Oilers president’s Lowe moment spoke the truth about fans’ relative value


Still, furor over remarks masked the real outrage: a dismal team despite top-of-the-draft talent

Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe listens to discussions on the NHL team's proposed downtown arena project at Edmonton City Hall on Jan. 23, 2013.

Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe listens to discussions on the NHL team's proposed downtown arena project at Edmonton City Hall on Jan. 23, 2013.

Photograph by: Greg Southam, Postmedia News

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VANCOUVER — There was nothing factually incorrect in Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe’s remarks the other day, during the formal firing of general manager Steve Tambellini, when he said that the organization likes all of its fans, but likes the ones who pay to get in just a little bit better.

Any National Hockey League team that tells you different is fudging the truth.

Political correctness aside — i.e., it’s never a good idea to make the hoi polloi feel like second-class citizens when they’re about to foot the tax bill for a new arena — facts are facts.

NHL teams, depending on how vibrant their markets are, make somewhere between a half and two-thirds of their dough from ticket sales. The other avenues — local and national TV and radio revenues, sponsorships, merchandise sales, concessions, parking — combine to form the smaller portion of the revenue stream.

And it’s the paying customers, those walking ATMs, who also open their wallets for food and drink and parking and souvenirs to a far greater extent than the family sitting at home in front of its TV, a couple of whose members might have, at some point in their lives, shelled out $134.99 for an authentic NHL jersey. Or not.

So the live fan’s relative value, in the big picture, goes far beyond the price of tickets.

What an NHL team is able to vacuum from the pockets of the captive audience, once it rolls up its sleeves and really gets down to work, is stunning.

The average cost, according to a Team Marketing Report, for a family of four to attend a game and eat a little and drink a little and park, and maybe buy a ball cap, etc., in Edmonton is $346.46, seventh highest in the NHL. In Vancouver, fifth overall, it’s $357.02. All pale by comparison to Toronto, where it’s $572.32.

On the other hand, the average cost of watching your favourite NHL team on TV, if you happen to live in Canada where every tilt is on the tube, is some small percentage of your HDTV cable bill. And we all regard it as our inalienable right.

The beer from the fridge, we’d have drunk anyway.

So the paying customers are the golden geese, and they must be treated as such.

It’s just not often that a club executive will dare to say it out loud, and Lowe wouldn’t have, either, except that he was being poked and prodded by a few pointed questions from the floor about the fans’ dissatisfaction with the Oilers’ molasses-like pace of progress. And he lost his temper, and said a whole bunch of things that he regretted later, to the point where he (or his advisors) decided he should sit down the next day in front of a camera and try his best to look humble — and not talk any more about the six Stanley Cups he won back in the day and how much he knows about winning — while issuing a limited apology on the team’s website to anyone who might have been offended.

The thing he missed is that the maelstrom of angry responses to his message of the day before was only a little bit about his dividing the Oilers fan base into tiers of importance.

It was mostly about the public’s general impatience, and its growing exasperation with what it perceives as his get-out-of-jail-free card.

He could have said anything, if his hockey club was winning.

He could have called the season subscribers trained pigs and the casual fans cheapskates if the Oilers’ grand design for building a team — i.e. finishing last so often that they couldn’t help but get terrific players in the draft — had got them better results, three or four years in, than 24th place.

But it hasn’t.

Lowe, a really rugged, tough, stay-at-home defenceman in his day who morphed into a decent, if short-lived, coach and then a polarizing GM whose team had one big moment in 2006, appears to have cemented a place for himself as the owner’s source of hockey intelligence (not unlike Lowe’s mentor Glen Sather, who is currently in the 13th year of a largely mediocre tenure with the New York Rangers).

And to be clear: There is nothing wrong with the path Lowe chose, with owner Daryl Katz’s blessing, for rebuilding the team by blowing it up and starting over with high draft picks (three straight No. 1s, as luck would have it).

The formula has worked in Chicago and Pittsburgh, each of which has won a Stanley Cup and currently sits atop its conference standings since re-tooling through the draft.

One day, perhaps not too far down the line, an older team that hasn’t drafted particularly well — not to mention any names, Mike Gillis — is apt to have to adopt the same game plan, when its stars begin hitting the end of the line, or it could risk falling off the face of the earth the way the New York Islanders did when their dynasty cast all got old, the way Calgary (minus the dynasty) is doing now.

So Edmonton’s plan was fine. It just hasn’t worked, and to be fair, perhaps the word “yet” ought to be on the end of that sentence.

The individual players — Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, et al — are often fun to watch, but the surrounding cast lacks so many elements, the failure to provide them is why Tambellini, the longtime Vancouver assistant GM, walked the plank after five years, to be replaced by former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, late of the Canucks’ farm team in Chicago.

So now, the gang’s all there again.

Lowe and MacTavish, Cup-winning teammates in Edmonton and later New York, GM and coach, respectively, the year the Oil went to the Cup final in 2006, and Scott Howson, Edmonton’s longtime assistant GM who didn’t last as the boss in Columbus long enough to see the Jackets’ fortunes finally begin to turn around.

They’ll get a little more rope with MacTavish in the GM’s chair, because he’s a gregarious, articulate and willing interview, unlike the shy Tambellini. Lowe and MacTavish, in their day, filled a lot of reporters’ notebooks and those favours are never completely forgotten.

But the clock is ticking. Kevin Lowe is on coach No. 4 and GM No. 2 since the Chris Pronger-powered 2006 one-and-done season. You only get so many firings, and so many losing seasons, before the eyes — even a friendly owner’s eyes — start to turn your way.

MacTavish, judging by his remarks, at least seems to understand the need for a greater sense of urgency, and little less patience and lot less reliance on what happened a generation ago, to two other guys.



Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe listens to discussions on the NHL team's proposed downtown arena project at Edmonton City Hall on Jan. 23, 2013.

Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe listens to discussions on the NHL team's proposed downtown arena project at Edmonton City Hall on Jan. 23, 2013.

Photograph by: Greg Southam, Postmedia News

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