The hockey world at the NHL level is a relatively small one in which just about everybody knows or has worked or played with or against everybody else somewhere along the way. In many cases, it’s just a matter of degree.
In many cases, familiarity, be it as a member of the same organization or as rivals, comes into play somewhere down the line in the hockey ops hiring process. If you’ve got a job opening — say you’re looking for a scout or an assistant GM, whatever — and you have candidates with relatively equal credentials, that familiarity can be the tie-breaker. We see it all the time. Who you know can be as important as what you know.
What shouldn’t happen, as frustrated fans of the Edmonton Oilers will attest, is that who you know shouldn’t trump qualifications or the ability to do the job. When that happens, particularly with a team that’s had as little success as the Oilers have for years on end, you get what fans have long referred to as the Old Boys Club – former Oilers’ players and those they have history with occupying key positions in hockey ops. Fans have wanted them out for years. Gone. The names we know.
That process is well under way in the short time we’ve seen Ken Holland as POHO and GM. Gone already are Craig MacTavish, who saw the writing on the wall and left of his own accord for the KHL, Duane Sutter and sort-of-coach Paul Coffey. Most recently, Trent Yawney and Manny Viveiros, holdovers from Todd McLellan’s coaching staff, departed. The thing is, it’s a fine line, and one Holland and his hire as head coach, Dave Tippett, will continue to walk as the Oilers rebuild hockey ops.
THE HOCKEY TREE
There are those who wanted Keith Gretzky, who took over as interim GM when Peter Chiarelli was fired, out the door simply because of his last name. I don’t think that was ever the opinion of the majority of Oilers’ fans, but it was out there despite what I consider solid credentials in amateur scouting and some good work here since he arrived. I don’t know Gretzky like people working the beat do, but he’s respected as somebody who has worked his way up and has a feel for the amateur end of the business.
It looks now like Gretzky won’t only survive changes in the front office, he might be given more responsibility – chances are he will take over as the overseer with Bakersfield in the AHL, which was MacTavish’s old gig. My sense, given that Holland has already shown he’s calling the shots, which was a condition of him taking the job in the first place, is that fans don’t have a problem with that. The last name doesn’t matter. In this case, it shouldn’t. That’s a big change coming out of the shadows of the OBC.
It seems to me Holland has already built some currency and trust with the Oilers’ fans based on what he’s said and, more important, done since taking the job. The thing is, the branches of the hockey tree are long and intertwined, so that trust and currency is going to come into play again as Holland and Tippett move forward in re-shaping hockey ops in coming weeks.
We’re hearing Jim Playfair and Mark Lamb being mentioned as candidates to join incumbent Glen Gulutzan as assistant coaches under Tippett. Both have connections to the Oilers. Playfair was drafted by the Oilers in the first round back in 1982 and played two games in 1983-84. Lamb played 176 games with the Oilers and he was a member of their 1990 Stanley Cup team. Lamb also spent a year here as an assistant coach under MacTavish.
THE SAME PAGE
Here and now, I don’t think those old Oilers’ connections, especially in the case of Playfair, matter even a little bit. Far more important is the history Tippett has with both of them. Playfair was an assistant under Tippett for six of the eight seasons he spent in Arizona. Lamb worked with Tippett for six seasons in Dallas. If they end up as the hires, it’ll be because Tippett trusts them and is philosophically aligned with them.
“I’m going to come in here and do what I believe is in the best interest of the Edmonton Oilers short-term and long-term,” Holland told Mark Spector of Sportsnet after taking the job. “I understand there’s going to be scrutiny . . . I’ve got some experience and I’m confident that we’re going to put together an organization that, in time, is going to make the people of Edmonton proud.”
I’d like to think what we’ve seen from Holland to this point is, at long last, the beginning of the end of the hire-a-buddy era dubbed the OBC by long-suffering fans. I believe it is. There’s no getting around that who you know will always matter in the NHL hiring game, but it cannot matter more than hiring the best people for the job. It seems to me we’re finally on that road now.