GROUPTHINK: ROOM FOR DISSENT?

Robin Brownlee
April 29 2014 12:05AM

Lowe, Kevin

I wonder how many times since 2000 somebody inside the management group of the Edmonton Oilers has looked Kevin Lowe in the eye and offered the opinion that he's absolutely wrong, mistaken or misguided?

Not often, during his tenure as general manager from 2000-08 and as president of hockey operations since 2008, I imagine. Now, with Lowe as POHO, Craig MacTavish as GM, Scott Howson back in the fold as senior VP of hockey operations and new man Bill Scott promoted from Oklahoma City to assistant GM, how much debate and dissent will there be in the hockey-ops decision-making chain moving forward?

How often in hockey management, in management in general, do we hear about the importance of being on the same page? About "teamwork" and like-minded individuals working for a common goal? Sounds reasonable at first blush, no? Be it hockey-operations or running a company that produces widgets, many management groups are built on such principles – consensus by people who, generally speaking, see things as you do, think as you do.

That said, how much of a leap is it for a management group to go from the comfortable harmony of like-mindedness to groupthink, where meaningful dissent is all but absent? The definition of groupthink, from the psychology section of About.com:

Groupthink is a term first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis that refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group. People who are opposed to the decisions or overriding opinion of the group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of the crowd.

Given the make-up of the Oilers hockey-ops management group – how it's comprised and how the people in the positions they're in now got there – and the decidedly dismal results fans have endured since 2000, that leap is worth contemplating after eight straight years out of the playoffs.

TIES THAT BIND

Craig MacTavish7

Lowe and MacTavish have known each other since the mid-1980s. They've been teammates, friends and confidants for 30 years. After six years away as GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Howson returned to an organization he first joined in 1994, as GM of the Cape Breton Oilers. Those are the three top three spots on the decision-making totem pole in hockey-ops.

This is the group – Lowe, MacTavish and Howson – that has shaped and will shape the organization. They decide on the coaching staff, the scouting staff and the organizational staff. They make the hires. In doing so, they decide who offers input and information, be it a player development director like Rick Carriere, a member of the scouting staff or an assistant coach.

More than a few hockey men have come and gone in the last decade as far as the top slots in hockey-ops and their hires are concerned: Steve Tambellini, Rick Olczyk, Kevin Prendergast, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Charlie Huddy and Bill Moores (in, out and in again as senior director of player development), to name eight. Lots of changes in the pro and amateur scouting staffs, too.

Old Boys

The point here isn't to swat at the low-hanging fruit yet again – the Old Boys Club assembled by owner Daryl Katz and the EIG before him, cronyism, friendships trumping qualifications. Fire Lowe. Fire Kelly Buchberger. Fire everybody who has ever worn an Oiler jersey. Blah, blah, blah.

It's to ask, after more than two mostly lean decades since the last Stanley Cup parade, if there's too much "we know a thing or two about winning, if there's ever a question," and not enough debate, dissent and willingness to challenge the status quo and re-think everything from top to bottom within this management group.

I'd suggest answers are long overdue.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

Aceb4a1816f5fa09879a023b07d1a9b4
A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#51 Wonger
April 29 2014, 10:38AM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

Wonger: Will James be along today to second your nomination for ON entry? He believes you often make a lot of sense, despite the CAPS.

No sir! Have a good day! Bye for now! Wonger!

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#52 Wonger
April 29 2014, 10:39AM
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baggedmilk wrote:

Maybe James has a cousin that could chime in?

No cousins or aliases today! Take care and have a great day! Wonger!

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#53 Sorensenator
April 29 2014, 10:41AM
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Spydyr wrote:

It all comes down to experience .The Oilers just do not like to hire experienced people:

1)Katz no experience as an owner of a pro sports team before purchasing the Oilers

2)Lowe no experience in any of the position he has held throughout his climb form assistant coach to POHO.

3)Mac-T no experience as GM.

4)Howson had GM experience but failed.

5)Scott no experience at the NHL level.

6)Eakins no NHL experience as a head coach.

7)The players in the past have been brought to the NHL level prematurely with not enough seasoning in the AHL.

The common thread here is putting people into positions that they are forced to learn on the job instead of hiring experienced people.

Some examples:

1)Katz public handling of the the new arena.

2)Lowe's six ring press conference.

3)Mac-T bold moves and Horcoff and Hemsky comments.

4)Players rushed to the NHL and not able to progress at this level (Sam Gagner) among others.

Owners do not require "experience" to own a franchise. All that is required of them is to have a lot of money and a desire for that franchise to keep making money. In Daryl Katz' case, fans continue to go to the games therefore Mr. Katz continues to make money.

I agree with your statement about Lowe, he needs to go.

While MacT does not have experience as a GM, he does have significant experience as a head coach and he has done a reasonable job at solidifying the goaltending and adding pieces that are tough to play against like Perron and Hendricks. He still wants to make bold moves, although maybe he should have mentioned they are very very difficult to come by.

While I believe it was not MacT's best move to go with a rookie coach in Eakins, I believe what this team needs most is consistency. Give Eakins at least half the season next year to work with and see what strides can be made.

Bring an experienced associate coach with some PP experience to help rekindle the powerplay.

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#54 Lochenzo
April 29 2014, 10:53AM
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Groupthink is more natural than you think though. It's safer to employ groupthink because if you're wrong, then everybody is wrong with you. Much easier to excuse that error. If you're an outlier and you're also wrong, that's a direct blow to your ego and your credibility.

Let's look at an Oilers' example of thinking outside the box. Barry Fraser, chief scout of the Oilers through the 80's and 90's. Credited with building the foundation of the Oilers' dynasty. Also faulted for some very bad picks for his non-consensus picks in the late 80's and 90's. It would have been "safer" to follow the consensus and his reputation wouldn't have been stained.

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#55 S cottV
April 29 2014, 10:54AM
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With Edmonton being one of the most undesireable places for players to naturally want to be here in the first place, the pressure on the Oilers to be in fact and in turn percieved - as being a first class organization is paramount.

Uncertainties about Katz, Lowe, MacT, Eakins, Buchberger, Smith, scouting, a dismal record, our core players etc etc, and it's hard to believe that a significant turnaround is in the cards - in the near future.

To me - it's Katz that has to step up and lead more effectively. He treats the Oilers like it's some kind of on the side hobby and it needs "eye of the tiger" leadership from the very top on down.

If a poll were taken where NHL players ranked all locations in the order of most desirable places to live - we wouldn't do that well.

If another poll ranked the order of teams by player perceptions of how well run each franchise was - we wouldn't do that well.

Thats a big problem, as it relates to a turnaround.

Katz has to take this more seriously. Either lead it the way it needs to be led or sell the franchise to someone who will.

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#56 Oiler Al
April 29 2014, 11:15AM
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Without going into a encyclopedia rendition of what has transpired with the Oiler organization in the last half dozen years [welcome Katz], pure and simple the results on the ice speaks volumes on its own. There is nothing else to it.

You can continue to spin the rhetoric nine different ways, it just ends up being more BS piled on top of more BS.

If it looks like, smells like a GongShow it must be a Gong show.

Katz is not the answer..... he is the reason.

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#57 Derian Hatcher
April 29 2014, 11:19AM
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When Mac T was hired, this gem of a quesiton was asked by John MacKinnon of the EJ:

“When you talked about Steve coming in under difficult circumstances when he took over the job, part of that, with respect, was he had to clean up the mess that was left already. This group was largely responsible for that mess. How are fans going to be re-assured that the group that left the mess that Tambellini couldn’t quite clean up is now going to be cleaned up by the guys who left the mess to begin with?”

Both MacT and Lowe responded to this question...I won't bore you with the details or Lowe's hissy fit...but does MacKinnon's question still not apply today?

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#58 Dave
April 29 2014, 11:19AM
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http://99u.com/workbook/16104/be-the-dumbest-person-in-the-room

Most likely not true in the Oilers ca

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#59 dave
April 29 2014, 11:23AM
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I wish ON had an edit function. Anyway, for Eakins to not have an assistant coach without head coaching experience is not very good.

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#60 Johnnydapunk
April 29 2014, 11:45AM
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Maybe it's just a misguided hunch, but I bet they have until the new Arena is built to make something happen, so my expectations are pretty non existant for next season at least.

Another point is that I don't think Katz cares so much as the team has doubled in value and he is making money hand over fist. The on ice performance is irrelevant as long as the "off ice" performance is doing well.

It sucks to be an Oil fan .....

(And I hope no one will suggest another team to cheer for as I have tried, and I just can't. It's not the same feeling )

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#61 I am the Liquor
April 29 2014, 11:52AM
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BLAKPOO wrote:

Which answers are long overdue?

Your statements allege a lack of individual thought within the management group, based on what?

The fact they were teammates and share an employer?

I have friends I've known for 20 years, and we constantly argue about everything from music, women, politics ... even what to pick up at the liquor store. A few of us are die hard Oilers fans, and all want the team to do better, but our tenure as friends no way implies that we have the same opinion of how this team needs to be fixed.

To assume everyone in management thinks alike, or are all towing the "6 Ring Circus Wagon", is also to assume that these fiercely competitive, prideful men are putting aside their personal nature and professional credibility to kiss their boss' ass.

Highly unlikely, and completely unfounded.

Mactavish said one of the reasons for hiring Eakins was that they shared the same philosophy in regards to the game.

It seems reasonable to assume that this group that has more or less stuck together despite years of failure likely doesnt butt heads too often.

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#62 Quicksilver ballet
April 29 2014, 12:00PM
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That Alex Staylock kid certainly looks like a player. Great mobility and handles the puck with authority. Could be a buying opportunity there if Miller lands in San Jose this summer.

Have to believe there are a number of teams interested in Fasth. He should be sacrificed if it brings (part of a package) the Oil a top pairing blueliner or a 1/2 centerman.

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#63 Al Low
April 29 2014, 12:01PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

Where in this item does it say low should be fired immediately? Point that out, will you?

The point of the item was and is, is there a broad enough spectrum of opinion and ways of approaching things in this management group?

After eight years out of the playoffs is everybody still nodding in agreement that things are just fine and plans are unfolding as they should?

The last sentence about how everybody is nodding in agreement that things are going as planned is the most infuriarating part about this group and the reason why Oiler fans like myself feel hopeless about the future of this team.

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#64 David S
April 29 2014, 12:04PM
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Wonger wrote:

Wonger knows more about CAPS - than david s. knows about the new math curriculum!!!

What the...???

Think I just got hammered by the WONGER Stunner!

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#66 smiliegirl15
April 29 2014, 01:06PM
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I wonder if Lowe regrets his 6 ring comment?

The fact that Lowe and MacT are such long history friends would be an advantage here. MacT has never been one to roll over so I think he wouldn't be scared, for wont of a better word, to take on Lowe. I think there would be less group think now than with Tambellini, who never had an original thought in his life. You would hope, that with all this familiarity with each other, there would be better discussion because these guys aren't yes men. I certainly don't imagine MacT as anyone's yes man.

Eakins, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere because I believe he is a yes man. I hope he proves me wrong with some new assistant coaches. I won't hold my breath.

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#67 Zarny
April 29 2014, 01:34PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

Exactly.

Can this team plot a new direction led by the same people who over the course of the last decade or more brought it to where it is now?

The question of "why should the group who burned the house down be trusted with the rebuild?" is the question that sent Lowe off on his "six-rings I know about winning" rant at the start the season. And it's certainly a fair question without a definitive answer.

There are numerous examples of franchises that have changed regimes to plot a new direction and done nothing but twist in the wind. Changing management teams guarantees nothing but different names besides job titles.

There are very few examples of the same management team leading a new direction because they are usually fired and not given the chance. The Carolina Panthers staying with and succeeding on a new path with Ron Rivera et al is the only example I can think of off the top of my head.

However, the notion of "groupthink" is nothing but unsubstantiated speculation. I highly doubt it is uncommon for someone in the Oilers management group to look Lowe in the eye and tell him they disagree. That's not actually a sin or even serious. People in management groups pretty much disagree to varying degrees on a daily basis. And considering both MacT and Howson have actually been absent from the process for a longer period of time over the last 8 years than involved the notion of "groupthink" seems poor speculation at that.

The reality with disagreements for any franchise/business/project/management group is that at the end of the day you have to find common ground and a common path. You can't push and pull at the same time. You can't rebuild through the draft and mortgage the future to win now.

Power struggles over differing visions is pretty common. As a GM Lowe was very active and very aggressive. Tambo was the complete opposite and when he dithered at last year's trade deadline Lowe fired him and replaced him with a GM who has been very active.

None of that indicates "groupthink" to me. That just tells me Lowe hired the wrong GM to begin with and I have no problem with holding him accountable for that.

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#68 backup bob
April 29 2014, 01:42PM
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MGT is doing an awesome job. The coach is great. The team is consistent. All is well in Oiler land, with happy thoughts.

Stop picking on these guys you big meanie.

J.Braun

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#69 BLAKPOO
April 29 2014, 01:51PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

Exactly.

Can this team plot a new direction led by the same people who over the course of the last decade or more brought it to where it is now?

At what point over the last decade has Mactavish been responsible for the Oilers' roster?

Seems to me he just took the job last year, and has made some pretty significant upgrades to this team since then.

Sure, Lowe is a common denominator, but to assume that his tenure with the organization is the reason we are failing is also to assume that he is DIRECTLY responsible for every roster/coaching/employee decision made since 2006.

Personally, I think that's ridiculous.

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#70 Quicksilver ballet
April 29 2014, 02:23PM
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@Zarny

You can't rebuild through the draft and then mortgage the future to win now. ________________________________________________________________________________

But, but but Zarny. You mentioned you wanted to trade the third overall, just to add 10-12 pts to next yrs point totals. That still lands the Oilers in death valley, being that 24th to 20th range.

Have you now seen the light, my brother?

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#71 Guy Lafleur
April 29 2014, 03:01PM
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Is anybody else worried that the Flames are making all the right moves and dominated us this past season ??

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#72 Oiler Country
April 29 2014, 03:36PM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

This organization is long overdue for a biotch slapping.

Bruce Urban could just be the guy to do it. Since the Rush aren't allowed their banners to hang in Rexall 365 a year. Would it be too much to ask the Oiler ancient memory banners be removed for the Edmonton Rush on game nights? Rush banners should hang in their place.

Since they are a paying client.

No wonder Katz is a billionaire. Everything is given to him on a silver platter.

Sounds like you are upset at Katz being a billionaire.

As for the banners... you are on point. They should get equal time in the building they rent to play in.

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#73 Half
April 29 2014, 05:21PM
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The Oilers are in an unfortunate situation and the people who got them there don't appear to be the ones that will get them out. Its like everyone has Stockholm Syndrome....and are hostage to each other's group think. Its bizarre. I know I am checking out as a fan...and have been once since they joined the WHA in 1972. Oh well. Good thing I moved away and no longer spend 10's of thousands on season tickets and am only a tier 2 fan.

Its interesting to see Rome burn from a distance though. Everyone with the matches and torches though is sayings, its not me. Its him.

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#74 Kr55
April 29 2014, 05:54PM
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MacT joked a while back that the Oilers management group is still paying for the successful teams of the past because of the fan expectation. I disagree. It's the fans who are paying now for those successful teams of the past. We pay for it by having all these overconfident ex-oilers that are permanently behind the curve compared to the rest of the NHL managing the Oilers franchise.

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#75 Pants
April 29 2014, 06:39PM
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To quote George Patton

"If everyone is thinking the same, someone isn't thinking"

Problem is I think no one is thinking

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