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The Issue of Character

The explanation

2016 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Character and Culture are two things we consistently hear about in sports. A team makes a trade, they talk about it. Ditto for a signing, and once more for a draft pick. It’s one of those things that teams preach at every opportunity possible. It’s something they look for, it’s something they cherish, and it’s something that they view as an easy sell. It’s that last part that’s a problem.

I completely understand why NHL management value character, just as I understand why a manager of just about any other institution does. It’s a lot less headache. If you have two employees, and one gives the impression that he’s one day going to call you up at two in morning, drunk, and on every drug known to man, pulled over in the work truck — not that that would ever happen — there is a very good chance that you’re not going to really want to use that one. Regardless of skills, deadlines, and time management, it is a lot easier to explain to a client, maybe even make up some plausible excuses presented as fact, why things didn’t get done on time, than it is to explain the the other issue.

Now, of course I’m not saying that these extremes are what NHL GMs are frequently dealing with, but they are things that I am positive they consider. When the NHL Draft Combines occur, they have the interview period. If you’re strictly looking for the kinds of things that help you on the ice, there really isn’t that much you can take away from that. And yet, some draft-eligible players are able to talk themselves into being selected higher, others make their way down the list. The reason is pretty simple — Character.

When a player, or potential employee gives off the impression that they are determined, hard-working, and willing to listen, there are sacrifices most people are willing to make in terms of the current talent level in comparison to another who is already there and lacks those qualities. For the layer giving off the good impression, it’s very easy to talk yourself into believing that they will improve year-over-year, while the other has stagnated.

Now just for another extreme example of why Bob Nicholson loves talking about this stuff — and even as a fan you’ll probably agree — do you prefer explaining the issue of Milan Lucic not scoring enough and taking up six million in cap space, or what Dean Lombardi was having to explain with Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, and especially Slava Voynov. You can even factor in that they won two Stanley Cups with that going on. As a fan, or a manager, I know which problem I’d rather have.

The problem, is that there isn’t reason to believer that Skill and Character are inversely correlated. If anything, there’s a good chance that high skill was developed with high character. It’s very rare that a player can develop enough skill to play hockey professionally without having to sacrifice a lot of extra-curricular activities, and without a very strong commitment to honing his craft. This is what brings me to the real issue of what I had with what Bob Nicholson said.

It’s Public Relations Not the Product

PR is something that Oilers have never been able to figure out. Sometimes they’ll send out Kevin Lowe to ruin Craig MacTavish’s GM introduction, or they’ll talk about The Price you Pay, or they’ll send out Bob Nicholson like last week, to talk about the water, and Character.

Fans don’t want to hear about character and they especially don’t want to hear about water. I do think that character is important, and they should be looking for it, but they did a terrible job in that it came off across as exclusively. It needs an empirical approach, and should be expressed that way. Start with skill, start with what is going to help you on the ice, identify those players, and use character to filter that out afterwards.

The Oilers PR battle with themselves doing more damage than any character issues on the team right now. They’re alienating fans by saying those things — remember, fans of other teams love telling us their opinions on what the Oilers do — and they’re just coming across as completely out of touch with what people want.

It’s crisis time when you fire your General Manager, especially with one as bad as that one. When you do something like that, you have to be able to sell yourself to your fans/clients in order to have any credibility going forward.

What fans wanted to hear is a list of the things that went wrong — Paying too much for too little talent. They wanted to hear a solution — make some moves to clear cap, get faster, and get more skill. They wanted to hear a timeline and a plan. We didn’t get any of that, and we all walked away with the assumptions that they don’t even recognize the issues.

The Oilers might have a character problem in the locker room, I have no idea about that, but what I can say with 100% certainty, is the the front office has a character problem. Not one of them has ever bothered to learn the value of public relations. It’s hurting the brand, and it’s hurting the team.