The Edmonton Oilers, Their Fans & External Attribution

Downtown Edmonton. via upload.wikimedia.org

John Tauer, a Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas, penned an article on external attribution in sports.  While the author was interested in external attribution in the Rick Pitino "Unfortunate Things" story, the underlying premise applied to the Oilers as well.

This response is not uncommon among athletes. In fact, one study of professional athletes found that they made significantly more internal attributions for their successes than they did for their failures. In other words, they were more likely to blame a referee for a loss, but rarely would they credit a referee or some other external factor for their success. How often do you hear a player say, "That umpire gave us that game!"

The money quote from Tauer's article nails the situation in Edmonton perfectly:

Of course, the danger behind external attributions is that they enable us to escape from personal responsibility for our actions.

The study mentioned in Tauer's article, "Attributions in the sports pages" by Lau and Russell, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology - Volume 39, Issue 1, in July 1980.  The researchers rated interviews given by professional athletes to determine attribution of success and failure.  The conclusions of the study bring us to the City of Edmonton.

Edmonton must be a terrible, horrible place.  The city has been the single reason for the Oilers' demise over the last two decades.  Fans have blamed a myriad of intangibles, all centered around the horrible place called Edmonton as the reason that players won't stay, won't sign, and ask to be traded.  First and foremost, the awful weather is to blame.  The brutal Edmonton weather chases away the marquee players.  Even the players that are willing to brave the icy tundra are chased out by their own wives.  Grown men being paid millions of dollars will not play in the cold.  Unless it's Calgary or Chicago.

Not only does the weather make the city nearly unlivable, the fans are completely unbearable.  They approach players in the streets!  Random hooligans accost them in restaurants.  Fans have the gall to say "Hi!" in the grocery store.  And ohhhhhh, the mean, mean things they say about players on talk radio.  A professional athlete can't be expected to play in these conditions.  Unless the conditions exist in Montreal or Pittsburgh.

And being so isolated from the rest of the world, a solar unit away from civilization, the distance drives men to do unreasonable things, like a northern form of space madness.  Being so far north, the flights take so much longer.  It's a full 90 minutes to Vancouver, forty-five minutes shorter than the flight from Denver to Los Angeles.

That distance means the travel schedule is too much for a grown man to bear.  Millions of dollars isn't enough to heal the pain of so many frequent flyer miles, even though the Oilers will fly less miles than the Sharks or Canucks.

Of course, if there is a back woodsman, Les Stroud-type of a man out there willing to take on the wilds of Edmonton, the stunning lack of nightlife and nonexistent culture will eventually run those manly-men out of town.  After all, hockey players need symphonies and galleries, molecular gastronomy and Michelin Stars or else they break down like Jack Torrance.  Unless they live in Detroit.

Any level-headed person would look at this list and realize the significant omission, the actual reason behind Edmonton's inability to attract and retain talent - the state of the franchise.  Unfortunately, judging by the reaction of the fanbase in the latest Sheldon Souray hullabaloo, the team still gets a pass.  Kevin Lowe nearly found the correct balance between internal and external attribution in his now-infamous Edmonton Journal interview when he asked "Is it me?"  While Lowe was trying to play the part of exasperated martyr, he was on the right track.  You want to attract and retain the top talent in the league?  Start by ending a decade of mismanagement.  Players want to win and play for winning teams no matter how cold it is, how isolated they are, how desolate their home will be, and how many men with monocles they encounter on a nightly basis.

Don't believe me?  In 1980, Jari Kurri leaked word to Glen Sather that he was going to evade his mandatory military service.  He was willing to and wanted to leave Helsinki for Edmonton, even though it was going to be 8 degrees colder in the winter.  He was willing to move to a city that would be the most isolated place he'd ever lived in.  He was willing to move from historic Helsinki to a hick town on the plains of Canada.  No matter how terrible Edmonton may look to an insider, winning is the great equalizer.  NHL players spend their entire careers thinking about the Stanley Cup - it's a singular league-wide goal.  Give a man a chance to win a Cup and he'll play anywhere, even Edmonton.

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