GROUPTHINK: ROOM FOR DISSENT?

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.

  • Spydyr

    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.

    • Sorensenator

      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.

  • Kr55

    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?

  • Brad 21

    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.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

    • Oiler Country

      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.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

  • Brad 21

    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.

  • Sorensenator

    I do agree that some of the hiring of the Oilers Management has come from the thought process of “Do you remember Scott, worked here about 6 years ago. He’s looking for a hockey job. Let’s talk to him.”

    The fact it though, both MacT and Howson left the organization and went out and respectively work on other projects (MBA-MacT; GM CLB-Howson). They each worked for other institutions, with other individuals with differing opinions and points of view. You can’t say that all that experience and situations they were exposed to when they were away from the Oilers, did not change their perspectives and how they approach situations.

    People grow, especially when change is thrust upon them. I think KLowe is the common denominator, to the past, but I don’t see MacT or Howson rolling over and not having a firm, concrete opinions that they are passionate about and willing to hold on to.

    My point-MacT and Howson are not he same people they were during their previous tenure. This is a new era in Oilers management.

  • Sorensenator

    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.

  • Czar

    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.

  • S cottV

    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.

  • Derian Hatcher

    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.

  • Derian Hatcher

    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?

  • Johnnydapunk

    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 )

  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

  • smiliegirl15

    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.

  • smiliegirl15

    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

  • Guy Lafleur

    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.

  • Kr55

    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.

  • Herbert

    “Really not sure why my comments are getting deleted. A little explanation would be nice as I do not know how I have offended the moderator and/or Robin Brownlee.”

    OK, I’ll play along. Your comments are being deleted because you insist on posting even though you’ve been blocked for remarks aimed at writers here, including me. That’s been decided. No discussion.

    You can roll your IP, use a VPN, whatever you want, to get around the block as you’ve been doing, but any comments you post — like the dozen or so you’ve repeatedly cut and pasted since the block — will be deleted . That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’ll stay.

    Compounding matters by playing the wide-eyed victim with this “Really not sure why . . .” load is rich. Anyway, now that you’ve been updated, you can stop wasting your time and ours. You’re done here.