Jordan Eberle’s comments to veteran writer Tim Pannaccio about the pressures of playing for the Edmonton Oilers ignited quite a debate among fans here Saturday. It’s a debate I’ve heard countless times over the last 25 years and one that almost always splits opinion into two very distinct camps. Only the names change.
The entire item is here. The juicy parts that stoked the always brimming passion of Oiler fans went like this: “The Edmonton media can be pretty brutal and your confidence goes and this is a game you can’t play if you don’t have confidence . . . it’s that simple. It’s the Edmonton Oilers and everything around it. When you read articles every day about how much you suck, it’s tough.”
That kind of comment, especially from a player paid as handsomely as Eberle is, tends to draw comments in black and white. On one side, people want Eberle to shut it. He makes $6 million a year, many times more than the vast majority of us will earn in a lifetime, and fans don’t want to hear about pressure and confidence – especially after his no-show in the playoffs last spring. Expectations and the pressure that comes with them are part of the gig Eberle signed up for. Suck it up, buttercup.
On the other side, people are quick to point out playing in a hockey-mad city — Edmonton isn’t Montreal in terms of media or fan scrutiny but it’s no walk in the park, especially after the decade of failure prior to last season – does present some challenges. There’s an actual person under that jersey and attached to that fat bank account, and when fans and media turn on a player it can get ugly and difficult to duck away from. That’s truer today than even 10 years ago with the proliferation of social media. These days, ugly is immediate.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
I tend to lean toward the former. Yes, there’s pressure to perform at the NHL level, especially in a city like Edmonton, but every single kid who makes it to The Show knows that coming in, or should. The thing is, Eberle could walk away from the game today, well before the age of 30, with as much money as he’ll ever need. Pressure? Paying the mortgage and putting food on the table for your family is pressure. That’s real life. Most people would make that swap in a New York minute.
That said, there’s a whole spectrum of personalities and characters out there. That holds true whether we’re talking about playing in the NHL, working at an office job or driving a snowplow. Many people fall somewhere in between the black and white arguments made in the wake of Eberle’s comments. Most players take the kind of criticism Eberle talked about and use it as fuel. They love to shove criticism down the throats of their critics. I’ll show you.
The overwhelming majority of players I met during all the years I spent covering and travelling with the Oilers fell into that category. If criticism from fans and media got under their skin, they never let it show. They never talked about it, on or off the record. They could hack it, no matter how steady or how nasty that criticism got – even when media types or fans seemed intent, real or imagined, on running somebody out of town. It motivated them.
Other players, not so much. Criticism, even in the days before the glare of social media became part of the mix, got to them. Tom Poti let it work him over when he fell out of favor here. I’ll never forget a conversation we had about it in the halls of Madison Square Garden one day. Cory Cross, a local boy and an honest but limited player, was a wreck by the time he was traded to Pittsburgh in January of 2006. Cross was in tears when he faced reporters after the news came down before a game in Los Angeles. Mike Comrie let the expectations and attention that came with playing in his hometown get to him his first time around. Now, Eberle.
THE WAY I SEE IT
There was some irony for me in that former Oiler Doug Weight, now Eberle’s coach with the New York Islanders, was quoted in the piece that got everybody talking yesterday. Weight, by anybody’s standard an exceptional player here, was one of those guys who’d just as soon poke a reporter in the eye with his thumb if he thought you’d taken an unfair run at him or a teammate. Get rattled? Buckle? No chance. He was coming back at you, and right now with the ink barely dried. If you gave it to Weight, you’d better be prepared to take it.
“Jordan was coming from a situation where, not blaming the Oilers, but he was in a beaten-down, lack-of-confidence situation,” Weight said of what’s been a bounce-back year for Eberle with the Islanders. “I wanted to get him in here and let him know how we felt about him.” I think there’s some merit in Weight’s comments. I can see how years and years of losing on a bottom-feeder and then coming up empty when the Oilers finally did make the playoffs could work on the confidence. With Eberle, obviously it did.
Like I said off the top, I think that reading how much you suck – or how great you are – comes with the gig that is playing in the NHL. You have to take it and get on with the next day, even though that’s far easier said than done – particularly now with how personal and venomous some of the criticism directed at players has become in the era of social media.
So, removed from the city where not so long ago he and Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were supposed to be the building blocks of a return to contention, Eberle had his say. Fans, as they always do, have had theirs. I wonder, with everything having gone sideways so far this season and fans boiling mad about it, who gets to be the lightning rod for all that frustration now? Who will it be and how will they handle it?