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04-11-2013, 03:57 PM
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The Culture of Losing

As we watch another Oilers season wind down, our playoff hopes continuing their slow but inexorable annual swirl around the bathtub drain, I pause to wonder what the future holds in store for our beloved Blue & Orange. It seems to be an annual rite of passage for Oiler fans. Like federal investigators sifting through the wreckage of a downed airliner, we examine the debris of a lost season looking for clues as to what went wrong. The problem for us, of course, is that it seems to be the same plane every year, and it seems to crash every time out.

We like to use the word “rebuild” a lot around here, and when we do we refer to it as something that began as recently as 2010. That’s defensible, since it aligns with when the team officially bottomed out (for the first time) and with the acquisition of Taylor Hall as the spoils of our 30th place finish. I would argue, however, that the rebuild truly began with the mass exodus of the ’06 squad out of the City of Champions. When key components like Mike Peca, Jaroslav Spacek and Sergei Samsonov, not to mention Chris Pronger himself, decide to leave a team that came within one period of hoisting the Stanley Cup, it’s probably fair to say your team has some retooling to do. And so that puts up squarely in Year 7 of the rebuild, if we accept the premise.

To be fair, there have been some positive signs this season. The kids seem to be well along the way to forming a strong nucleus. The defensive corps has had more ups this year than in the past. The special teams are strong, and our new number one goaltender has performed well enough to suggest the future may be bright between the pipes. Even the head coach, though seemingly in over his head during his rookie campaign, has shown signs of being the type of guy who will learn on the fly. Perhaps he’ll get better at managing the NHL game, although the jury is still definitely out at this point.

But despite these positives, Oiler fans have a right to be seriously concerned. Concerned because years 4, 5 and 6, of the rebuild have shown very little improvement, despite the fact we have acquired some of the best young talent in the world. Concerned because we are seven years without a playoff berth in a league where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason. Concerned because we seem to be locked into a level of futility that remains constant season after season after season. It seems not to matter who’s on the ice, who’s behind the bench, who’s in the dressing room, or who owns the team. The results never seem to change. Indeed, over the past 20 years our regular season record stands at 619-687-222, or 78 games under .500. That’s a .405 winning record. The occasional playoff appearance (albeit usually as the 8th seed by the skin of our teeth), and a Cinderella cup run that some would call more luck than destiny, only partially obscure the fact that for two decades running the Oilers have been a bad team.

We point to the causes as we understand them: lack of size in the lineup, poor trades and player drafting, ineffective coaching, incompetent management. But really, although these are all valid deficiencies, they are really just symptoms. The real problem can be summed up by something called the Culture of Losing. And it may handcuff us for years to come.

Losing tends to feed on itself, especially in hockey. The mental aspect of this game, the team dynamic, the reliance on six individuals as a moving unit to feed off of and complement each other at any given time, requires a mindset in order to breed success. When teams win often enough, for long enough, losing becomes unexpected. When they lose often enough, for long enough, it becomes familiar. And human nature always regresses to the familiar.

My view? Losing has become familiar to the Oilers, and it manifests itself in all the little telltale ways. Postgame interviews where players, and sometimes even coaches, will say they’re pleased with what they saw on the ice, with the “progress” being made even though they lost the game, point to a culture of losing. Extended stretches during games where the team looks confused or disinterested, like in the Anaheim game where they were outshot 25-9 though 1-1/2 periods, point to a culture of losing. Extended periods of failure following brief moments of success point to a culture of losing, as does a fan base imploring you to tank the last games of the season so you can acquire that coveted #1 draft pick. The list goes on. This is not to say the guys don’t want to win and that they’re not trying, because they do and they are. They just don’t know how. It just isn’t in the DNA of the organization, as of today.

These things can last decades, as fans of the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs will tell you. Because even as you purge the components that seem to contribute to failure, the replacement parts can only inherit the culture into which they’re injected. And that’s where I worry for the bright young stars on this team. How long can these kids suffer losing before they begin to accept it? Before it becomes familiar?

Assembling a successful sports franchise is not easy. Every part of the organization has to be strong and in place in order for success to be achieved. Of course, a healthy dose of luck never hurts either. But don’t expect to trade for success if the coaching is weak. Don’t expect to replace the coach and start winning if the management team is ineffective. And don’t expect management to function optimally without strong ownership.

Where the weak links reside on this team will continue to be debated, but two things are certain; you don’t fix a poisoned well no matter how many buckets of fresh water you pour into it, and the Oilers will not find success without finding a way to shed their culture of losing.

Last edited by Kinibo: 04-11-2013 at 04:25 PM.
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