There’s One Thing that Nicholson Needs to do to Fix the Oilers Culture

“Culture” has become the least favourite buzz word amongst Oilers fans. It has long been a focus of Bob Nicholson’s, and that doesn’t seem like it will be changing any time soon so long as he is in charge of hockey operations.

“Culture” is a broad term. It is a difficult thing to clearly articulate. The best definition of culture that I found in the Merriam Webster’s dictionary is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”. The key word in that definition in my opinion is “shared”.

I can’t speak to what specific attitudes, values, goals, and practices that the Oilers currently “share” as an organization; but I think the obvious statement is that something isn’t working, and it hasn’t been working for a long time.

When we look at the Chiarelli era, the rumours that have surfaced since his firing suggest that a lot of people in the organization didn’t share Chiarelli’s attitude towards certain transactions. Chiarelli essentially decided to hide in his office and limit the amount of communication that was going on with his staff towards the end of his tenure. I don’t know the actual truth surrounding any specific happenings inside the organization, but the optics suggest that there weren’t many “shared” attitudes, values, goals, and practices during Chiarelli’s tenure.

Maybe the fact there wasn’t much “sharing” going on under Chiarelli was the issue. Maybe the issue was that the attitudes, values, goals, and practices of Chiarelli and his staff were simply the wrong ones. His preference for “heavy hockey” during a time when the NHL game is shifting towards an emphasis on speed and skill was certainly the wrong decision at the wrong time.

Whatever the reason may be, the “culture” is definitely broken.

Jason Gregor asked Nicholson to describe the culture of the Oilers in an interview, and Nicholson danced around the question. He couldn’t give a clearly defined answer. I wouldn’t expect the leader of an organization to be able to provide exact details at any sort of length about the specific attitudes, values, goals, and practices of the organization on a radio interview, but he really did not divulge many specifics. Nicholson talked about how he has been talking to a lot of people in the hockey world about what the ideal structure of a hockey operations department should look like and about what makes a good GM. He noted that things have changed over the last decade or so. That was really it.

When Gregor pressed him further on the topic, Nicholson said that they need to bring the individual players and the team together. That suggests that there isn’t a lot of “sharing” going on in the room either. He talked about how veteran players can help with the leadership of the team. He talked about how they miss Matt Hendricks, and about how the acquisition of Sam Gagner has helped in that regard. He also started talking about how they want to dive deeper into the backgrounds of potential draft picks before drafting them. While talking about the veterans and finding out more about the backgrounds of potential draft picks, he dropped Edmonton’s other least favourite Oilers related vague buzz word: “character”.

It would seem to me that an organization should be able to identify which core attitudes, values, goals, and practices that they work to share on a daily basis.

It does seem as if Nicholson has a start on some of the specifics. He has been preaching a more patient approach to prospect development. He has been preaching a need to increase the amount of focus given to speed and skill when evaluating talent. He has preached a desire for the new GM to put more of an emphasis on analytics. He has preached about the new GM needing to value open communication. There’s a start there, if nothing else. While these are good ideas, more is needed in order to identify everything that organizational culture consists of.

This time of organizational introspection is a perfect opportunity for Nicholson to re-design the culture that he wishes to create within the Oilers organization. That’s just the first step. The question is how does the leader of an organization fix a broken culture?

Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, has ideas on the subject. He put out a video of him speaking on the topic called Why you Might Need to Fire your Most Talented Employee. Please do not jump to conclusions based on the title of the video… I am in no way suggesting that Connor McDavid is the problem or that he needs to be moved! That would be the stupidest thing the Oilers could do. Now that I’ve made that clear, Vaynerchuk implored CEOs to do the following:

“Go home and audit every single employee you have, and you better figure out which employee makes the other employees miserable. I don’t give a shit if it’s your best sales person, your number one fucking developer, or your co-founder. Cancer spreads. With cancer and politics comes lack of speed.”

We know one thing for sure: the Oilers are an organization that suffers from a lack of speed, both on and off the ice. To this point, it seems as if Chiarelli was the employee that made other employees miserable. He has been fired; but that can’t be the end of the audit. There could be other employees that make employees miserable. Once again, I am not suggesting that McDavid could be a problem based on that quote from Vaynerchuk! However, I am suggesting that could involve “cleaning house” regardless of a person’s relationship to the owner or to Nicholson himself, like many Oilers fans are wishing for. Vaynerchuk contiunues:

“It has never, and I mean ever, been more important for you to care about the internal feelings… Let me tell you how you do not build culture. You do not build culture by having free snacks in your cafeteria. You do not build culture by having a foosball table or open seating. You build culture by actually talking to people one by one and understanding what they care about. What you will learn is some people want money, and some people want time with their family, and some people want title, and some people want creativity… It is your job to know every single one of these things about every single person every single day, because 23-year old Sally at 27 wants different shit. 31-year old Charlie at 34 wants different shit. It is time that this eco-system starts paying attention to the human elements that will drive our businesses to the next level.”

In his press conference after Chiarelli was fired, Nicholson said that he would “try to open up more doors in all aspects of this organization to find out those little things that just haven’t been fixed over the last number of years for [the Oilers] not being in the playoffs.” He said that you do that by talking to people.

He has been talking to everyone OUTSIDE of the organization, but he damn well better be talking to everyone inside the organization as well.

There are two groups in the organization: management and the players. Most of this talk of culture has been focused on management, and rightly so. However, the locker room has its own culture that needs examining as well. Players need to be on the same page as other players, and they need to be on the same page as management as well if maximum success is to be achieved. Nicholson did tell Gregor that he would be sitting down with McDavid and other members of the leadership group in order to get feedback from them.

He had damn well better be sitting down with them.

Talking to McDavid would be my first move if I were Nicholson. He is the player that this franchise will be built around, so Nicholson had better find out what McDavid cares about and how he would like to see the organization ensure that he gets what he cares about. I would be doing the same with Leon Draisaitl. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be a free-agent in two seasons, and he has slugged it out in Edmonton despite the team’s futility without saying a word. He’s been a good soldier. I’d be finding out what he cares about and what he wants to see happen too.

These meetings can’t just be limited to the leadership group. Every single player that the Oilers might even consider bringing back next season should receive one of these meetings and the opportunity for Nicholson to learn what each of them cares about. How about talking to a kid like Jesse Puljujarvi. He had visions of himself playing in a top 6 role beside McDavid or Draisaitl before this season started, but he spent the season in the bottom 6 or in Bakersfield, with the exception of a handful of games. Find out what that kid wants and how the organization can help him achieve his goals. He is worth at least a discussion if the organization wants him to become a top forward on the team in the future. I’d even talk to Tobias Rieder to get his thoughts on what needs to change in the organization, even though Nicholson already said that he isn’t going to be re-signed.

At the end of the day, Nicholson will be the one that will dictate what the new culture will look like, and he will be the one that will hire the new GM (unless Daryl Katz decides to hire a POHO himself and to tell Nicholson to focus on the OEG side exclusively as Nick Kypreos hinted at two Saturdays ago). The players will not dictate what the organization does; but it is imperative to the success of the organization that their voices are heard and their attitudes, values, and goals are known.

“Culture” and “character” on their own do not allow teams to win hockey games. It is clear that the Oilers simply need a larger quantity of players with more speed and skill than what the current roster boasts, but “culture” and “character” should not be totally dismissed because of the vagueness that surrounds the terms. How can you explain a team like Arizona being in the race for a playoff spot with the amount of talent that they have? Especially when they had so many injuries to important players this season. How about the Canadiens? They aren’t a tremendously talented team, but they’re in the hunt as well. I thought they would be closer to the basement than the playoffs this season, and I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that. We can point to coaching and work ethic as reasons for the success of some lesser skilled teams. Coaches implement systems based on their attitudes and values. Work ethic is an attitude. Coaching and work ethic are parts of culture. Culture is always a factor in a team’s success.

Look at the New England Patriots. The biggest reason that they have been able to be successful for as long as they have been is because of their culture. They can sign basically any dude from the nearest hot dog stand and find a way to make him a successful contributor to the success of the team. Of course that is an exaggeration, but they have a way of finding success no matter how many injuries or roster flaws they have. The most notable recent NHL example would be the Detroit Red Wings and their 25-year run of consecutive playoff appearances. They had a certain way of doing things, and players weren’t given roles on the team until the team felt that the players were ready.

Culture might not win individual hockey games, but culture can play a major role in the long-term success of an organization. Oilers fans don’t want to hear words like “culture” and “character” coming from the organization at this point. The fans want winning. Their franchise player wants winning. That is the one attitude, value, or goal that we know that fans, media, and everyone inside the organization shares.

Nicholson needs to figure out what’s in the water here and how to get rid of it quickly. Everyone in the organization needs to share a specific set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices in order to create a winning culture. The players, most notably McDavid and Draisaitl, will be the ones that go out and play the games on the ice. They are the people that a lot of the specific attitudes, values, goals, and practices within the Oilers organization will be designed around… at least they should be. Nicholson needs to learn what they care about and find a way to marry those ideas with his, the new GM’s, the scouts’, and the coach’s ideas if the organization wants to be successful for many years to come.

The only way to do that is to talk to everyone in the organization, starting with the players.

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