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McLellan tirade and punishment wade into murky area

Oilers' coach wanted to establish accountability and close the country club, but did he go about it the right way?

Is it possible the NHL and NHL Players' Association will cross swords over the Edmonton Oilers postponing a mandated off day, one day after embarrassing themselves on home ice against the Buffalo Sabres? In a word, yes. According to a source close to the NHLPA, the union is looking into the matter and has 60 days to file a formal grievance. According to a source close to the league, the Oilers have done absolutely nothing wrong and that nothing precludes an organization from changing its mind on when the mandatory days are provided, so long as there are four of them in the month.

What it comes down to is the part of the provision in the CBA that governs, "unforeseen and compelling circumstances." Article 16 of the CBA reads: "Clubs shall endeavor (italics added) to schedule no less (sic) than four (4) days off for players per month (up to two of which may be scheduled on the road) during each full calendar month of the NHL regular season.” Is playing a terrible game enough of a "compelling and unforeseen circumstance," to merit changes being made to the schedule at the last minute. This may not seem like a big deal, but there could be a slippery slope here. Because no player is going to tell his coach he won't practice the next day after a bad game, even if that is a CBA-mandated day off. “Yeah, Coach, we know we played like horse droppings, but we’re going to go ahead and take that day off that’s owed to us anyway.” What player in his right mind is going to say that?

But what’s probably of more import to the Oilers is how they respond to having the day off removed and, more importantly, from being publicly humiliated by their coach for having one very bad game after two pretty good ones. Oilers coach Todd McLellan held nothing back after the game, emptying his two-barrelled rifle of invectives on his players. “We played like the Bad News Bears. We had guys falling all over the place,” was one of his offerings. “We have to fix things as an organization and stupidity is one of them,” was another in response to a couple of very bad penalties taken by Benoit Pouliot in the first period. (He benched Pouliot for the final two periods.) And then the showstopper: “We got kicked between the legs and we deserved it.”

So you could probably interpret McLellan’s tirade one of two ways. The first would be to pat him on the back for making these guys accountable. There has been such a void of veteran leadership for so long in Edmonton that things had become something of a country club there. Young players were learning how to lose and getting very good at doing it. The stands will always be full and the players will always be objects of unconditional adulation, so it can be fairly easy for a young player to fall into a situation where he accepts losing a little too easily. The Oilers might be on the cusp of something special here and it would be a shame not to extract the most out of this group. That might require the coach to publicly humiliate them once in a while. Best to identify bad habits and squash them early and decisively.

But the other might be to consider that this is just the third game of the season, an awfully early time to pull out an arsenal like that one. This might be the time of the season where a young group like the Oilers might need a steady hand at the tiller. And what if, by some inconceivable turn of events, the Oilers are as bad or worse Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes? What happens then? Does McLellan take the day off away from them again? Does more of the culpability fall on the coaches for once again having a team that was not prepared to play?

The point is, McLellan is a very good coach who has a tremendous feel for his team. But it would be wise for him to make sure he doesn’t fall back on the tendency to point his finger at his players too often. Because if that happens, the players will almost certainly tune out. Coaches run their course with their teams not because they become bad coaches, but more often than not because they lose credibility with the players in the room. And once that happens, he’s doomed.

The Oilers are an interesting dynamic and McLellan has to walk a fine line when dealing with them. He certainly doesn’t want to coddle them because he’s seen the effects of that. But he also has to watch when he takes out the iron fist.


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