As the 2018/19 season ends for the Edmonton Oilers it might be worth taking a moment and discussing something that has been talked about a lot of late — the culture of the Edmonton Oilers and what it means to be an Oiler.
Well actually, Nation Dan told me in no uncertain terms to “write an article version of the last podcast about culture” and I am not going to say no to Nation Dan.
The Podcast version of this rant can be heard here:
WHAT IS/WHO CARES ABOUT CULTURE?
Anyone who has come within earshot of a business will hear people drone on and on about culture. In some organizations it doesn’t necessarily mean much — the culture of an accounting firm may not have much to do with their ability to file your taxes on time — but it is the goal of management everywhere to get staff and partners to “buy into the program” and the larger idea of what they are trying to do. There is no company more important than the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club and therefore no culture more important to define and enforce.
In professional sports, the culture of an organization has a massive amount of impact on overall performance on and off the ice/field/diamond. Getting everyone, from players and executives to the business and off ice staff, to buy into the concept that they are playing for something larger than themselves is key to success in the long run.
All 31 NHL teams have the same maximum amount of money to spend and we have clearly seen that “spending to the cap” does not equate to “winning on a regular basis.” Intangibles then come into play — getting the most out of players and getting them to buy into a program and being part of a larger cause.
In an era where there is a lot of talk about how millennials need to be managed differently than players of yore, what it means to be an Oiler means more than ever before.
It drove me past the point of insanity that Bob Nicholson, CEO of a 600 million dollar Oilers Entertainment Group, had TWO separate opportunities to explain the culture of the team and completely flubbed it on both occasions. He seems like a nice enough guy by all accounts but if you are in charge and you can’t define what it means to be an Oiler you certainly can’t inspire anyone to buy into the program. And if you can’t define what it means to be an Oiler you can’t lead the search to wade through the hundreds of draft picks and active players to find the “Oilers” like needles in haystacks.
It might be worth writing a fan fiction piece about what being an Oiler is and what it should mean.
I am the fan. Here is the fiction.
THE CULTURE OF THE EDMONTON OILERS
Being an Edmonton Oiler means four things and each are discussed in turn. I also included bullet point wild ideas of how to implement the different cornerstones so these concepts aren’t just words painted on the dressing room wall. Everything the organization does on or off the ice should tie back to these four points.
The most important part about “what it means to be an Oiler” is hard motherfucking work, full stop. A player doesn’t need to be Gretzky or McDavid to be a great Oiler. In fact many players come into Edmonton long on heart and hard work and become legends in their own right. Jason Smith, Ryan Smyth, Igor Ulanov, Bryan Marchment, Fernando Pisani and Todd Marchant spring to mind as hard working Oilers from the 00s.
In more recent memory, players like Matt Hendricks, Brandon Davidson and Mark Letestu have filled similar roles and exemplified what it means to be an Oiler. Hard working guys who leave it all on the ice at the end of every shift and have the bruises and broken bones to prove it. These are prototypical Oilers that we should want to clone and graft their DNA onto new players in the organization.
If you are going to draw a pay cheque from the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club, you had better be prepared to work hard each and every day you are here or in the system. Because unlike other teams that are filling seats on corporate expense accounts, Oilers fans pay for their tickets with blood and sweat. We want to know that Oilers are working equally hard on their end and holding up their end of the bargain. The fans and the Organization alike should hold everyone to account on this point and those who aren’t willing to work hard given their particular set of skills will be shown the door.
- Bring back Oilers in an advisory capacity who are closer in age to the active roster and who exemplified the spirit of what being an Oiler means. This will show the current Oilers the way and can’t help but improve the spirit of the team.
- Create a series of “players only” documentaries in their native languages showing highlights of the team throughout its 40-year history and feature interviews with Oilers of excellent character. This will show current Oilers what they are playing for and the legacy of all the Oilers who have gone before them. We made a DVD for bloody Dany Heatley once upon a time — surely current Oilers deserve to see something to give them an Edmonton Oilers 101 with snazzy background music.
ACCOUNTABILITY + TRANSPARENCY
How many sports teams have we seen that have written apology or explanation letters to their fans in the past few years? Management explaining that they understand the team has fallen short of expectations and outlining the plan to get back into competitive play may not win you games but it often gets the fans onside with short term sacrifice. Sometimes I like to print these letters off and photoshop Oilers letterhead on to the message and read them before I go to bed, but I digress. The blueprint of how to address your fan base if you have had a disappointing season is out there for anyone looking to emulate it.
The current Oilers are really shooting themselves in the foot in this department and I would argue it is the lack of accountability that is really driving a wedge between the fans and the team, more than anything that is happening on the ice. We Oilers fans are an unforgiving bunch at the best of times and in 2019 there are more and more people tuning out and dropping off than at any point since the mid-1990s.
Had Nicholson come out in his recent pressers and said, “We have made some serious mistakes and this has been compounded by injuries this season and you can count on me to lead the organization back to the playoffs,” I think more people would have given them more of the benefit of the doubt. Had the OEG been holding accountability press conferences annually throughout the decade of darkness the bridge with the Tier One and Tier Two fans might have held up better and they would not have seen the exodus of fans that they are seeing at the moment.
What Oilers fans want more than anything from the OEG is to be looked directly in the eye — not spoken down to from Mount Olympus — and know that someone is actually in charge of The Program and is going to make damn sure things are fixed. This lack of accountability and propensity to throw straw men under the bus — firing Coaches on Skype, blaming outgoing GMs for decisions that most certainly were made by committee or naming bit players as the reason things aren’t going to plan — enrages Oilers fans even further and draws rolled eyes from players behind closed doors. Nicholson blaming Toby Reider for missing the playoffs most definitely burned up a lot of credibility in the dressing room. You could hear the teeth grinding and eyes rolling in the dressing room at Rogers Place for miles.
This OEG idea that “We have a plan but can’t share the plan” would be laughable were it not so comically sad. Any genius plan that would have actually moved the needle on the organization would have started to show itself by now by way of wins and losses. This audit of the team that is now in year four with no results shared publicly is looking more and more like a bunch of business doublespeak that is just for show and has no real teeth.
Accountability + Transparency = Credibility with players, fans and sponsors alike, and I do believe our pals at the OEG have the tank on empty with many in all three groups.
- Regular town hall meetings with unfiltered questions from Oilers fans, from luxury suite owners to people who have bought a single Oilers piece of merchandise. Getting everyone at all price points to be heard is paramount.
- Online Q+As with us “tier two fans” to ensure that fans all around the world feel connected to the team and their voices are being heard.
- Outline the short term plans at the start of the season and readdress these points at season’s end with specific information about what went wrong and what went right. “We wanted to develop our D core in the AHL this season and felt we made great strides with the play of Ethan Bear etc.” This shows that there is, in fact, a plan and regular review of specific points will show progress towards the ultimate goal even if there are setbacks in the short term.
ONCE AN OILER ALWAYS AN OILER
This should not be mistaken for “Once a 1984 Oiler always an Oiler.”
If I was laying down what it means to be an Oiler and what the Organization values going forward I would draw a line in the sand and say “We are going to treat every Oiler past and present — from multimillion dollar free agent signings to seventh round draft picks — better than any team in any sport.”
Then I would mine all good sports teams around the world for best practices and implement them in a hot minute. Treating players like gold might seem like a fairly obvious move and though the current Oilers do a great job in terms of team jets, training staff and whatno, the softer side of the thing — ensuring Jesse Puljujarvi has someone taking him for groceries or Nail Yakupov has a friend in the world who can give him support — has not been managed well at all. Care for Oilers after their retirement is thin — although it is improving — but showing current and future Oilers “We got your back till the end of days” would immediately start to shift perception of the organization among players. This is crucial.
Players, although rich, are still human beings and aren’t immune to personal crises — Larsson and Lucic have both lost their fathers in the past few years as a horrible example. This is an awful thing to happen to anyone ever, but adding in the immense pressure of being a professional athlete and living in the fishbowl of Edmonton with our unforgiving fan base can be enough to push someone from “doing well” to “in his own head and spiralling.”
Rolling out a battery of mental health and life services for players and equally important for their families will have an immediate impact on the ice. Keeping these services available to players even after they retire will reinforce that “once an Oiler always an Oiler” attitude to everyone that wasn’t a boy on the bus. If Igor Kravchuk is having a bad day in 2019 he has earned the right to call a Life Coach back in Edmonton and talk through things. This is the least we can do for the thousands of players that have bled for the Oil over the years on so many winter nights.
There are many things like this one off idea that the OEG can control off the ice that will have a long term impact on the ice.
- Professional billets that meet with players and their families when they arrive each season to ensure they have help with navigating the logistics of life in Edmonton and ensuring they aren’t isolated in the community. Something as simple as a regular home cooked meal and a family dynamic outside of current Oilers families can go a long way.
- Access to mental health services and life coaches for players and their families that meet with everyone regularly throughout the calendar year and into retirement regardless of where a player ends up. Once an Oiler always an Oiler can be put into practice here and a real impact can be made on their lives in the short term and the long run.
- Access to life coaches/non sports psychologists who speak the players’ native language who can help navigate general life stuff and the cultural and language barriers that come with moving to a foreign land. This isn’t someone who is going to talk about being a hockey player but rather focus on them as human beings.
- Access to long term financial planners that will help players set up custom programs to ensure that they are not running wild in the streets with a garage full of Lambos while they play and then are dead broke in retirement. This is a massive issue with players in all pro sports and these planners should be made available to all Oilers past present at future for as long as they would like.
- Access to “retirement coaches,” which is a thing I just made up, where professional coaches work with retired players to help them get an education, get a meaningful job in the market of their choosing and help them with the transition into their golden years which often begin in their early 30s. These coaches should be made available to all Oilers past present at future for as long as they like.The budget for the roles outlined above will be significant but if you can squeeze 5% more output from an $83 million dollar payroll by focusing on players mental health and family harmony the return on the investment will be immediate and well worth the cost.
Here is another opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say “going forward the Oilers are going to be the most impactful sports team in their community and the most charitable team in the Pro sports.” It might not have an immediate impact in terms of wins and losses but it can be controlled starting tomorrow and will ultimately improve the relationship with the City of Edmonton and Oilers fans around the world.
Not getting Oilers out into the community regularly does a disservice to the City and the Oilers themselves at the same time. Getting player families involved in community initiatives is critical too — sitting in a rented mansion on the edge of town throughout the dark Edmonton winter can be an isolating experience for the best of them. Interacting with Edmontonians — Oilers fans and non-Oilers fans alike – enriches the lives of the players and their families and the people that they meet does a world of good for both sides.
Players have a short window of time here and if the only time players and their families see Oilers fans is at games or in restaurants — this creates a massive level of disconnect. Creating genuine relationships with us normal people grounds players and their families and inspires us normal folks. This is a win-win situation for all involved.
This idea of Community can be extended to improving the communities of Oilers home towns as well not just organizations in Edmonton and area. Oilers come to Edmonton from far flung places all over the world and there is often a cultural and language barrier that is taken for granted. Taking an interest in their home towns and lives outside of hockey will come as a shock to many players and their families at first but it will combat the idea that you “come to Edmonton to play for 6 months then book it back home as fast as possible.” And it doesn’t involve changing the weather, which is possible but prohibitively expensive at this time.
All players should be mandated to pick from prescreened charities and organizations in town and two appearances should be made per month during the season. Their families should be encouraged to get involved as well and over time long term relationships will develop that enrich the lives of all involved.
Imagine the Oilers had put some money into a minor hockey facility in Nail Yakupov’s home town? Imagine they put a plaque up on some renovated remote minor hockey rink that said “thanking Nail Yakupov and his family for their contributions to Oilers Hockey and the City of Edmonton?” Imagine the generations of Russian Hockey players that would come through that facility and declare “I too want to be an Oiler” That’s propagating the Culture of the Edmonton Oilers beyond the City borders and with each project would build a team of legend in the minds of future players to come.
AND IN CONCLUSION
This is what the Oilers culture should be based on the ramblings of a man who not only cuts his own hair but also refuses to wear socks ever under any circumstances. I have not played the game beyond Pee Wee Tier 15 (actual career resume) and I do not think this list is exhaustive.
Let me know in the comments what else it means to be an Oiler and what they can do to improve the organization. If the OEG itself isn’t interested in discussing culture or revealing their grand plan we can entertain ourselves until the Oilers pick eighth in the entry draft while Connor’s platinum bones heal stronger than ever.