It’s difficult to sell renewal in a press conference when the new general manager is coming from within, and so it was perhaps unsurprising that the Oilers brass took some hot questions this morning, most notably from the Edmonton Journal’s John MacKinnon and Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, team president Kevin Lowe did not handle a number of them very well.
Two Types of Fans
A noticeably aggravated Lowe initially responded to a question from MacKinnon by dividing Oilers fans into two separate tiers of different value to the team:
We have two types of fans: we have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about but certainly the people that go to the games and support we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message.
On one level, it’s a fair distinction to make. The NHL is very much a gate-driven league, and from a business perspective the most important people to the Oilers are the ones shelling out cash for tickets to every game.
On another level, it’s a breathtakingly stupid thing to say given that a) the fans that go to the games regularly represent a minority of an extremely large fanbase and b) the fans that aren’t regularly in attendance at Rexall still mean a great deal to the financial fortunes of the team. They’re the people who make the Oilers television rights valuable, they’re the people who buy the majority of the team’s merchandise, and to some non-trivial degree they’re also the people that need to be sold on community involvement in a new arena.
From a public relations perspective, there’s simply no reason to remind this rather large group of devoted fans that they matter much less to the organization than the folks shelling out big money for season tickets. That’s one of the things that can be expressed to season-ticket holders in private.
Count My Stanley Cup Rings
And then Lowe kept going. After professing that half the teams in the league would love to trade rosters with Edmonton, he said this:
In terms of the group that messed things up, you’re talking about the group that had a team one period away from winning the Stanley Cup, and you know the cycle of that. You know that we chased a dream for a few years, for our fanbase, like a lot of teams do. And then at some point in that timeframe we realized that’s a bad plan and we made a change. We’re finishing year three of that plan. Are you saying to me you’re getting impatient after three years? And lastly I’ll say, there’s one other guy I believe in hockey today, that is still working in the game, that has won more Stanley Cups than me, so I think I know a little bit about winning if that’s ever a concern.
The point about the team in 2005-06 is a valid one, to be sure; the fact is that the Oilers under Lowe weren’t nearly as bad as they became under Tambellini.
But Lowe’s comment on his Stanley Cup victories as a player was both tone-deaf and irrelevant. Tone-deaf because many fans had already written off the hiring of MacTavish as yet another example of hiring the familiar person rather than the best person available; reminding everyone about the 1980’s simply underscored the notion that this club is living off past achievements. Irrelevant, because the job of a manager and a hockey player is quite different: there is certainly some cross-over but the athletic talents that make a player great don’t necessarily make him a great executive. Wayne Gretzky was a far better hockey player than Scotty Bowman, but in terms of coaching careers there can be no question which had a greater impact; one only needs to look at the management of the last few Stanley Cup winners to realize that a law degree in a lot of cases is a better indicator of management prowess than achievements on the ice.
Does it matter?
The good news for the Oilers organization is that what was said today really doesn’t matter, a point Craig MacTavish repeatedly emphasized during the availability:
It makes very little difference what I say today. What really, truly, matters is what we do tomorrow as an organization to get better. If I can come in here and sell you guys on my capability and credibility to do the job today means nothing tomorrow.
Kevin Lowe bungled things badly at the press conference today. But if, in Craig MacTavish, he found the man who can build Edmonton into a Stanley Cup contender, nobody will remember or care about a few ill-advised comments.
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