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Who is calling the shots?

What I wanted going into Thursday’s media availability with Edmonton Oilers’ CEO Bob Nicholson was a clear indication of what the plan was moving forward in terms of personnel in the hockey operations department. I didn’t necessarily expect it, but I hoped for some details about who’d be staying and who’d be on the way out the door after an unquestionably disappointing season.

Aside from Nicholson’s off-the-top announcement that GM and president of hockey operations Peter Chiarelli will be back next season, he provided precious little else – no word about the status of head coach Todd McLellan or his coaching staff, the rest of the front office, the scouting department and on and on. Those are the issues fans want to know about after watching this season unfold as it did. We got no details, none of the small picture stuff that’ll eventually trickle out.

By the end of the day, tweaked by an item written by Mark Spector of Sportsnet, the question for me, and maybe for you as well, was the bigger picture. I wasn’t focused in on who in hockey-ops will get the blindfolds and cigarettes. We know that’s going to happen. What I’m wondering, regardless of who publicly pulls the trigger, is who is actually calling the shots? Specifically, how much influence do some members of the Oilers’ alumni have by way of what Spector dubbed the “The Red Wine Summits” with fan-turned-owner Daryl Katz and in the decision-making process?

The part that stuck with me from Spec’s piece was: “If Katz is listening to Chiarelli and Nicholson — like them or not — then he’s listening to the right people. If the hires are coming out of The Red Wine Summits, then Lord help the Oilers, because it won’t end well.” That took me back to the out-of-the-blue hiring of Paul Coffey as a skills development coach in January. Who made that call? Not who announced it, but who made it?

WHAT’S NEXT?

Jun 5, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; NHL Centennial Ambassador Wayne Gretzky speaks during a press conference prior to game four of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With all the losing the Oilers have done since that last Stanley Cup in 1990, particularly in the Decade of Darkness the team spent out of the playoffs, we’ve long heard grumbling about the Boys on the Bus and the Old Boys Club from fans in Edmonton as players from glory days past, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, took the wheel of the franchise as coaches and then general managers.

The consternation that started during the watch of the Edmonton Investors Group has continued under the ownership of Katz. It was muted last season, as the Oilers had 103 points and returned to the playoffs, but seems to be growing again. Lowe and MacTavish are still in the fold. Now, Wayne Gretzky is back with the title of partner and vice-chair within the OEG. I’m guessing that the Great One, like Lowe and MacT, has Katz’s ear, even without a direct connection to hockey operations by job title.

We can speculate to what degree that is, about how much sway it has in hockey-ops decisions. That’s been fodder for years and years now. Spector’s piece, though, made a specific reference that impacts here and now. “There are voices in Edmonton. Voices who bear Stanley Cup rings from the Oilers glory years, many of them don’t believe McLellan should be the Oilers head coach. Others would have him remain as a coach, but want to install at least one of their own to help him out.”

Say it isn’t so. Having an owner who wants his fingerprints directly on hockey-ops decisions is problematic at the best of times. If that’s the case, as it appears to be, and you can’t fire the guy who signs the cheques, then what? Well, if Katz insists on having input about hockey hiring and firing, fine, but he needs to let Nicholson, first, and Chiarelli, second, make the final call. If Katz is taking advice from outside that tight circle and putting it into play regardless of what Nicholson and Chiarelli say, what’s the point of having either of them around?

THE WAY I SEE IT

If Nicholson is on the payroll simply to make announcements rather than decisions while somebody else pulls the strings, there’s a big problem. If Chiarelli doesn’t have the authority to decide what happens with McLellan and his coaching staff, there’s a big problem. If McLellan is Chiarelli’s man, he needs to be allowed to make that decision and live with the result. On down the pecking order it goes. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

If that’s not the case with the Oilers, if there’s any significant influence about hockey-ops decisions coming from outside that pecking order — no matter how many Stanley Cup rings are attached to those voices who have Katz’s ear — then we’ve got a mess that won’t be cleaned up anytime soon. It cannot work that way.

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RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE  



  • Only one way to know for sure. I know i’m a 1 string banjo. Get rid of Lowe and all his cronies ( Not including Messier and W Gretzky) who I do believe are just advisers. That includes Nicholson as well. Till we get rid of all the a** kissing sycophants including Mac-T and Scott (we never actually fired him) Howson the status quo shall remain. Everybody below Katz in management , coaching or scouting should have been gone already. But we will just continue on with no point press conferences as per usual. This franchise is a complete FARCE.

    • LAKID

      Umm, this can’t be fixed with the current management in place. They better not fire the coach because no one will want to risk their future with these clowns.

    • crabman

      I mostly agree. Except for the Messier and Gretzky comment. How can you say you think some of the old boys club are meddling but not the those 2. We have no idea who is saying what behind closed doors and undermining the actual management groups ability to do their job.
      The only way I would have anyone of them around would be as a figure head “ambassador of hockey”. Talk to media and players about how wonderful playing in Edmonton is. Chat up free agents with stories of the golden days and how great it was being a champion in Edmonton and transition that into how great it would be to play with McDavid. That is it. Absolutely no input, just like Drake being the international ambassador for the Raptors.
      Advisors in any capacity needed to be picked by the GM. He should surround himself with the brightest hockey minds he can and people with a broad range of ways to look at a situation.

        • fasteddy

          Really who cares if there are many opinions going into making a decision? If Chia isn’t able to make the final call then that’s a problem. I find it hard to believe Chia doesn’t call the shots; way too risky that it gets out and everyone has egg on their face. Not to mention the moves he’s made sort of line up with the type of moves he’s made in the past. If anything Lowe or MacT should have said “let’s maybe think about this for a min”!

          • Reg Dunlop

            Do you recall the Reinhart trade? When the announcement was made and the camera caught Chia with a wtf look of disbelief on his face? I remain unconvinced that there isn’t some meddling going on, as hard as it is to believe that Chia would allow himself to become a puppet GM.

      • n(Ice)

        I think the Spec piece was rumor mongering and a smoke screen. The OBC is sort of irrelevant, and they can’t do nearly as much damage as an incompetent GM. Or director of hocket ops. Or member of the coaching staff. So what if Katz wants to pay Paul Coffey to sit in the stands. It’s his money. Let’s get back to the real issue here which is an awful GM!

        • fasteddy

          I agree completely; it’s hard for me to understand how Spec got to where he is with some of the things he comes up with. If you have a national audience it might be a good idea to do some fact checking before taking to print, (not necessarily this piece, but some of his other soap box articles that can seem baseless and senseless.

  • The Future Never Comes

    The rhetoric remains status quo, such like the results for the past 12 years with the exception of last year. But even blind squirrels get a nut every now and again. This Katz era has been brutal to its loyal fanbase.

  • ubermiguel

    The Oilers really started their Decade of Darkness when Katz bought the team. He needs to be completely hands off on all decisions below the level of Nicholson.

  • McRaj

    The entire OBC including Wayne and Mess gotta go. This once an oilers, always an oiler mantra is killing this team. I wonder what ceremony or celebration will be held for the 80’s boys this upcoming season. We are such a pathetic organization.

  • camdog

    I remember the bill boards, legions of fans saying Lowe must go. Mainstream media’s response was that Lowe no longer had any input in hockey related matters. Now the media is changing their tune. Is Edmonton the only hockey market where the media act like public relations on behalf of “their hockey team”?

  • Dan 1919

    Gretzky is partner and vice chair (https://www.nhl.com/oilers/team/front-office). That means he invested into the OEG, and is therefore entitled to be part of the organization and exempt from all “firing” talks by fans, just as Katz is.
    If you want Katz and Gretzky to sell the team/their shares, I disagree but can entertain that as a conversation. However they fall under a completely different discussion category than Lowe/Mctavish/Coffee/Messier/Harvey-the-Hound.

    • crabman

      thanks for sharing the link. I didn’t realize Gretzky was partner. Thought he was just vice chair. That said if Katz wanted to move along from all the old boys it wouldn’t be hard to get rid of a partner companies do it every day. I don’t know which optics would look worse, keeping the old boys around while still consistently losing or publicly forcing out the Great One.

      • Dan 1919

        Yeah I know what you mean. I think people just start throwing dirt everywhere in these situations. I think Katz was too involved early on but now that he put Nicholson in there, I think him and Gretzky are good for the team.
        Everything going on now is Nicholson’s responsibility. He just took heat from Chiarelli and put it right on his own shoulders.

        • crabman

          Even with Gretzky being a partner and Nicholson being Chiarelli’s boss I don’t like the idea of people above the GM and POHO making hockey decisions. Their job is to hire a POHO and let that person run the team. They can set budgets, ie an internal cap, and share advice but once a POHO feels pressured to do something or is overruled and forced to do something he doesn’t want to it undermines the whole system. It puts the GM and POHO in a no win position. Make changes against your will and if it doesn’t work you’re on the hook for it. Or refuse l, possibly get fired and a reputation for not listening to his boss or being a team player.
          Sure an owner might want to be a part of a major decision like trading a franchise player, but for the most part the best thing they can do is hire someone to run the team, give them goals you.expect them to meet and leave them alone to do their job. otherwise do it yourself and see how that turns out.

  • XL Lebowski

    There once was a man named Katz
    Who bought a hometown team with skates
    The fans were hoping he’d be the man
    Because he started out as a major fan
    But we all quickly realized the advice he was getting
    Was enough to cause headaches and severe bed-wetting
    So what’s the solution so I can end this bad rhyme
    Put the boys on the bus out to pasture in record time

  • Derian Hatcher

    Does this remind anyone of minor hockey days where the coach put all of his buddies kids on the team and if you didn’t kiss a$$ the coach your kid didn’t make the team ? Ha ha ha. #causeoilers

  • Roberto

    Brownlee, do you believe the OBC pulls some strings? I do, and always have, and I seem to remember you suggesting that idea was ridiculous. I’m not trying to be difficult, it was comforting hearing that from a connected source. If you and Spector are both suggesting it now, that’s bad…. This is a very hard organization to cheer for

    • Tooleybuc

      By my count, the Old Boys Club, collectively have a grand total of ZERO Stanley Cups, while in management positions. That’s zero… with a capital ‘Z’. Think about that for a moment. Lowe, MacT, Gretz, Messier, etc. have NEVER been part of a successful coaching staff or management team. After years of trying. Gretz struggled in Phoenix. MacT & Lowe delivered the Decade of Darkness. Why are we still talking about these guys? Great players don’t automatically make great coaches. Orr didn’t coach. Howe didn’t manage. PLEASE… Lowe, MacT… just go away. Once and for all.

    • Dan 1919

      I think Chiarelli decided to go into this season minus Pouliot, Eberle, Hendricks, and Sekera. 4 NHL players less (Eberle downgraded) than a year before when the team substantially overachieved with numerous players posting career years.

      I see where the conspiracy theories are coming from but I really don’t buy it.

    • I have been suggesting that for years and was even mocked by RB. Change of tune apparently? Lowe should have been gone after his six ring/2nd tier fans diatribe. But no, slap the fanbase in the face and get a promotion. I bet there are a lot more MSM reporters that know the truth, but will never print it.

  • Roberto

    I wrote in the summer that Karma may catch up to the Oilers after the stunts they pulled (re-hiring Howson and signing Keegan Lowe), quietly, when fans were distracted from a playoff hangover. The OBC and Katz deserve this terrible season. I even think that Chia, Nicolson, Todd and the assistants deserve this. The fans, and McDavid do not. At least McDavid has 100 million reasons left to stay. I would like to know how many friends or family members of the OBC are employed by this organization, players and management. There seems to be way too many kids of former Oilers in the system, or Benning who’s uncle I believe is friends with Chia (and Benning has been decent). Years and years of poor decisions and drafting have killed the depth on this team because the scouts were OBC, and Chia has made some big mistakes to ensure the team still sucks (again, Griffin was connected to the OBC). This legitimately makes me want to switch teams that I cheer for. Mickey Mouse organization.

  • ed from edmonton

    Agree with RB that if the OBC start running the asylum again there is no hope. Spector’s article seemed to me to be more speculation than anything confirmed and I sure hope that is all it is. I would think that Bob Nich and PC would not stick around if they are not calling the shots.

  • Roberto

    The city should have let Katz move this organization to Seattle…. Edmonton would get an expansion team eventually, and that organization would be far better off than this tire Firethemall

  • CMG30

    I agree with your take %100. No, I don’t have any confidence in Chirelli’s hockey IQ, but if the owner does believe that he is the man for the job then he has to be given the authority and the confidence to manage the team. Anything else is lunacy.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    Yup I have long suspected that the Old Boys Club were at least asked for their opinions. No proof, just suspicions. Bringing in Coffey confirmed it for me. So Gretzky, and Coffey are now hanging around the organization in addition to Oilers for life Kevin Lowe, Craig MacT, and Scott Howson? Explains the losing that’s for sure! As great as some were, all are not cut out to be coaches, GM’s or advisors in my opinion.

  • RexHolez

    Until people stop going to the games, none of this matters and any complaining about the OBC will just continue to fall on death ears. The oilers are a crony organization with next to zero respect shown towards the fans. It’s been that way for years. I’m really not sure why I even continue to come to Oiler sites and read about them anymore.

    I actually kinda want them to fail miserably again next year, just cuz I’m at the point where I’m curious to see how long they can truly be horrible until the entire obc finally gets purged. I’m betting it can go atleast another decade

  • Oiler Al

    A lot of questions Robin, but no answers!It seems one could get more info.,
    from Putins.KGB like operation, than you can out of Oilers.OEG. I think yo9u media guys know more thanh you want printed and skirt around the edges of the issue.” who is really,really calling the shots when the blinds are down low?. An olde news hound like Brownlee knows more than he cares to say.
    I think Katz has a firm hand on the rudder [as he hides under his kitchen table, in Malibu],and his conduit and sounding board is the OBC.At least Melnyk[Ottawa], shows up in person to disturb the shcitz creek.
    In final Chairelli and Burger Bob are mere puppets within this dysfunctional family . Clowns are funny, this isn’t.

  • Peter Chiarelli

    The media was generously fed free Bobby Nick’s Nothing Burgers at the Bob Nicholson Press Conference. OEG fully expects Mark Spector to return the favor.

    • It really is. I am a second tier fan, live about an hr south of Calgary, most nights I could barely even stand to watch it on TV let alone waste thousands to watch the unfolding disaster in person. If this is the extent of the changes (lack thereof) I cannot watch this sh*tshow any longer. I will wait for Connor to ask for a trade and start following a real NHL Franchise. Other than last year, still the laughing stock, and really they make it so easy to do so.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      But what are die hard Oiler fans supposed to do? LET time we didn’t show up, we were in such Dire Straits we had the Les Alexander’s of the world showing up here trying to buy the team and move it to Houston.

  • Rama Lama

    This is what happens when you have a billionaire owner that has more money than brains! He has assembled all the Oilers of old and given them titles with no responsibilities. I’m sure that they have offices and the odd slip of paper on their desks, but I suspect their departments run inspite of them, not because of them.

    I’m still trying to figure out why and who brought in Paul Coffey …….is he our next head coach or coach in training? I think the next theme song for the Oilers should be “The wheels of the bus go round and round”……..but the bus never seems to move.

  • bishop

    Long time fan here…I think you all need a grasp of reality here. Katz is a brilliant owner and we’re the not so bright customers. Who else gets away with producing a terrible product for 10+ years and makes money. As long as the seats are full he’s going to keep his buddies around. He’s going to keep us bent over and giving it to us raw until people stop going to the games. Hurt him where it really matters, his bank account.

    Trash me all you want but the truth and reality hurts sometimes!!

    #GoJays

    • Serious Gord

      Think of how much more he could have made if he’d installed quality management instead of cronies and thereby created a winning team all these years.

    • A-co

      And there’s a line up of people waiting to scoop up season tickets…hockey is the only ticket in town during the winter months and they know it…maybe once Connor decides he’s had enough and asks out publicly things may change..until then keep the whiskey close and enjoy the sh?t show

  • Heschultzhescores

    We have a team. Let’s not rip Katz. He put up the money, now he needs to put the money on the right guys to make a winner. So far he has gone the buddy buddy route. He will learn that to win sometimes costs you friends.

    • Serious Gord

      Philip wrigley was a terrible owner of the Cubs for 45 years (until his death). He never changed his ways besides becoming a recluse. What makes you think Katz will be any different?

      • VK63

        Valid point. Systemically it boils down to over riding organizational goals, are the Oilers a win maximizing team or a profit maximizing team.
        I give you.
        Ice District.
        This wont change unless fans quit showing up and Katz starts to hemorrhage cash again, he absorbed it in the old building, no freaking way he absorbs it in this one.
        As sad as it is.
        Its your move fans…… its your move.
        Cubs fans kept coming, the Cubs kept losing and old Phil kept cashing the cheques as his franchise grew in value.
        Whining about the state of the Oilers does nothing. Vote with your dollars, don’t attend the events in the venue, don’t watch the games, don’t support the sponsors and watch how fast the Oiler machine rolls over.
        Frankly. Given how tone deaf they are and completely condescending to the fan base, it is the move that they are begging for, as, they don’t give a rats butt about you, why do you care so much about them?

  • RJ

    There is nothing wrong per se with former players joining management in their post playing days. Yzerman is a great example of one former great becoming a pretty solid GM.

    But it doesn’t mean every former great will be a great GM. None of the former Oiler greats have turned out to be great management. Fire all the OBC. Fire Chia, fire the coaches and fire Nicholson.