EDMONTON – Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations, says he’s sorry for suggesting there are two types of Oiler fans: those who buy tickets and those who don’t.
“If I offended anyone, I apologize,” said Lowe, seen sitting in an office in an 80-second video posted on the team website Wednesday.
“We see many of our fans at Rexall Place, but we have hundreds of thousands of fans that never get to Rexall Place.
“We appreciate each and every fan. I did not make that clear.”
Lowe got into hot water with fans Monday for comments he made at a news conference to announce the firing of Steve Tambellini as general manager.
The news conference also announced that Tambellini was being replaced by Oilers executive and former coach Craig MacTavish, with former Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson being brought back to assist MacTavish.
The Oilers sit 12th in the NHL’s Western Conference heading into Wednesday’s games and are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for the seventh straight year.
That led to pointed questions from reporters Monday on why the Oilers were bringing back the same group of people who have failed in the past. Lowe fired back that the Oilers know to whom they answer.
“We have two types of fans: we have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about,” said Lowe. “But certainly the people that go to the games and support we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message.”
Some interpreted the remarks as crass cash-conscious elitism while others suggested it was a clumsy way to differentiate between fans the Oilers can talk to one on one, because they’re in the building, and those they can’t.
“I must admit my emotions ran a little high,” Lowe said in the video.
Either way, fans took to social media and radio call-in shows to slam Lowe and the Oilers. Fans who pay for tickets are now cheekily referred to as Tier 1 fans and those who don’t fork out as Tier 2.
Fan anger against Lowe was not just restricted to those comments.
Lowe also lost his temper at the news conference when asked why the Oilers didn’t search out new blood to replace Tambellini.
“How are fans going to be reassured that the group that left the mess that Tambellini couldn’t quite clean up is now going to be cleaned up by the guys who left the mess to begin with?” asked one reporter.
“In terms of the group that messed things up, you’re talking about the group that had a team one period away from winning the Stanley Cup (in 2006)?” Lowe shot back.
“Seven years ago,” said the reporter.
“There’s one other guy I believe in hockey today that is still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me. So I think I know a little bit about winning, if there’s ever a concern.”
For that, fans scorched Lowe as an arrogant, out of touch executive hiring his buddies while skating on the past glory of Oiler championships that ended almost a quarter century ago.
One local columnist said the Oilers are being run more like a “tree fort” than a professional sports organization. One sports channel used Lowe’s outburst as the hook for a top-five “It’s all about me moments in sports” segment.
Others have derisively linked Lowe’s comments to goalie Patrick Roy’s famous 1996 retort that he is deaf to criticism because his Stanley Cup rings plug up his ears.
Lowe was the Oilers’ original NHL No. 1 draft pick in 1979 and a cornerstone of the franchise’s 1980s Stanley Cup dynasty. The defenceman won five Cups with the Oilers and one with the New York Rangers.
But since Lowe joined the Oilers’ executive ranks as general manager in 2000, the team has made the playoffs just three times.
The Oilers’ last post-season action was in 2006, when they took the Carolina Hurricanes to a seventh game in the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
There has been a merry-go-round of general managers—Lowe, Tambellini and now MacTavish—and a parade of coaches: MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, and now Ralph Krueger.
The team’s fans, however, have responded with routine sellout crowds at Rexall Place.
For those keeping score, Lowe’s apology is the third to come from the organization in recent months.
When negotiations with Edmonton city council for a new arena bogged down last fall, Oilers owner Daryl Katz went to Seattle to discuss possibly relocating the team to the Pacific Northwest. When fans reacted angrily and all but dared him to move, Katz backed down and apologized in full-page newspaper ads.
“I took for granted your support and your love for the Oilers,” said Katz in the ad. “That was wrong, and I apologize.”
Weeks after that, city councillors pulled the plug on the rink deal, saying Katz kept demanding last-minute changes while refusing to meet with them in public to explain why.
In December the Oilers dropped some of their demands and asked for rink deal talks to resume. Team negotiator John Karvellas was asked by reporters if the about-face could be construed as an apology to fans and council.
“That’s not an inappropriate characterization,” said Karvellas.
In January, the two sides approved building a downtown rink which, with surrounding infrastructure added in, will top $600 million. Taxpayers will pay for most of the construction and will be on the hook for major repairs while the Oilers will pay for day-to-day upkeep and keep all the profits for 11 months out of the year.
Meanwhile, the Tambellini era ended Saturday with five straight losses. On Tuesday, the MacTavish era began with a listless 5-3 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild.
The Oilers’ next home game is Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks. Online brokers are pitching centre-ice tickets for $450 to $750 each.