The Edmonton Oilers’ famously reclusive owner didn’t make an appearance on Monday, but he did something else, addressing an increasingly hostile fanbase through a letter on the team’s official website.
The full text of the letter can be found there, but a few key points stand out.
Kevin Lowe. Katz does two things with his letter with regard to the Oilers’ president. The first thing he does is defend him, citing the way Hockey Canada values Lowe’s knowledge and emphasizing his importance to the organization. The second thing he does is make it clear that Craig MacTavish is the man building the Oilers today. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. A little over a week ago I suggested that the team’s best option if they continue to find Lowe’s perspective valuable might be to give him a demotion in title; this letter falls short of that but strongly suggests that Lowe isn’t the guy pulling the levers these days.
Emphasizing the rebuild. There was a lot of fan support in the early stages of the Oilers’ decision to build via top picks at the draft, and it’s still a policy that many will support in general. Katz’s letter puts the spotlight squarely on that strategy and in doing so urges fans to be understanding of the transition. While the owner acknowledges that Edmonton’s playoff drought will hit eight years this spring, he frames the issue in a more positive light, one that can be compared to the droughts suffered in Pittsburgh and Chicago before those teams emerged as contenders.
Accentuating change. The Oilers have been extremely busy, in particular since the ascension of Craig MacTavish to the general managership. Not all of the changes have been good, but given how much losing Edmonton has suffered through there’s a definite constituency for any kind of change. Emphasizing the Oilers’ activity on the trade front, through free agency, and in the front office tells fans that the team is trying to make positive strides, doubtless with the aim of encouraging patience in the fanbase.
Appealing to fans. The Oilers as an organization – and Lowe in particular – have suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds over the last year. Naturally, the entire letter is structured in an effort to quell discontent, but there are some specific measures made to heal some specific breaks. The letter itself is addressed "To Oilers Fans Everywhere" which seems like a not-so-subtle repudiation of Lowe’s unfortunate comments which divided the fanbase into more- and less-valued components. It also does the most important thing when facing frustrated fans: acknowledging their complaints. The letter commends fans for being "incredibly patient and supportive" and stresses that the team both values and hears them. Toward the end, it emphasizes pride in the Oilers’ colours. In other words, it’s saying: we know you’re frustrated, but we’re making progress and let’s all rally around the flag. It’s a good argument, since even the fans most bitter with the current management group have a deep emotional attachment to the team
Will It Work?
The letter is almost certainly going to do a few things.
For one, it’s going to go at least some distance toward cooling anger. Yes, these arguments have all been made before, and no a letter won’t generate the wins the team so desperately needs, but it does something else. One of the reasons we’ve seen such vicious reaction from segments of the fanbase is because fans feel powerless; with this letter Katz acknowledges that fans matter. Even for those who don’t buy the arguments, that will ease some frustration.
It isn’t going to be a cure-all, and it isn’t going to solve the real problem: losing. What it might do is buy a little bit of time and take some of the edge off, but the fans have suffered through so much (and will continue to suffer) that at best it’s a stall.
One way it may backfire is with the local media. Anybody who has spent any time reading the local beat reporters on Twitter or in the papers knows that a) they really don’t like that Katz doesn’t talk to them and b) they hate it when they aren’t used in a gatekeeping role. A direct letter to fans that bypasses the professional media and a continued lack of interviews with Katz is only going to encourage them to dismiss the letter.
One final note: some media outlets are branding this as an apology. It isn’t. It’s an acknowledgement of fan frustration, but at every level it defends the current management and direction of the orgnaization.
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