Communications Breakdown (It's Always the Same)

You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to. So that when they turn their backs on you, you get a chance to put the knife in.

- Pink Floyd, "Dogs"

Hey guys, did you hear that Sheldon Souray demanded a trade? It was pretty big news, or so I'm told. And, unusually for an Oiler, he didn't demand a trade because it's like Communism here or because we start imaginary furniture fires. It's because the Oilers are bad at communicating with their players; because Sheldon's chain was yanked by the organization and he was cut out of the loop as soon as it was clear his injury wouldn't heal up in time for them to trade him, if not sooner.

I'm disappointed in Sheldon. No, not for what he said, but because he thought it would come as news to any of us. From their alternate captain on downwards, the Oilers handling of communications has been dreadful throughout the Kevin Lowe era. With their fans, with the media, and perhaps least forgivably with the prospects and players who theoretically lure fans to lay aside a rapidly-increasing amount of money and watch a team that at least has some hope of winning.

Perhaps, when he compared the Oilers organization to a Communist regime, Mike Comrie was being more prescient than any of us gave him credit for at the time. Like a lapsed servant of a Red state he has since returned, formally rehabilitated if kept somewhat out of sight and mind like our own little Maxim Gorky. But the Oilers are secretive, treating its workers as replaceable widgets fit only to serve as commanded. The players are kept in the dark and if their usefulness seems to be at an end regardless of any past service or future potential they are ignored or exiled to the New York Islanders Siberia. The media is under the thumb of the organization, and offenders have the Zamboni parked in front of their cars are cut off from the corridors of power.

I'm sure a little of that sounds familiar, anyway.

The Oilers are hardly unique in the way they handle communication, and before the World Hockey Association used the prybar of competition to open up the league it was the rule rather than the exception to behave even more carelessly than the Oilers do. What is new is, at risk of sounding like yet another self-pleasuring blogger, that there are a lot more eyeballs out there today. Eyeballs with loud mouths attached to them and who aren't beholden to the Oilers in any way. The Oilers don't advertise with the Copper & Blue, they don't provide us with access, and when we've tried to set up interviews or other interaction through contracted players in the past the organization has actually put the kibosh on regardless of how enthusiastic the player was. So Joe Average Fan hears about this, and that's when it becomes a problem.

When assessing Oilers communication we're often limited to rumours and to grumbling about the treatment given to fans and the media, because that's what we can see. Rumour is no good to anybody, really ("I heard Ales Hemsky wants to retire, move to Wetaskiwin, and train sheep dogs!"). Watching Oilers employees like Bob Stauffer defend the organization at all costs with a creepy nigh-cult-of-personality fervour is remarkably disturbing, particularly when certain members of the Oilers fanbase buy what they're selling. While portraying the management of a thirtieth-place team as diligent experts whose carefully laid plans are derailed only by unpredictable injuries may be pathetic, when it comes to winning hockey games it's probably not particularly harmful.

As much as it infuriates us, the ridiculous way the Oilers organization handles communications is mostly harmful only in how it affects what happens on the ice. Unfortunately, though the thin copper and blue line has kept us mere basement-dwellers from investigating too closely, there are some alarming indications.

Look at some of the interviews we've done with our prize prospects, for example. There are little things: Anton Lander not knowing where the Oilers want him to play in the coming season. Robby Dee bluntly saying that "I haven't spoken with Edmonton at all". One of our very best prospects, Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, also apparently having no clue what the organization wants from him, speaking of the AHL as if it would be a nice opportunity if it ever came up. One such anecdote from a prospect, it's a misunderstanding. Three, it's a trend. Even Teemu Hartikainen, whose rights the Oilers would lose if he's not signed this summer, told our own Derek Zona after his series with Tappara that "hopefully they like my game in Edmonton and want to sign me."

Remember, these are just the guys not under contract to the Edmonton Oilers. The guys we can talk to without Allan Watt having an entire ice-making plant helicoptered in front of our doorways, in other words.

Then there are the big ones. The whole Cody Wild situation was a mess from day one. If you've forgotten Cody Wild, that's fair enough; we traded him to the Boston Bruins for Matt Marquardt earlier in the year and Wild (a defenseman) had more points in the AHL than Marquardt (a forward/cinder block) had in the ECHL and AHL combined the rest of the season. Wild's a legit prospect. Tall, quick, intelligent, one of the Springfield Falcons' better defenders for two straight seasons but inexplicably kept to the press box.

No, seriously, inexplicably. It was never explained. Quoting Wild from his interview with us when asked why Rob Daum had made him a healthy scratch:

I wish I knew.  I have no idea why I was out of the lineup.  I guess maybe he wanted to get another guy in there to see what he could do.

...and the fact that he didn't even know whether the organization was happy with his progress:

I think they are, I can't tell.  Personally, I've improved as a player in the areas that they've asked me to improve.  I can honestly say that I've worked my hardest to improve on what they wanted me to do and I still am.  I don't have a bad attitude, I'm always trying to get better, I'm always watching video, I'm always trying to take the next step to get better and make it to the next level.  I believe that they are happy with my improvement and with what I'm bringing to the table right now.

Apparently they weren't since they traded Wild for the North American William Quist. Wild was certainly more effective than Taylor Chorney and on a par with guys like Alex Plante and Johan Motin who are still considered legitimate prospects, yet he was given the mushroom treatment and sent out the door for, essentially, a completely valueless plug with no chance of ever becoming a positive NHL player. They might as well have released him for all the good that trade did the Oilers. Why? Don't ask Cody because he sure doesn't know.

Finally, this whole Souray mess. What needs to be said that hasn't been hashed and rehashed a thousand times by now? Where you stand on Sheldon's trade demand seems to depend entirely on the opinion you have of the Oilers organization: do you think Souray is a liar or do you think the front office is at fault?

If you listen to the sports radio crowd, you might hear Souray as another disaffected Oilers traitor: we should probably stop issuing #44 to our defensemen because it does things to their minds. Demanding a trade for selfish reasons and anyway, he got himself into this mess by getting injured fighting, so if he was being forced to play injured, why would he do everything he could to help the hockey team win? Why wouldn't he take it easy and make sure he didn't go back on injured reserve with a gangrenous limb or something?

Bull. Sheldon's no Chris Pronger: he's been a character guy throughout his career and wore the A without incident or altercation in Edmonton as well as elsewhere. His accusations jive with everything we've ever heard, with the histories of young men like Jarret Stoll, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and others who have been thrown into the lineup while injured and suffered long-term consequences for it because they're "leaders". The communications issues? Steve Tambellini not having talked to Souray since January? How does that not sound like business as usual? The Oilers, meanwhile, in spite of their best efforts to clamp down on the public knowing anything about their business, have clear effort of yanking the chains of members of their organization.

Call me negative, but I know where I come down.

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