed to have motivations behind them other than what was best for the team.

Whatever his imperfections in practice, in statement Lowe is absolutely correct. Later in the same book, current Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren recalled a story when he was coaching the Flyers. One of the players under Holmgren’s watch was Tim Kerr, a long-time Flyer who had been a line-mate of Holmgren’s and was with the team when Holmgren started out as an assistant coach.

As Holmgren tells the story, then-Flyers G.M. Russ Farwell called him in for a meeting and asked him, “Tim Kerr: Do you play him that much because of what he has done for you in the past, or what he is doing for you right now?” It made Holmgren “step back” and assess why he was making the decisions he was, because as he admits “I probably did have a soft spot for him.” As he puts it now: “It is so easy to fall in love with your players.”

Those connections are natural, and hard to overcome, but as Lowe indicates a general manager needs to be able to separate the decision-making process from emotion. That’s not to say that the personal doesn’t matter – someone like Sean Avery, who mocked Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown for his speech and his girlfriend while they were teammates can be a disruptive influence – just that it matters only insofar as it impacts performance.  In other words: a G.M. doesn't dump Avery because he dislikes him; he dumps him because he's having a negative impact on the team.

If a trade can be made that helps the team – even if it’s unpopular – the general manager has an obligation to make it. If he can make a deal with someone he doesn’t like that will improve his team, he’s under the same obligation. The same goes for all decisions, from the draft to free agency to contemplating buyouts – personal feeling for players must not get in the way of what is the right decision for the team.

Lowe, to his credit, seems to have picked up on that lesson. The merit of the Dustin Penner offer sheet is debatable but what isn’t is that Lowe legitimately thought he was making the right decision, and wasn’t afraid to alienate a man like Brian Burke if it helped his team. The merit of trading away long-time Oiler Ryan Smyth rather than re-signing him to a long-term deal was debatable, but again Lowe felt he was making the right decision and wasn’t going to let personal attachment to the player or the feedback of fans (including the creation of this very site) change his mind. As he says in the book regarding the Smyth transaction:

I would say that maybe if I had been a little less business-like in the Ryan Smyth deal [to the Islanders and allowed myself to] bring the feelings into the whole thing a little more, that it’s unlikely things would have ended that way.

I’m not here arguing that Kevin Lowe has always been perfectly impartial; neither am I arguing that those two transactions were necessarily in the best interest of the Oilers. However, both were made despite the knowledge that they weren’t going to win Kevin Lowe any friends. For any general manager, the ability to look beyond the personal and focus solely on the benefit to the team is a vital trait.

This week by Jonathan Willis at the Nation Network

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Howie Felt
April 27 2012, 05:35PM
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Fist in the face

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#2 Oil Is My Blood
April 27 2012, 05:37PM
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Kevin, if it's business fist, why are Steve and Tambo still with the Oil?

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#3 Woodguy
April 27 2012, 06:08PM
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While Farris doesn't offer any editorial opinions on the GM's in his book, he does offer different opinions on the GM in question via quotes.

Farris quotes Lowe twice about his lack of emotion in the business dealings, but then immediately presents two other opinions about Lowe:

“Kevin is a hot tempered guy and an emotional guy” – George McPhee

“He had a pretty good temper”-Glen Sather

Having a different self image than what those around you think about you is not rare. What is more rare is if your self image jibes with those who may know you best.

Lowe was an emotional player which was great.

According to his contemporaries Lowe is an emotional manager as well.

That's not so great.

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#5 FastOil
April 27 2012, 06:15PM
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Nice read

Unfortunately there is no easy way to tell if what is going on with the team is a plan or is Fawlty Towers. It isn't a good feeling as a fan, that if it is Fawlty, we are looking at an extended period of Cuplessness.

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#6 Woodguy
April 27 2012, 06:21PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

It's a good book, eh? :)

Absolutely.

I got more insight on the 2nd reading than the first.

Haven't got to the third reading yet, but I expect to pick up even more then.

Farris is subtle in that he doesn't overtly offer his own opinions, but you can see his opinions in how he structures the quotes.

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#7 book¡e
April 27 2012, 06:40PM
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Woodguy wrote:

While Farris doesn't offer any editorial opinions on the GM's in his book, he does offer different opinions on the GM in question via quotes.

Farris quotes Lowe twice about his lack of emotion in the business dealings, but then immediately presents two other opinions about Lowe:

“Kevin is a hot tempered guy and an emotional guy” – George McPhee

“He had a pretty good temper”-Glen Sather

Having a different self image than what those around you think about you is not rare. What is more rare is if your self image jibes with those who may know you best.

Lowe was an emotional player which was great.

According to his contemporaries Lowe is an emotional manager as well.

That's not so great.

Without having the context to know for sure, I don't think the statements you present are contradictory. They would be if Sather and McPhee were talking about times when Lowe was making a trade and even then, its hard to know for certain.

At times, it is useful to let it be known that you are pissed off. As long as you are in control of when you do that, you can be said to be 'taking emotion out of the equation' even if others think you are not doing so.

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#8 Milli
April 27 2012, 06:53PM
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I'd like to read it, sounds like an interesting book. I wish Klo would become the Gm again, because at this point, I have zero confidence in Tambo. One thing that would be interesting is to see him Gm in the new salary cap era, but on a team that can spend to it. Often forgotton was when he was Gm we where a bottomfeeder as far as salary went.

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#9 justDOit
April 27 2012, 07:14PM
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FastOil wrote:

Nice read

Unfortunately there is no easy way to tell if what is going on with the team is a plan or is Fawlty Towers. It isn't a good feeling as a fan, that if it is Fawlty, we are looking at an extended period of Cuplessness.

*whispers*

don't mention the war

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#10 Kingertime
April 27 2012, 07:57PM
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Hello - It is a business: as much as we love the Oil, read the most recent Globe article about Canadian teams: we are all being taken for a ride: Murray Edwards: stuggling to make a buck in the oil patch these days. Francesco Aquilin: for sure not in it to win it: needs the cash flow. Melynk: Battling SEC: winning not number 1. Molsons: not your grandfather's Molsons. MLSE: Show me the money. Rexall: probably 1000 people richer than him: no clue how to run a Sports Franchise, accepts garbage performance, likes the cash flow. True North: Silent owners? It's a business venture for the Thomsons. In Canada, winning doesn't matter: there's a sucker in every seat: win lose or draw. Act like a real winning franchise: don't show up if the team sucks. Winning should matter. Make the owners pay...

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#11 2:00AM
April 27 2012, 08:15PM
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Lol I love fawlty towers! ( does the goose step out of the room spins and comes back)

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#12 C-dog
April 27 2012, 08:45PM
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Squashing the Comrie trade because he wanted $$$ back from the Comrie camp?

Trading Smyth when $100K apart?

Seems like a guy more motivated by spite to me..... Separating personal from business???

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#13 Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate
April 27 2012, 09:14PM
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We should HOPE Montreal offers Kevin the GM position there...

Then he can screw up the Habs, which in my eyes is a GOOD thing

#KLoweForHabsGM

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#14 oilers2k10
April 27 2012, 09:23PM
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Had lowe traded for perry and resigned Smyth we would most likely be without Hall, Nuge, and Yakupov..it was all part of the plan for the greater good..even though lowe himself did not know this at the time..thank god for lowes temper..me likey.

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#15 admiralmark
April 27 2012, 09:26PM
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Just had to bring up that Comrie for Perry non trade didn't you? :( I think Stu MacGregor has the right temperament to make a good GM someday.

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#16 RexLibris
April 27 2012, 11:05PM
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And this is why Murray Edwards' love for Jarome Iginla, as well as Calgary's general worship of him as a player and icon, will only serve to hurt the team in the long run. They need to tear off the band-aid and make the move that just about every member of the objective media has been speculating about for the last two years.

In Edmonton, as you have alluded to in the article Jonathan, we went through that process several times over. Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, Fuhr, Moog, Coffey, Lowe, MacTavish, Weight, Arnott, Smyth. This town has shipped out more NHL talent than most teams could boast of in their entire history. I think this has created a kind of cynical opportunism in Oiler fans where we are more ready to look to the future and embrace change than in NHL markets like Calgary that only have one championship memory to hold on to and have seemed to spend most of the last decade (and counting) trying to turn back the clock.

Even in this rebuild Oiler fans, at least many of the ones I have spoken to and read from here on ON, seem to have one eye on the future for that fateful day when Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle leave town. We are fatalistic about it.

Calgary fans, by comparison, often refuse to broach the subject (at least until quite recently) and have often argued that some iconic players should retire with the team, regardless of the costs for the franchise's overall performance, and sometimes even in spite of it.

While the first Stanley Cup win in '84 was obviously one of the biggest moments for the Oilers, I would argue that the '90 championship was perhaps the most important overall. It proved to the team and the organization that it took more than one player to win, and that it could be done.

The emotional attachment to a player is a two-sided coin for NHL teams though. They ask us to care, to cheer, to buy the jersey/bobblehead/Anson-Carter-bandana, and then they have to turn around and, internally, treat each player as a potential asset to be leveraged for maximum return and team performance. That player gets traded and the fan is then asked to embrace a new set of heroes in the story.

A great read, and thank you for writing it. Sometimes it is nice to get beyond the stats and analysis and step back to see the storyline side of the game.

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#17 Reg Dunlop
April 28 2012, 01:30AM
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If oilerville equals Fawlty Towers(or Flowery Tarts) then I'm guessing that Tambo is Basil, Lowe is Sybil, MBS is Polly and Katz is... the Major?

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#18 Dipstick
April 28 2012, 06:47AM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

If oilerville equals Fawlty Towers(or Flowery Tarts) then I'm guessing that Tambo is Basil, Lowe is Sybil, MBS is Polly and Katz is... the Major?

Is Renney Manuel?

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#19 Lee
April 28 2012, 07:36AM
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I don't have a problem with taking the personal out of the equation but I wonder where "it's just business" leaves us with Ryan Smyth. Most businesses build an element of brand loyalty into their bottom line. In Smyth's case the fans clearly love him and a second split could undermine brand loyalty. Second, a business decision might include a decision to improve the team's reputation in order to recruit and retain prospective players. Smith is a veteran player with a great rep around the league. And everyone knows he loves Edmonton. Mistreating him could have long term ramifications.

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#20 Bank Shot
April 28 2012, 09:30AM
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It sure looks like Kevin Lowe brings his personal feelings into the business all the time. Such as Locking out Souray, or feuding with Mike Comrie.

Guy says all the right things and does the opposite.

Lowe is so full of himself, and has so little self awareness it's scary.

How can this guy still be the head of hockey operations?

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#21 Path
April 28 2012, 04:41PM
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Great read, JW.

Still, I think there's an element of irony in this whole 'Lowe can separate business from personal' type-narrative. And to be clear, I'm not suggesting that JW is concluding that Lowe is flawless in this regard. JW's point, as I understand it, is that the ability to minimize the personal element of things and maximize the objective side of things is an admirable trait. I agree (though I think it might be kind of a trite point - who would really disagree?).

The irony of all this is that Lowe's appeal as a suitable authority figure (be it as GM, or (ahem) president) is 'personal'. It lies largely in his loyalty the franchise and the mythic status he has through his ties to the glory era. In other words, the appeal of Lowe as GM/president is more 'personal' than 'business'. Personally, I think that this is the case not only as between Oil fans and Lowe, but - more importantly - as between Katz and Lowe.

The Russ Farwell question regarding Tim Kerr applies just as much here: does Lowe still have his position because of what he has done in the past, or because of what he has accomplished recently? I think the answer is pretty plain. A review of his tenure as past GM (and current de facto, or quasi-GM) doesn't suggest that his record is all that impressive, when you take the 'personal' out of it. And I don't think it's necessary to go into the minutiae on why - this has been addressed repeatedly, and convincingly (imo) by guys like Pat MacLean and Tyler Dellow, among others.

Anyhow, I think this is a great topic. I just find it troubling that when it comes to 'objective' assessments of this team, the subject-matter is usually the players, or perhaps the coach. The "it's a business, take the personal out of it" mantra of Lowe just somehow never gets applied to Lowe himself.

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#22 JMC88
April 28 2012, 11:14PM
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Jonathan-

Thinking about your conclusion to this blogpost, was Lowe's decision to extend Horcoff's contract (months before he was scheduled to become a FA):

- strictly personal - strictly business - a combination of personal and business - or neither personal nor business?

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#23 JMC88
April 28 2012, 11:24PM
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Just reminding myself of the background of the Horcoff signing: In the summer of 2008, Horcoff accepted the Oilers offer of a 6 year contract extension. He still had one year left of a 3 year contract that was paying him $3.6 million per year. He would have been scheduled to become a UFA at the end of the 2008/2009 season. During the 2007/2008 season, Horcoff was having a decent year and was named to the NHL All-Star game. In February, 2008, he suffered a shoulder injury requiring surgery that ended his season after scoring 50 points in 53 games.

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