Who You Know

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.

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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.


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.

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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.


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.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • BrandieBear

    I’m pretty much swimming in Holland’s Kool-Aid right now. I have like all of the moves so far outside of Yawney but even that move I’m ok with. I think he is trending in the right direction and keeping the team going in the right direction. I’m not saying that he is our saviour but at least to this point theirs is optimism. I think the draft and free agency will be the true measure of where the team is going but I’m excited to see what happens and I hope others are too.

    • This isn’t about “who the coach is.” It’s about re-modelling an entire hockey operations department and getting it running the right way after so many years of it being done the wrong way. Get this right and you will get the goaltenders, forwards and defencemen right.

      • Serious Gord

        And of course there is the question of time.

        Mike Illitch took ownership of the red wings in 1982 and hired Jimmy Devellano that same year. This began three decades of “…getting it running the right way after so many years of it being done the wrong way.”

        The wings didn’t get their first cup of the modern era until fourteen years later. And this was during an era where the owner could spend at will and devellano found the prospect eldorado in Europe.

        Now I think it fair to argue the oil have a few pieces in place and are further along the road to success than the Wings were in 1982. But there is a ton more to do and the competition and cap issues are much tougher.

        So it hopefully won’t take fourteen years to be cup competitive. But expecting that level of performance in even three seasons would require great good fortune to shine on the oil.

  • Derkus the circus

    I dont care who is in charge at this point. Just please get it right this time. Id like something more than golf season to look forward to come April for once.

    • TruthHurts98

      I personally think Keith Gretzky (aka Al Bundy) has done a good job here. I for one don’t want to see him go. I don’t like KLowe or Howson, but that’s out of our control. Holland is making changes I thought I’d never see and if they start winning, build consistency and have a better compete level outside of our top players I will be a much happier fan.

    • Boba The Fett

      Howson, agreed, needs to go. It has been verified by countless people that Lowe is no longer involved in Hockey ops and it is only the most negative conspiracy theorists that hold on to the notion that he is making hockey decisions. Lowe was kept on the business side as he does a lot of great work in the community and is heavily involved with the EOCF. Gretzky is essentially just an ambassador and a useful tool when it comes to recruiting, I dont know a single team that wouldnt want him around as an ambassador/marketing tool.
      Keith Gretzky is NOT an OBC member and has worked his way up through the league and is a terrific scout/draftsman.

      Holland is making great changes and the negative nancy conspiracy theories need to stop

      • Spydyr

        Lets just see if Lowe is sitting at the draft table this season, he was there last draft, before concluding he is not involved in any hockey decisions.

        One more thing. If you don’t think Lowe was not involved in the “red wine summits” you have not been paying attention to the team in the Katz era.

        Holland does seem to be taking out the trash but for some reason Howson remains.

        • Sitting at the draft table does not mean a senior front office member, which Lowe surely is, is involved in hockey operations. I’ve been to more drafts than I can remember and one simply doesn’t equate to the other. You’ve made this argument before and it’s meaningless. Lowe hasn’t been involved in hockey ops for years. You choosing not to believe it doesn’t change that fact.

  • Ol_OneNut

    Hey Robin would you be able to do something about Oscar the troll, he’s already been booted multiple times and like my annoying brother in law, he keeps coming back.

    • Kevwan

      I wanted Todd Nelson because I saw his work first hand in 2014-15. In 46 games with a much inferior roster to today’s team he kept the Oilers competitive.

      Maybe GM’s in need of a coach don’t recognize his abilities or maybe he’s not well spoken in interviews. The only people who could answer that question for sure likely won’t.

  • ed from edmonton

    Your column is about fron office changes and not player personnel changes and that’s fine. Not doubt clearing out of the OBC was necessary to buy Holland some time. None of us are priviliged to truly know exactly how the decision making dynamic worked, but what ever it was it was broken. The first order of business for Holland is to fix the foundation (i.e. organization) and he seems to be in the midst of that. But it will take time for these changes to bear fruit. Outside of McDrai and a handfull of solid NHLers the Oil roster is so full of holes it won’t get fixed in one off season.

  • hagar

    I cant think of a more perfect use of the phrase “all talk, no action” to sum up the last 14 years. It got to the point where you just refused to believe anything we were told by these guys, it was insulting to a guys intelligence even watching.

    Having Holland come in with talk, followed a few days later by action, then more action, then more action… its such a refreshing feeling.

    I honestly dont think he is an extension of the obc.. if he is.. he is doing a masterful job of hiding it.

    • He is doing a good job so far. I was way wrong when i said he woukdnt do much. But so far he has made the easy firings. Why does the goalie coach still have a job. Our goaltending is aweful and he still gets paid. We got a goalie that gets beat high glove atleast once a game.

  • Ken McTippett

    It’s gonna be a difficult process getting this team back to respectability. There’s no way around that. But there are great pieces here. McDavid is otherworldly, and we have him, so that’s a start.

        • Redbird62

          Well not quite no changes as Holland did sign up Nygard. Can’t sign NHL free agents until July 1 and generally teams don’t start trading players until after the playoffs finish and the draft approaches so I don’t know why you would criticize a lack of change during this period. And he didn’t say he was happy, but that he was appeased, which means he is satisfied – probably with the only progress they are capable of having thus far, which is mostly front office and coaching changes.

          • Rugbypig

            Good on you for trying to explain to Terry637 about how the hockey trade at the end of the season process works, but I’m not sure he will understand it.

  • Derzie

    I wonder if there is info out there about how success in pro sports relates to the buddy system. For instance, were management of this year’s cup finalists buddies before they joined the team? Strangers? Opposites? Would be very interesting to see. The buddy system, in sports and in business, strikes me as being more about comfort than about success. Look at great bands where the 2 leaders are polar opposites: Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, Page-Plant, Van Halen-Roth, Ozzy-Iommi. No creative friction and there becomes too many yes men. I like what Holland is doing but the fear is that he is trading OBC for NewOBC. We’ll see.

  • OilCan2

    Ken has cred with ALL the NHL GMs. I think he may raise a few eyebrows trading for picks and getting a decent 1B goalie within the next month. Dave will announce his staff even sooner. The Oilers have a single digit first rounder and have looked good in later rounds recently so the draft should be fun.