Damage control is always fun to observe in the world professional sport, mostly because everything that’s said tends to be so well-rehearsed that it’s usually just self-serving pap. Team spokesmen learn to stay on message. Missteps rarely occur.
But that was not the case on Monday, when the Edmonton Oilers convened a press conference to announce a series of front-office changes: Steve Tambellini was out as general manager, and Craig MacTavish, the former Oilers’ coach, was in as his replacement. The man in charge of making the announcement was Kevin Lowe, the Oilers’ president of hockey operations, and he clearly wasn’t prepared for the level of hostility that he faced from his questioners.
Lowe made two gaffes actually.
The first was getting so defensive about the team’s lack of progress under his leadership – six-going-on-seven consecutive years out of the playoffs – that he trumpeted his own playing record; noting that only one person actively involved in the NHL had won more Stanley Cup championships than he had. Lowe didn’t specify who that one might be – Glen Sather? Scotty Bowman? Larry Robinson? – but it didn’t go across well, especially since the last of those championships came back in 1994 and hey, professional hockey is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for me-lately kind of world.
But that wasn’t the reason he issued an odd mea culpa the next day, on the team’s official website.
Lowe had also been quizzed about the Oilers’ fan base, in the context of their patience and how, after so many years of spinning the team spinning its wheels, might it be running out? Lowe’s answer – and this is paraphrased – was essentially to note how there were different levels to their fan base, and they put a priority on the ones that put their hard-earned cash behind their fandom by buying tickets and otherwise underwriting the costs of running a professional sports team.
They were the priority – and naturally, the implication was that other less well-heeled fans mattered less.
Oops. Not smart.
The response was visceral and immediate and Lowe took a big hit, especially in social media, for being out of touch. Internally, the Oilers knew they’d made a big mistake, which is why Lowe issued an apology of sorts in a video message posted on the team’s website. Lowe talked about how his “emotions ran a little high” and then clarified how “we are appreciative and grateful to all of our fans who cheer for us, through good times and bad. We understand that we see many of our fans at Rexall Place, but we have hundreds of thousands of fans that never get to Rexall Place. We appreciate each and every fan. I did not make that clear yesterday. And if I offended anyone, I apologize.”
From there, Lowe went on to talk about the team’s glorious future, its world-class management staff which was, “dedicated to getting the Oilers back to where they deserve to be – in the playoffs – and then concluded: “We’ll get it done.”
As politically incorrect as Lowe was to make those distinctions in the Oiler fan base, the bald truth is that NHL teams do value their paying customers more than they do their casual fans that watch the games at home on TV. Furthermore, they value their corporate clients more than they do the mom-and-pop fans that might share a season ticket and have to scrape together the cash to pay the increasingly pricey freight, whether they attend one game per year, or 41.
That is how hockey changed from Lowe’s early playing days, when no one made the distinction between small and large markets, and when stuffing a building full of luxury suites and other amenities to part the fans with means from their dollars was still a distant dream, something the NBA’s Detroit Pistons would pioneer years later.
You just don’t usually hear an organization’s second-in-command blurt those truths out, even under heated, unfriendly fire from the press gallery.