The Old Boys’ Club

Old Boys

One of the most commonly cited critiques that the management of the Edmonton Oilers (at this site and elsewhere) is the perception of it as an old boys’ club. In some ways that’s fair, in others it ignores NHL reality.

Around the NHL

Ken_Holland_in_2013

The simple fact is that pretty much every general manager in the game makes use of his personal connections to some extent in hiring people to work under him.

Steve Tambellini certainly did when he joined the Oilers, bringing in a number of individuals with whom he had familiarity – people he knew from Vancouver or Hockey Canada or his playing career.

This isn’t unique to managers on bad teams, either. To pick one example, Detroit’s Ken Holland currently employs Chris Chelios, Kris Draper and Jiri Fischer in senior management roles. Kirk Maltby is a professional scout; Chris Osgood is the team’s goaltending coach. Another ex-Red Wing, Steve Yzerman, came up through Detroit management until he eventually ended up running the show in Tampa Bay.

Given a choice between strangers and trusted associates, most managers lean on their network and bring in people who they know and can count on. In that regard, to criticize Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish (who share much the same network) for doing what everyone else does is misguided.

Relentless

Daryl Katz

“Relentless” has been one of the favoured buzzwords in Edmonton the last few years. Owner Daryl Katz has described his commitment to being “absolutely relentless” in turning the Oilers into an elite team. General manager Craig MacTavish has used the term, too, most recently in reference to the messaging from head coach Dallas Eakins.

To be relentless means to be unyieldingly severe, strict or harsh. It doesn’t just mean never quitting; it implies total commitment to a goal unchecked by other considerations.

It’s a necessary quality in a manager overseeing people with whom he has a personal connection.

There exists a fine line between hiring trusted people and cronyism. For me, the line can be summed up in one word: merit.

There is nothing wrong with hiring a friend to a position he’s adequately qualified for, or in the case of an entry-level hiring if he will excel in the role with a little training. A problem develops when a subpar candidate is hired because of his personal connections, but at least that’s a correctable choice. The biggest problem is when a subpar candidate is not only hired, but maintained in his position even once his failings in that role have become obvious.

No amount of personal ties should excuse incompetence. It takes a relentless manager, someone with a streak of ruthlessness, to fire a friend who isn’t getting the job done, but sometimes it can be necessary. Job performance, rather than personal connection, has to be the basis for maintaining employees in their positions.

Another area where a relentless commitment is necessary is in management of communications.

Looking at the Oilers, as an example, the team’s president and general manager both have history with people much lower on the organizational depth chart – individual scouts (both pro and amateur) and of course the assistant coaches. This isn’t an uncommon situation in an NHL organization; we could say the same thing about Detroit and countless other teams.

For the team to work, though, people in the middle – scouting directors, head coaches – need to be able to function without being undercut by those close ties. For that to happen, three points are essential:

  • The lower-level employee needs to respect proper channels, refusing to use his personal connections to undermine his direct superior.
  • The person caught between personal connections needs to make his position clear. He has to be direct with both his subordinate and superior that his role can only be effectively filled if there isn’t a back-channel undermining his authority.
  • The decision-maker at the top of the organization chart has to be relentlessly professional. In social situations, he can’t be asking his lower-level friends about their bosses, and if the conversation moves in that direction it is his job to shut it down.

The Short Version

To recap, the unifying element in all of this is that in the workplace personal relationships need to be subordinate to performance.

There is nothing wrong with bringing in trusted people who can do the job; having mutual trust and respect makes for a more harmonious organization. Problems only arise when personal ties supplant professional merit.

Subpar candidates with personal ties should not be hired. Underperforming employees with personal ties should not be maintained. Personal ties should never be used to undermine proper channels.

Organizations that sacrifice merit at the altar of friendship fail.

From the outside it isn’t clear that the Oilers’ failings are a result of cronyism. What is clear is that the Oilers have plenty of failings, and that there has been no shortage of opportunity for cronyism.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Jordan1126

    i come to this site hoping to read an article that differentiates itself from the past ones. unfortunately when it comes to this organization there isn’t much left to disect.

  • Sorensenator

    Willis,

    I agree that the old boys club isn’t an evil in an of itself, and as you pointed out many clubs have personnel with previous ties to the organization. But in Edmonton’s case it is a clear problem because people with ties to the past are not held accountable. Case in point: Kevin Lowe. He has been in the senior most management position for the past 14 years, during which time the Oilers have had remarkably little success. Yet he’s still here. And don’t for a second tell me Tambellini’s tenure removes the onus of accountability on Lowe; Lowes responsibility extends further than just picking the GM.

    You’re bang on throughout most your article, until you suggested that cronyism isn’t a problem with the Oilers. If Lowe isn’t enough evidence, look at MacTavish. Was he the best possible candidate for the GM job? What qualifications had he had previously to make him so? I don’t think you could say he was hired out of merit and the fact that he was an ex-Oiler did not play into the calculus with a straight face.

    In short, it’s clear that the old boys club has hamstrung this organization for quite some time. We won’t see progress until fresh perspective from the top comes in with a free hand. If you can’t see that than you have your eyes closed to reality.

    • I’m sorry, where did I suggest cronyism wasn’t a problem for the Oilers?

      What I said was, “From the outside it isn’t clear that the Oilers’ failings are a result of cronyism. What is clear is that the Oilers have plenty of failings, and that there has been no shortage of opportunity for cronyism.”

      In other words, I can’t say that the Oilers’ failings are the result of cronyism because I haven’t seen the internal dynamic firsthand. They very well may be connected; I’m just making a point of not drawing a straight line between them because the evidence (at least most of it) is circumstantial.

      • #ThereGoesTheOilers

        I’m not sure JW can say it any clearer:

        Extensive losing combined with the old boys club suggests cronyism, but it’s not conclusive.

        If you have esophageal cancer it suggests a history of alcoholism or smoking, but it’s not conclusive.

        That being said, where there is smoke there is usually fire.

      • Sorensenator

        Your argument that you cannot draw a line between cronyism and the Oilers’ failing is moot; unless we have MacTavish or Lowe stating explicitly that the hired personnel who are not qualified, which has led to the failings, we cannot know the ‘internal dynamic’ (Even then we cannot know for sure, because MacTavish’s assessment of his team can be wrong.)

        Nonetheless, based off what we know as outside observers I can still a draw a line between cronyism and the Oilers’ failings (short of hooking MacTavish or Lowe up to a lie detector).

        Let’s look at the case study of Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith. Is their employment the product of cronyism? Their history with the Oilers would seem to suggest so. But even MacTavish confirmed this suspicion when, during his last press conference, emphasized Buchberger and Smiths’ ties to the organization as being one of their greatest qualities. As if this, rather than what they actually contribute to the team in terms of results, merits their place on the organization. This is clearly cronyism.

        So now that we’ve established that their position is a product of cronyism, let’s look at whether or not this has contributed to the poor state of the team. The results of the past several years would suggest that while they may not have necessarily hurt the team, they did not help it either. Of course, this could be the fault of the head coach and not the assistant coaches. However, MacTavish’s struggle to give any coherent, semi-cogent answer as to why they have survived 5 head coach changes and what positives they bring to the team confirm that their employment has not led to anything positive, but as the results have suggested, have only contributed to the negative state of the team.

        So there we have it. An example, as far as the outsider can observe, of how cronyism has led to a overall negative impact of the team.

        Such micro-analysis is unnecessary; the cronyism and failure (which I have proven are causal and do not just correlate)is blindingly obvious to most people. But I thought I’d entertain you, any way.

  • Zarny

    Good article. Astute observation that pretty much every team is an “old boys club”. The comments are what I expected lol.

    I think the key word in the article is relentless. I also feel this is where the rebuild has failed.

    As GM, I think the word relentless aptly described Lowe. He was one win away from the Cup. When he couldn’t sign elite UFA’s he p*ssed off every GM with aggressive offer sheets. He has been part of the Team Canada brain-trust with Ken Holland, Peter Chiarelli and Doug Armstrong. That doesn’t happen without merit. In terms of management MacT is unproven but I don’t see his hiring lacking merit either.

    However, despite what Mr. Katz says, after finishing last in 2009-2010 the word “relentless” ceased to exist in the organization.

    The Oilers didn’t have to “tank” to draft Taylor Hall. Last place is what the 2005-06 roster had unraveled to. Everyone knew the Oilers were in line for a few lottery picks.

    But instead of planning to have all of the players required to compliment a few high draft picks in place by say…2013-14, Oilers’ management let their foot off the gas. They deluded themselves into believing they had the luxury of time.

    And so Tambellini dithered. 4 years and not a single player he acquired is part of the solution. Players like Horcoff, Hemsky and Gagner weren’t considered part of the future but hung around for 3-4 years. The Oilers didn’t have a bona fide top pairing D in 2009-10. 4 years later they still don’t. There is nothing relentless about it.

    Col by comparison has finished 28th or 29th 3 of the last 6 years. However, instead of twiddling their thumbs waiting for a G they drafted in 2004 to “maybe” become a #1 starter they rolled through Budaj and Anderson before trading 1st and 2nd round picks for Varlamov close to 3 years ago. Instead of navel gazing hoping someone would become a top-pair shutdown D they traded two very good young players (Shattenkirk & Stewart) for a former #1 overall pick over 3 years ago.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Col by comparison has finished 28th or 29th 3 of the last 6 years. However, instead of twiddling their thumbs waiting for a G they drafted in 2004 to “maybe” become a #1 starter they rolled through Budaj and Anderson before trading 1st and 2nd round picks for Varlamov close to 3 years ago. Instead of navel gazing hoping someone would become a top-pair shutdown D they traded two very good young players (Shattenkirk & Stewart) for a former #1 overall pick over 3 years ago.

      __________________________________________________________________________

      In your opinion, who falls into that category right now for the Oil, considering it may be too late for any resemblance of a return for Gags? Too early for Yak, still?

      Would you consider making Fasth part of a package if it brought back a handsome reward, could they/would you expect they’d receive something decent for Fasth and Gags together? Would you even deem this management group capable of making a decision such as this?

      I have 10 more questions for you, but I don’t want to tire you out there Zarny.

      • Zarny

        Which players on the Oilers’ roster would I consider trading? The short answer is all of them.

        Hall is the only player on the roster that approaches untouchable. 80 pts in 75 games as a 21-22 y/o during a season where only Crosby topped 90 pts is significant. So unless the return is Malkin or something ridiculous you don’t gain anything by trading him.

        On D the Oilers have a logjam of 19-22 y/o on the left side with Marincin, Klefbom and Nurse. Playing all of them together would be an unmitigated disaster. If Nurse is the long term plan as the top pairing LS D then Marincin and Klefbom are dueling for a spot on the 2nd pair. I’d shop both and see what the difference in return is and then I’d trade one of them this summer for an area of need. If the Oilers draft Ekblad I’d do the same with Simpson, Petry and Schultz in that order.

        On F I believe you have to swap out 2 of Hall, Nuge, Eberle, Gagner, Perron and Yakupov for a C that better compliments Nuge and some size/grit/etc. If real life were a video game I’d trade Gagner and Perron because if you rank them 1-6 in terms of talent they are 5th and 6th. Real life isn’t a video game though so I think you have to move Eberle or Yakupov. Eberle would bring the bigger return. Yakupov’s struggles mean you likely have to package him with a draft pick (2014 3rd ovrall).

        If the reward was handsome I’d consider packing Fasth but I honestly don’t think Fasth/Gagner gets you much. And it leaves the Oilers with all of their eggs in one basket again in net. I like Scrivens but he’s not proven. Unless Brossoit shows up in camp and forces your hand in net I wouldn’t move either G right now.

        Yes, this management group is capable of making these decisions. Not every move MacT has made has been a home run but he did fine trading for Perron, Fasth, Scrivens and Hendriks. This is not different; just different names. I’m not a Kevin Lowe fan but as GM he traded for Pronger, Peca, Roloson, Samsanov and Spacek for a run at the Cup. Heatley said no but they did work out a deal with Ott. Their primary failing has been dithering and inactivity during the rebuild.

  • Mason Storm

    Willis is creating a straw man argument.

    I don’t think I’ve heard anyone argue that Lowe or the other ex-Oilers should be fired purely because they are ex-Oilers, so there’s no sense in arguing that. Instead, the source of the anger is the lack of accountability, which, incidentally is a product of cronyism.

    Here’s another example: Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger. Even MacTavish couldn’t justify why they shouldn’t be held accountable for their serial losing. Yet, low and behold, there’s still here. That’s not accountability. That’s why people are pissed.

  • Drunk Farmer

    The biggest problem with Lowe, who I still believe to be the most culpable to where the Oilers franchise is at, is that he progressed from player to coach to GM in under two years with little time to learn what it takes to become successful at that level of responsibility. Holland, Chiarelli, Lombardi, Bowman ect. all had time to work under mentors and in various roles then work up the ladder to the GM position.

    It’s no different in business or other profession, more time spent in different places with successful people will then give you the tools to become successful yourself. If all you know is to work in an environment where losing is accepted then losing becomes acceptable.

    Now there is a differing trend with President of Hockey Op’s positions it seems, where players are brought back in with differing levels of experience.

  • Willis,

    I love the way you help put things into context. You never get emotional about issues.

    Personally, while I haven’t been thrilled with all of MacTavish’s moves, I’m thrilled he’s made some at all and properly identified our needs even before the season started. He made a move to try to get Schneider, he made an attempt to add some size and grit to our top six with Clarkson (one that fortunately didn’t turn out, but I don’t think Clarkson is as bad as this season has showed, and I think he’d have been a better fit here), and he signed someone for the back end. Was Ference an overpay? Yup. But he’s also a veteran two-way defender on a team sorely lacking them. The contract should be over by the time we’re in contention anyway, so it isn’t crippling.

  • Sorensenator

    OK fine, change the old boys club. The fact is the results won’t come in until several seasons later with new management in place to see if it was actually the “old boys club” that was screwing everything up.

    I think they should hold a management try-out that includes many of the members of Oilers nation because they know exactly how to fix this Oilers team.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I’m not defending anybody in management, but is it a possibility that KLowe knew the time had come to tank for a few years, and didn’t want all of the blame pointed directly at him? He moves up to a bigger office, then brings in Tambo to take all of the blame. He then decides it’s time to start playing hockey again, so he brings back his buddy MacT. Then if the sun, the moon and the stars all align, they can say that they saved the day??? They can say it was all part of the master plan, and while leading the cup parade in Edmonton, Oodle Noodle and over priced beer will fall from the skies. Just my theory, I never said it would work.

  • Sorensenator

    Jonathan, good choice for topic of debate, but I do sense that there are times you need to ” step back from the Kool Aide Cooler. Stating that most NHL teams are deep in cronyism, dosent mean Oilers are excused for the sorry mess this Oiler team is in.

    Based on that theory, then one can only opine that Oilers Cronys are terrible compared to other teams Cronys, judging by the results.

    At the end of the day, the same people that drove this bus into the ditch are still there, what is going to make them smarter this summer.

    • It’s important to note the difference between networking and cronyism.

      Hiring and keeping qualified people you happen to have a personal connection with is networking.

      Hiring and keeping unqualified people you happen to have a personal connection with is cronyism.

      Basically every NHL team does the former. Presumably at least a few, quite possibly including Edmonton, do the latter.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Players lose their abilities to produce at a high level as they age , and often so do managerial people . Is change good for us now ? Probably ,or your over assuming nobody can do better than bottom results continuation . They can “pass the buck ” all they want , but the results show they have lost their edge . Time will not change that i’m afraid .

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    “The biggest problem is when a subpar candidate is not only hired, but maintained in his position even once his failings in that role have become obvious.”

    Buchberger/Smith we’re looking at you.

  • Sorensenator

    Are we still debating if this is an old boys club – IT IS a bunch of buddies running a business.

    White, Canadian, men that played hockey together when they were in their 20’s … might be the defination of “OLD BOYS CLUB”… if I could find a Websters

    The NFL has been moving to professional managers that start in scouting and spend years learning the business of professional sports. The NHL does not respect the apprenticeship pro scouts to General Manager or the displine of a law, finance or business degree.

    I get why teams spend millions to develop a player that might perform for 5 years but I don’t understand why they consistently spend zero (ish) dollars on mangerial development on person who could contribute to the team for 30 years?

  • El Pindo

    We need an NHL 15 GM Mode tournament to see who can build the best Oilers/OKC team over a 5 year sim period with no games being manually played, this is the only way to ensure we have the best possible candidate running the team

  • Do what Weight did?

    Second go:

    Musil, Gernat, Fedun, Simpson, Davidson, Hunt, Marincin, Klefbomb, Nurse. To me, @MasonStorm, a minor league affiliate that is capable of graduating players to the big club is a significant change and improvement since the start of the rebuild.

    There have been, and still are some misses in the list, as well as guys like Tubert. But that’s the nature of developing young players – they won’t all be NHLers.

    The forward group isn’t quite there yet – Arco an Pitlick seem to be the first to even get a look as far back as I can remember. We at least seem to be trending in the right direction, and it can at least foresee the day when new draft picks – lottery or otherwise – have to earn a spot on the team.

    It’s long term Change, but I consider it both significant and essential for future success. It wasn’t that long ago that one of our young goalies had his development stunted because he played for Pittsburgh’s minor league team, and couldn’t get any playing time. I can’t remember if that was Dubs or JDD, but that lack of an AHL affiliate knocked the rebuild back by years, and there is no viable shortcut for rebuilding that. Hopefully the trend continues

    • Sorensenator

      Like I said earlier, this team will not reap the benefits from firing Lowe right away, it could take 2,3 or even 4 seasons before we notice that things are changing drastically without him. Although I am in agreement for a change, I don’t believe Lowe has as much input as people are led to believe. If that were the case, Mac T would be next to obsolete because K Lowe would be calling all the shots anyway so what would be the point of having a GM.

      Even in ONE year, I have seen a major difference in how Mac T has managed assets compared to Tambellini.

      Do not put Mac T in the same boat as Kevin Lowe, it is way too soon for that.

  • 6 rings is the problem, he seems to be very vindictive. Lowe needed to make decisions for the betterment of the team and not personal vendetta.

    I believe his handling of the Smyth trade, Sourey banishment, fumbling the trade return for Pronger, Comrie trade, Cogliano, Brodziak and many others sets the tone for what is still wrong with management of the team today.

    I don’t have much hope for the team. We will continue to support the team financially so ownership has no reason to change anything.

    That is the way the world works. It is a good gig if you can get it.

    • Sorensenator

      So Lowe made all those decisions and Tambellini sat at the waist side and did nothing? Please.

      The President of hockey operations has a general manager for a reason. If he pulls all the strings and makes all the decisions the GM might as well stay home.

      K Lowe would then be called “President of Hockey Operations and General Manager”

      Not unheard of.

  • The only reason the ‘Old Boys Club’ has become an issue is because the whole organization sucks.

    I don’t care if Mact hires everybody in his family tree…if the organization functions effectively. It hasn’t, doesn’t and can’t. Therefore this congregation of the inept has become an issue. Off with their heads!!

    Go Conner Go!

  • The Soup Fascist

    @ Doug Sorensen

    “Paul Holmgren just got promoted and they hired Ron Hextall as GM, zinggggggg”

    Doesn’t matter.

    Isn’t the GM just the puppet for the POHO’s inept moves in ALL NHL organizations??.

      • Sorensenator

        Just another hall lover. Puck hogs usually get lots of points. He can’t pass can’t shoot turns the puck over more than anyone because he’s selfish! If they traded this useless over rated player for a d man oilers would be in better shape. Period.

  • Sorensenator

    well, Jonathan, everything you suggest might or could be happening, like cronyism and unprofessionalism, is IMO absolutely happening. No proof, only, like you say, a strong indication. the organization is broken. there must be some reasons why. sometimes, those reasons are greed and embezzlement (can probably scratch those), but other reasons are the examples you site and that everyone thinks. the fact that Lowe is employed is the strongest case for cronyism.

  • Sorensenator

    It is okay for Katz to bring in a guy or two that he knows WITH EXPERIENCE in the role they will be employed in but when you chose someone for a job just because you know them is a really dumb to run a franchise, and if they fail in their jobs than fire them!!! Don’t keep em around cause you are lonely. This isn’t a lunch table at the cafeteria you eat in everyday