John MacKinnon: Edmonton Oilers shirting the issue
Head coach Dallas Eakins’ undressing of jersey-tossing fan speaks to team’s unfounded sense of entitlement
EDMONTON — First, Dallas Eakins doubled down on the whole Edmonton Oilers jersey toss fiasco. Then he doubled back, sort of.
On Monday morning, the Oilers’ rookie head coach denounced a fan who mournfully, disgustedly tossed the Ales Hemsky-model jersey (complete with an ‘A’) a friend had given him onto the snowy Rexall Place ice surface to punctuate the club’s 6-0 loss to the Blues on Saturday night.
Later on Monday, after some sober second thought, Eakins tried to explain himself. But was the damage already done?
Well, it didn’t hurt Eakins’ cause that the Oilers, galvanized by the incident or not, went out and clobbered the Winnipeg Jets 6-2, snapping losing streak at six games. Not to mention scoring as many goals in one game as they had in the past half-dozen.
Which was a good thing on several levels because Eakins was mighty strident at first blush on Monday morning.
And it would be hard to overestimate the outrage radiating through the Heartland of Hockey much of the day. The Oilers being the Oilers, they did their best to tamp down the fervour. They apologized for nothing.
At least two fans sporting Oilers jerseys and wearing paper bags of shame to cover their heads had the bags confiscated by security at Rexall Place before the game, for starters. The club was in damage control.
“I thought we’re putting out a fire there at the end of it (Eakins’ remarks),” Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said after the first period of Edmonton’s game against the Winnipeg Jets. “I thought his point was very well-intended.
“If people listened to the whole message, I thought it was coherent and it made a lot of sense. But we’re in a situation now where we can’t say a lot right. When you’re not winning, you can’t say a lot right.”
Well-intentioned or not, Eakins mangled his message on Monday.
“That’s about as bad as it gets for me,” Eakins said. “I have great sympathy … I understand and I respect our fans, but that’s a bunch of bull-crap to me.”
Eakins had other options. He could have channelled Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain,” sound byte from the 1992 U.S. election campaign. He could have smothered the frustrated fan with empathy, won him over with humility. Instead, Eakins doubled down. He did contextualize his remarks, but he called out the fan, without question.
“This is a great city with a great industry (forged) out of hard work and not quitting, and I never, ever want our players to quit no matter how it’s going,” Eakins said.
Those are sentiments many fans struggle with, given the team’s recent six-game losing streak which provoked the jersey toss, its 11-24-3 record and the fact the Oilers are plummeting toward their eighth straight non-playoff NHL season.
“We would be severely dumped on if we totally started mailing it in and giving it nothing,” Eakins said. “We’re not going to do that here, and for some fan to show us all that he quit, he’s done, he threw in the towel … I think that says volumes about the individual.”
Twitter was blazing over that characterization of the sort of frustration so many of them are feeling.
Truth be told, the fan, a 29-year-old construction worker named Curtis Goyetche, also had other options to dispose of the jersey that a friend had given him. Goyetche could have offered it up on Kijiji.
Just three seasons back, another frustrated season-ticket holder swapped his then-$470 pair of tickets for “a case of Coors Light and a session of dog grooming.”
But Goyetche was swept up in the emotion of the moment. Like Eakins, Goyetche apparently views the sacred oil drop jersey with reverence, despite the fact the team logo oozes with so much cynical capitalist symbolism.
The most effective fan protest isn’t about tossing anything, finally. It’s about not purchasing a product that is sub-standard, year after year after year. That’s not an option many fans want to exercise.
Anyway, as game-time approached Monday night, Eakins took to Twitter to soften his position. A little.
“Clarity,” the first of three Tweets began. “Today my passion for our Jersey was clearly on display. Our Jersey is sacred and the passion for it will never calm.
“My comments were intended to show that we will continue to try to emulate our city’s hard working, blue-collared approach.
“We will continue to fight to get better … No matter the circumstance.”
Even taken together, those Tweets were no apology for disparaging the frustrated fan.
Oilers president Patrick LaForge and MacTavish each spoke with Goyetche by telephone. Weirdly, the fan apologized to them, or so LaForge maintained. They didn’t call to make peace, apparently, but to pacify, and Goyetche submitted.
“His opening line was, ‘Mr. LaForge, I’m very sorry,” LaForge said. “We had a nice chat, actually, he’s a good guy.
“You can’t throw your jersey on the ice, or a beer or anything. If you’re a good fan, you know that’s going to be a problem.”
Good fans; bad fans? There’s that implied distinction again.
To be clear, this episode was about WHY Goyetche felt compelled to take action. It was about his being a jilted lover. It was about chronically unmet expectations with no accountability for those responsible. And Goyetche found himself in a tutorial about proper arena etiquette?
Look, owner Daryl Katz’s Oilers, from the executive suite on down, swagger with plenty of unearned organizational arrogance, even as the last Stanley Cup title (1990) recedes into ancient history.
The fans’ current ire often comes back to club president Kevin Lowe’s “two types of fans” assessment from last April.
But fans who think Katz is going to belatedly hold Lowe to account for the failures that followed that 2006 run to the Cup final or for those insulting remarks are dreaming.
“I know it’s painful,” MacTavish said. “But it is going to get better.
“Whatever I say right now means nothing, it’s excuse-mongering. But ... it’s going to get better.”
Heading into Monday night, a sizable portion of the fan base simply didn’t believe that. Who could blame them?
And who could blame them for their ‘all-is-forgiven’ string of standing ovations they showered on the Oilers as they won their sixth home game this season?
Jersey desecration? What jersey desecration?
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