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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#1 Ambassador humantorch
April 29 2014, 01:09AM
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I truly believe that next year will be much more hopeful and promising than the past year

... said every Oilers fan every year for the last decade.

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#2 Czar
April 29 2014, 12:29AM
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Mr. Brownlee, you abrasive prick, I like your style.

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#3 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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#4 RexHolez
April 29 2014, 12:15AM
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And also what have these guys done in a management position that gives Katz confidence that this group can actually build a winning team??

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#5 RexHolez
April 29 2014, 12:11AM
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The question I have is how long do these guys have to get it right?

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#6 Soccer Steve
April 29 2014, 12:54AM
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Thatcher said it best. If you have to say you know a thing or two about winning, you don't.

Does it matter if anyone within the Oilers questions Lowe, et al? We the fans certainly know the end result at this point anyway.

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#7 bwar
April 29 2014, 12:12AM
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tldr; fire Lowe.

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#8 Spydyr
April 29 2014, 09:04AM
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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.

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#9 Neil
April 29 2014, 10:01AM
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You can't have one of the worst run team in all of sports without having major problems. How could anyone defend this team

If Oilers were in another city , they would be bankrupt by now.

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#10 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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#11 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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#12 Mike
April 29 2014, 04:31AM
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Classy there Sam singh. No room for idiotic remarks like that on these sites! If u got nothing decent to say or anything to add to the conversation then u should spare us all ur inmature remarks! Grow up buddy!!!

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#13 Sam Singh
April 29 2014, 01:54AM
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Yet again Robin Brownlee writes an article without any facts, stats or any god damn sense. We get it, you have a hard on against the management make up of the Oilers. But not giving Mac T a chance to put an imprint on this team is short sighted and lacking any journalism credentials you thought you had. Your main point in your blah blah blah is that all these guys are friends...so what, why are we already painting Mac T as the next Tambellini. He is not Tambo....

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#15 oilcanz
April 29 2014, 12:58AM
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ex-frickin-zactly

...and you could add-any challenge will be met with an emotional outburst that is often ill considered ie. Mike Comrie trade, Ryan Smyth trade, Tambellini hiring and then firing, the John McKinnon question etc...........

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#16 BLAKPOO
April 29 2014, 01:11AM
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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.

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#17 vetinari
April 29 2014, 07:06AM
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Good corporate organizations foster and encourage contrary opinions to make sure that they look at all solutions and all possibilities. And the Oilers don't strike me as one of those organizations. Great article. Good dose of reality.

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#18 The Real Scuba Steve
April 29 2014, 05:41AM
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How many VP of hockey operations and assiants to G.M.'s does this team need?

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#19 pelhem grenville
April 29 2014, 04:19AM
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...get to Katz Robin...he's the one with ALL the answers you say are long overdue...short of staking out places where he dines or cornering him in a hallway of an office building somewhere he IS the only one that can account for ALL THIS...good luck with that!

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#20 Jackson
April 29 2014, 09:57AM
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This is all you need to know about Kevin Lowe

http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2014/04/24/the-second-least-efficient-team-in-all-north-american-team-sports-here-come-the-oilers/

"This just in from Bloomberg Businessweek, their efficiency rating on which pro sports team do the best at turning dollars spent on salary into wins and championships.

The worst team on the list of 122 NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB teams? The Chicago Cubs.

The Second worst team? The Edmonton Oilers."

Good thing the time span was 5 years if not Oilers would be Last.

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#21 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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#22 David S
April 29 2014, 08:38AM
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Wonger wrote:

I agree! MacT has done an excellent job - time for the WONGER to join the Nation!!!!

Because the WONGER knows a little something about CAPS, if there ever was a question.

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#24 snorkboink
April 29 2014, 06:39AM
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Watching the Playoffs gives the best indicator of the miss direction the management of the Oilers have taken. You watch the Kings and Sharks series and one can't imagine ever competing with either. The philosophy of Big Strong and Hockey sense seemed to be learned by some as the Oilers draft clones of a 80's ghosts with the hope of out scoring opposition 10-8. With a new building being build and the price to see this product rises, one must stand up and shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"

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#25 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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#26 Brad 21
April 29 2014, 09:22AM
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You guys have it all wrong. Katz's kid is calling all the shots 6 rings just passes down the orders. The most embarrassing part is that as hard as Garth Snow has tried to destroy the Islanders they still finished higher then us in the standings and John Tavares was injured for most of the season. Now that's embarrassing.

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#27 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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#28 -30-
April 29 2014, 08:40AM
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It's not just hockey ops that have this problem.

Through all the different publishers or managing editors that good ole EJ has suffered through over the last few years there was one constant. Every new head had a purging within a couple of years.

Clear out the old wood and bring in the new. Rinse and repeat with each successive M.E.

The difference here from the Edmonton Journal is that instead of changing the head they are changing from the neck down so essentially NOTHING changes.

For as much as we hear that things will be different and that MacTavish is his own man I really doubt it.

Katz is a brilliant businessman but sucks as an NHL owner.

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#29 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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#30 Time Travelling Sean
April 29 2014, 12:28AM
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What is Messier's job or role on the team? NCAA scouting or something? I forget. Also, I'm pretty sure Lowe has had some ideas that didn't get carried out because of internal dissent.

Also, when Lowe was the GM we were decently competitive, 2000-2006 was pretty decent, and Lowe seemed to have a very good eye at getting good role players, Niinimaa, Peca, Chimera, Brewer and ofc Pronger and Roloson.

Ofc we know the gaffe with Comrie, but that signing bonus may have been his bosses concern and interference then his pride, because iirc, EIG was pretty strapped for cash when it came to the Oilers.

I just think this rebuild has been so sparse, with regards to having absolutely nothing prior to tearing everything down, that it's really prolonging the process, which Lowe should take responsibility for.

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#31 Quicksilver ballet
April 29 2014, 09:56AM
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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.

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#32 Wonger
April 29 2014, 07:48AM
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Sam Singh wrote:

Yet again Robin Brownlee writes an article without any facts, stats or any god damn sense. We get it, you have a hard on against the management make up of the Oilers. But not giving Mac T a chance to put an imprint on this team is short sighted and lacking any journalism credentials you thought you had. Your main point in your blah blah blah is that all these guys are friends...so what, why are we already painting Mac T as the next Tambellini. He is not Tambo....

I agree! MacT has done an excellent job - time for the WONGER to join the Nation!!!!

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#33 Rick
April 29 2014, 08:13AM
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Lowe has been part of the problem and not part of the solution. At the end of the day he wants to make money. He knows the results, If he had honour he would resign for real.

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#34 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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#35 mayorblaine
April 29 2014, 06:39AM
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i've no problem with the concept of groupthink, if the group has a legitimate plan for success. clearly whatever manner of "think" they've stumbled upon isn't designed for creating a successful franchise.

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#36 Jonsie
April 29 2014, 07:36AM
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You are completely out to lunch if you think that firing Lowe will immediately turn this team around. He is so removed from the decisions it's not going to make a difference. It will simply give some idiots gratification....and accomplish absolutely NOTHING!

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#37 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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#38 Jayz
April 29 2014, 12:38AM
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I truly believe that next year will be much more hopeful and promising than the past year, but if we end up picking in the bottom 5 again I have to think at the very least klowe will be gone . It's a shame because I really think he had a deep passion for the city and team, I just think he lacks the vision to lead us to higher places. I am so nervous for Eakins and mact next year.. Eakins has maybe a 30 game leash to start trending up and MacT a year ... Gl boys go oil

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#39 Mustangheart
April 29 2014, 10:10AM
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Jayz wrote:

I truly believe that next year will be much more hopeful and promising than the past year, but if we end up picking in the bottom 5 again I have to think at the very least klowe will be gone . It's a shame because I really think he had a deep passion for the city and team, I just think he lacks the vision to lead us to higher places. I am so nervous for Eakins and mact next year.. Eakins has maybe a 30 game leash to start trending up and MacT a year ... Gl boys go oil

I'm sorry, but I would give them all 10 games to show improvement or it's out the door for the lot of them.

If we wait for 30 games, the season is lost yet once again. Use the Flyers for reference.

It's time for Katz to start identifying candidates who can turn the organization around and I don't care if they have Oiler history. Burke is making "BOLD" moves!

Oiler fans have been patient long enough!!

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#40 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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#42 He Who Knows
April 29 2014, 10:21AM
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Good article Brownlee. The Oilers upper brass don't have a clue on how to run a successful blueprint for a professional hockey team. This all falls on the owner because he allows for this product to be put out there. I can guarantee you that if EIG was still holding the fort, Lowe and the rest of the old cats would have been fired years ago because the bottom line for EIG was playoffs and turn a profit each season. There was internal pressure on the hockey ops guys the whole time and not so much about entitlements. The organization changed from being a world class one to a shady one.

The NHL needs to intervene and find a more suitable owner, which ofcourse won't happen since Charles Wang still owns a team.

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#43 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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#45 madjam
April 29 2014, 06:42AM
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There is no need to change the structure so long as sellouts abound/ remain - bottom line . We are the model of consistency - albeit cellar dweller for most of this millennium . Katz has yet to build a decent team here as yet , but he is at least successful in selling out the building despite a poor team .

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#46 El Pindo
April 29 2014, 08:56AM
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Oh Brownlee, don't you realize just further handicapped your chances of ever working for the Oilers?? Not only did you not play for them within the golden 8 year window, you have now posed a questions about whether we have the right management group!

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#47 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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#48 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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#49 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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#50 DisappointedFan
April 29 2014, 09:12AM
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Brownlee,

Thanks for informing me there is an avid Nation reader at work..things you learn, now I need to find this guy. Old Retired Guy looking at you.

But in all honesty, if you read my response to BaggedMilk I'm just curious about if the experience at Rexall has actually been a muffled censored environment as was suggested by Old Retired Guy. Since I don't frequently attend games but watch them all on tv I don't see the up close acts or displays that might occur.

For example, at a Canucks game I was at just after Torts got suspended there were Canucks fans with "FREE TORTS" signs, but nothing really from Oil fans.

And if there is an actual censorship issue in Rexall would this not be something that the media would talk about?

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