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

  • paul wodehouse

    That kool-aid tastes soooooooooooo good! Meanwhile, we’re looking at 9 maybe 10 years out of the playoffs. No I don’t think the anger is misguided.

    • The anger is misguided to the extent that you can’t be angry at a team when it hires a bunch of ex-player who knew each other; that’s how the league works.

      The anger is correct to the extent that the Oilers’ network hasn’t delivered any results, and a lack of professionalism may be a contributing factor.

  • paul wodehouse

    …what’s messier doing anyway…plays for slats a while…gets a carrot to take over the rangers…bails to partner up with some goodfellas to build a hockey facility for kids in NYC> makes more money and ends up here doing what?

    I can deal with the Kevins and the MacTs and even Stevie…mess? no so much

      • paul wodehouse

        Messier’s got more money than brains Lofty…I guess what I’m looking for is what does he do…? actually…scouting? Surely there was a presser once when he came on board anointing him to some dubious title no?

        I just don’t get it other than the most obvious…Katz’s jock sniffing…

  • Word to the Bird

    I thought your discussion on “relentless” was going to be in reference to the relentless ineptitude that Bruce Arthur has attributed to this management team. If every team is run like an old boys’ club, then Katz needs to bring in a different set of old boys.

  • Do what Weight did?

    The difference is Detroit wins, nobody would be complaining if the edmonton old boys club turned the team around. But the group in place has made our city a laughing stock and quite frankly they’ve turned a once proud franchise into a circus. So don’t go telling me Detroit does the same things. At the end of the day its about results and this group hasn’t gotten any.

    • Wait a minute now, didn’t Holland spend a couple years in the Red Wings system as a player before moving into the organization in another capacity? Isn’t Carolina doing that with Francis right now & what about yada yada yada….. Happens all the time people because the powers that be feel these guys are qualified!

    • There was no Lowe/Holland comparison.

      The point was that you can’t get mad at the Oilers for using their network when *pretty much everyone else in the league does too.*

      You can get mad at the results, and you can be suspicious that the same level of internal professionalism doesn’t exist.

      • Spurzey

        To be fair, its very hard to argue that “pretty much every team in the league does it” and then give one example.

        Who else uses this “network of friends” you speak of?

        Chicago? No
        Pitsburgh? No
        Los Angelas? For the most part, no
        Boston? Sure doesnt look like it.

        You know who does? The majority are failed organizations. Because, for the MOST PART, it is a failed and flawed plan.

        Detroit? I guess the exception to the rule.
        Carolina? Yup
        Oilers? Sure does
        Montreal? Only because they are adamant on being French Canadian – and only lately have they become decent.
        Islanders? Yup, coupled with a moron of an owner. Sound familiar, Edmonton?
        Buffalo? Sure are trending that way

        So one example (two if you count Montreal) does not make a “Golden Rule”

        We need competent management, and if our scouts and decision-makers were competent, then we wouldnt be this deep into a mess.

        Our scouts are largely made up of underachieving old Oilers, and they are doing a terrible job of drafting (outside of a lottery pick, of course)

        Our assistant coaches are the one constant in a long line of failed coaching.

        I do believe that MacT is competant and will do a good job.

        The owner needs to stay out of the operations and hire the right people to make the right decisions: Friends or NOT.

        • Actually, if you look at Chicago’s hockey operations staff they employ three former Blackhawks as development coaches (Keith Carney, Adrian Aucoin, Yanic Perreault), another as a professional scout (Dennis Bonvie), and another as an amateur scout (Michel Dumas).

          In Los Angeles, Luc Robitaille is team president, Rob Blake is assistant general manager, Nelson Emerson is in charge of player development, Glen Murray is a consultant in the same department – all are ex-Kings. And that’s before we get into other guys who were part of Dean Lombardi’s network with other teams (Jack Ferreira, Alyn McCauley, John Stevens, etc.).

          In Pittsburgh, guys like Bill Guerin and Alain Nasreddine are meployed by the team, but the real network comes from Ottawa and Nashville – where G.M. Rya Shero worked previously. So you get guys like Tom Fitzgerald in the AGM role, Jacques Martin as an assistant coach, Dan MacKinnon as director of player personnel and Randy Sexton as the co-scouting director.

          In Boston, the team president is Cam Neely, Don Sweeney is in the role of AGM, P.J. Axelsson runs the amateur scouting in Europe, Dean Malkov is an amateur scout; all are former players. Oh, and somebody named “Mike Chiarelli” also works for the team as an amateur scout.

          Every team in the league runs off the network of the general manager, and most times that network includes a bunch of guys who played for the team. The good teams aren’t an exception to this rule.

          • Spoils

            Cronies kicking around the organization is great – it probably helps build a sense of tradition and family, it probably makes players feel safe.

            Letting the cronies run the team is a different thing. The LA Kings are Darryl and Dean’s team – not the cronies’.

            WE NEED EXCEPTIONAL PROFESSIONALS IN THE KEY POSITIONS

            period

          • Sorensenator

            Fair enough. I didnt even think of the fact that a GM would come over from a different organization.

            All the examples are fair.

            I guess some form of loyalty is expected or admired, but there has to be some explanation why, when our certain personelle in management seems to be terrible in their respectful positions, that there isnt any accountability at all!

            All of the other teams that employ their “friends or ex-teamates” im sure are held responsible just as any other newbie into the organization would.

            At some point it has to be less about loyalty to a person, and more about business acumen.

            Just because Lowe won 6 Cups, does not meam that he can build a Cup Winning Team.

            Just because MacT has his Masters does not mean he can build a Cup Winning Team.

            But, if they prove they are a good candidate for the job, like MacT is doing right now (In my opinion, only), then giving the advantage to a loyal ex-player is not an unreasonable request.

          • That’s the whole point I was trying to make. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in people you know and trust – everybody does.

            The problem is ensuring that there’s professionalism in the organization despite those personal ties.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            When you look at the way the coaches have been handled, there is strong evidence of cronyism. Could you find one other organization that had kept the same assistants while turning over three or more head coaches, especially when results are bad?

            I also think you are overstating the Red Wings. Paul Martin, the assistant GM came from outside the organization. Chelios’ role description doesn’t indicate a key player in management. Osgood is the goalie development coach, not the goalie coach. All the key assistants appear top have come from outside the organization. Draper and Ficsher have more meaningful roles, to be sure. But Holland clearly balances bringing in former players with outside blood, and Sens to put them in roles where there influence on results is fairly indirect.

          • Mason Storm

            There has been no significant change from year 1 of the rebuild until now. There should at least be signs of life by now and there isn’t, despite many changes to the players on the ice. This could be from poor coaching, management or any number of reasons, all off ice. The players change and the results are the same. Something’s got to give in the front office

  • Word to the Bird

    Wait, are you suggesting that management is a tightly wound network of friends, who aren’t qualified for their jobs, but remain in place anyways because they’re all such good buddies?

    Sounds about right.