I choose to live in Edmonton for many reasons, not the least of which is that I love it. Now, I have to go outside and shovel the damn walk and then drive through insane roads to get to work, and then come home and shovel some more. That’s not a great thing, I’ll grant you that much. And tonight, I’ll watch my team get taken apart by the St. Louis Blues and I’ll own that too. It is my town, and the Oilers are my team.
Edmonton and the Oilers are in a down period right now, but please remember something important: We’re proud of our city, and we’re proud of our Oilers—even these Oilers, especially these Oilers. If you can’t understand that, if you think it’s open season, you don’t know us at all. For those piling on: We know who you are, and we will remember. Stop it. It’s beneath you.
– Allan Mitchell, AKA Lowetide, 28 Nov. 2014
It is easy for those of us interested in a vibrant future for the literary arts in Canada to despair at the current state of affairs. Who, after all, reads literature seriously any longer? Digital and visual media of all kinds, from Hollywood blockbusters to Netflix streaming services, dominate our mainstream cultural landscape. We are surrounded, almost without effort, by a digitalized culture of moving images, and the power of the written word seems to be waning with each passing year.
Even regularly published, award-winning authors find it difficult to live on their writing alone. While events like the Giller Awards treat authors as celebrities for one night a year, the stark reality is that most writers must supplement their income with other employment. In Anglophone Canada, the problem is even more pronounced, given the tremendous competition writers endure from their American and British counterparts. Things have gotten so bad that one prominent Canadian writer even declared last year that Can Lit, as a project of national literary culture, is over, with the loss of numerous independent publishing houses only further confirming its death.
Yet I, for one, am not willing to give up completely on the power of the written word to bring people together in this country. Can-Lit as a project of traditional commercial publishing may be struggling, but the internet has allowed new iterations of literary culture to emerge in powerful and surprising ways.
Enter Allan Mitchell, aka Lowetide, a middle-aged family man from Alberta whose online writings have made him into a cultural icon in his home province. Everyday, thousands of readers go to Lowetide’s blog to debate the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers, a team in the National Hockey League (if just barely).
Lowetide’s site is a simple one: every morning he posts a new article about the team, covering everything from roster decisions to long-term prospect development. It is not uncommon for there to be one hundred comments on a given article by lunch time. If there is a game in the evening readers will live-post during play, picking apart the team on the fly. By the end of the night, between three to four hundred comments pile up. On particularly noteworthy evenings, the number of comments can push even higher, sometimes trending as high as one thousand.
What drives people to not only read Lowetide’s site, but contribute so energetically to the conversation?
There are, of course, no lack of blogs in the Oilogsophere, that zone of the digital world that concerns all things Oilers. There is the add-drenched, low-brow populism of Oilersnation; the sober second-thought analysis of the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey; and the decidedly more piquant stylings of Copper and Blue, which often takes more openly critical positions on the team’s management than their blogging counterparts.
All of this Oiler related writing is in addition, of course, to the prose put out everyday by local and national newspapers, a zone of stat-adverse, old-school hockey writing known by bloggers as the MSM (Mainstream Media). For decades in Edmonton MSM hockey writers trumpeted the official line of the team, rarely criticizing it for fear of being blacklisted and losing precious access to interviews and exclusives. As a result, while the MSM continues to get access to the press box at the Oilers home rink (Rexall Place), it is in the Oilogosphere that the most intelligent and critical writing is done.
Lowetide as Intellectual Center
No one in either the MSM or the Oilogosphere can match Lowetide as a source of intellectual sustenance for Oilers fans. What Lowetide writes drives the daily conversation surrounding the team, his articles appearing on the smart phones and monitors of tens of thousands of fans across Alberta daily. It is a common occurrence in the province when one is at work, at the gym, or at the pub to begin a conversation: “did you see what Lowetide wrote today?” Simply put, his name has become shorthand for an entire mode of fan experience.
Over time, Lowetide has honed a unique prose style: pin-tip precise, punctuated with folksy aphorisms that can only have been learned by a lifetime spent living in the prairie provinces. For young, cosmopolitan readers such as myself, I’m routinely delighted by the expressions Lowetide uses, which often go on to become oral shorthand amongst Oiler fans (“pushing the river,” “music,” “miles of blacktop,” “sail on,” etc.).
These terms are the definitive mark of a great man of regional letters, one who has accomplished what most writers can only dream of: seeing their prose seep into the everyday realm of speech, changing the vocabulary of an entire community of people.
Yet what is equally important in Lowetide’s writing is its silences: he can say more about the disappointment of Oiler fans in one sentence, and in the aching pause that follows it, than most writers can in entire paragraphs. He has turned the navy-blue background of his webpage into a landscape of gaps and absences, mastering a fine-edged minimalism.
Take a recent article that Lowetide wrote outlining how crushing it is for fans to see their worst fears realized: the management group that runs the team has officially decided to waste another season in a bid to get the first overall pick in next year’s entry draft. The idea is to lose now in order to get the opportunity to pick another “generational” talent from junior hockey, this time a young wunderkind by the name of Connor McDavid. The Oilers have already drafted first overall three times in the last five years, a mark of shame the club’s managers mistake for a source of organizational pride.
In response to this tank job, Lowetide had this to say:
And Craig MacTavish has a vision for this team that includes Connor McDavid in Edmonton opening night. Daryl Katz’ apology letter will be along shortly, this one with a promise of a 2016 playoff spot. Next stop: World Juniors to see the next great one. One suspects the management meetings surround a center depth chart of Nuge-McDavid-Leon-Gordon next season, with a blue line that includes Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. What about the Taylor Hall cluster? Well, that’s just yesterday’s papers, that’s just yesterday’s girl. The new Originals are in town.
It is incredible and it is exhausting and it is here. We’re sailing to the Hinterland again friends. Pack a lunch, its a poke.
The triply repeated “it is” express perfectly our collective exhaustion as Oiler fans. We are stupefied and angry, caught in a downward spiral of non-competitiveness that no one thought possible, and yet as Lowetide says, here it is, despite all hopes to the contrary.
We hoped for the best, but things turned out like always.
Lowetide as Moral Conscience
Oiler fandom has become a surreal exercise in abusive mediocrity. It is more productive to laugh at the current management team than it is to hope that they will turn things around. Only Lowetide’s restrained, patient compassion has kept many fans from abandoning the club all together.
The team is defined by a nepotistic management structure in which the owner, a reclusive pharmaceutical billionaire named Daryl Katz, has accepted the incompetent decisions of a group of former players-turned-executives because of his personal affection for them. Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, once on-ice heroes in the city in the 1980s, have become league-wide punch lines in managerial incompetence.
Yet Katz continues to employ them and the various permutations of their management team, despite a complete absence of evidence that they are actually competent at their jobs. The Oilers descent into last-place oblivion was a process that began in 2007, when Kevin Lowe ceded to the trade demands of Chris Pronger, the league’s best defenseman at the time. Pronger, unhappy at playing in the league’s most northern and hockey-obssessed city, requested a trade soon after leading his team to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Lowe was all too quick to cave into his demands for a ticket out of town. This hasty decision sent the Oilers to the bottom of the standings, and after multiple attempts at “rebuilding” over successive years, the Oilers remain the worst team in the league today. They have changed coaches, scouts, trainers, and drafted the most elite players from junior hockey, yet the club is still out of the playoff race by November each season.
Despite this odyssey through the hockey wilderness, Lowe, MacTavish, and their management team remains largely in place. Lowe and Mac-T in particular remain in powerful (and well paid) positions, the owner seemingly unwilling to fire his youthful idols.
Oiler fans thus finds themselves in a truly brutal position: the owner of their team accepts managerial incompetence, and there is no higher authority for them to appeal to. As the old saying goes: you can fire players and coaches, but you can’t fire a bad owner.
And why would Daryl Katz fire his friends? Despite all the online grumbling around the blogosphere, fans remain as loyal as ever. Rexall Place remains (basically) filled, season ticket subscribers keep re-upping (there is an ample waiting list for tickets if some choose to leave the fold), and the team is decidedly profitable.
Oh, and the city has generously forked over hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars to subsidize a new downtown arena. Despite this public investment, the profits from the new building will go 100% to the team. There is nothing more deliciously ironic in a province with a long-standing tradition of small-government conservatism than elected officials providing welfare for a billionaire, but it only took a couple of direct threats to move the team to Seattle to make that particular magic trick happen.
The people of Edmonton continue to support the team financially, despite its civic threats, incompetent managers, and terrible on-ice product. Why? Edmonton is a remote city far removed from most major North American urban centers. The winters are long, jobs plentiful, and while the city has a thriving theater and arts scene, people still have a glut of after-tax dollars to spend. And there is only one major professional sports team in town to spend them on.
If the Oilers, in their current iteration, were based in New York or Chicago, people would just tune out and starve them of business until they got better, for there would be the Yankees (MLB) or the Giants (NFL) or the Bulls (NBA) to look forward to watching. But Edmonton, for better or worse, is a one team town.
This is precisely why Katz believes he can keep his management structure in place. What else are the people of Edmonton going to do during the winter? Not watch the Oilers? He can abuse the fan base by accepting his incompetent friend-managers because he knows his revenues are ironclad. If the fans haven’t abandoned the team through nine years of losing, why would they start now?
The Oilers call this the “special bond” that exists between the city and the team. A more sober analysis would be the cruel joke the Oilers play on the city: blackmail it for money and repay its support by condoning nepotism and mediocrity.
Even Lowetide has recently admitted the truly noxious nature of the Oilers organization:
The Edmonton Oilers under Daryl Katz have been a simply awful organization. From threats to move to Seattle because bully to the current state of affairs on the ice. And we get ‘Daryl is very upset’ as a response.
WHO CARES? Do something Daryl. Reduce ticket prices, throw in another $10 million on the arena, free beer Sundays, something.
“Daryl is very upset” doesn’t mean one damn thing. NOT plucking Chipchura off waivers a week ago is absolutely the personification of ‘we’re drilling down for the No. 1 overall pick” and frankly the league should step in.
It is hard to explain how damning these words are coming from a writer such as Lowetide. The most restrained and sympathetic of all Oilers watchers- indeed, the moral heart of Oilers Nation itself- is now advocating that the league should step in to prevent the Oilers from tanking another year.
Faced with apathy from the owner, hubris and chauvinism from management, bafflement from coaches, and a benumbed sadness from the players at the bottom of this institutional mess, what can Oiler fans do?
Time for a Revolution?
At this moment, the darkest in the history of the franchise, all we have is Lowetide. For in the understated eloquence of his writing he exhibits the humanity, the basic sense of public kindness, that the franchise has lost over the last nine seasons.
We read Lowetide and we are reminded of the goodness that defines the people of Edmonton and the prairie region they come from. This is a goodness that maybe, at one time, existed in the organization known as the Edmonton Oilers, but has now long since been burned away, lost in the fires that got them a new arena, first overall picks, and more monthly press conferences than actual wins on the ice.
Personally, I would like to see Oiler fans of all stripes (tier one and tier two, as it were) lead a boycott movement against the team for the rest of the year. Everyone in the city should refrain from going to games. Rexall should be turned into a library. Row after row of empty seats should greet the team as they come on the ice.
Radio men should demand the firing of everyone associated with the organization’s upper management- Lowe, MacTavish, and Howson- on a daily basis, as a prayer and a provocation made at the start of each show. And people should protest outside the team’s head office until the team is placed under new management, a daily picket that can stand as a moment of true civic pride for the people of the city. Getting rid of the owner will be a far more difficult task, though one can dream of one day having a form of stock-based public ownership for the team on the model of Real Madrid or Barcelona.
This is, of course, not an attack on the players (they are not to blame for being asked to do more than the overall talent on the roster makes possible). This is punishment to the owner for his tacit acceptance of incompetence in his management structure, hitting him the only place he will actually feel it: his pocket-book.
If Lowetide contributed his voice to such a boycott movement, it would gain an important legitimacy online and in social terms. But that is certainly too much to ask of LT. He is, after all, the restrained voice of humanism in Oiler fandom, not an agitator for change.
Maybe it is up to the younger generation of Oiler fans to lead such a revolution against the team (in order, of course, to save the team). Yet as we go about this task, we should recognize how grateful we are that Lowetide is around. He succors the psychological wounds of our most recent losses. He keeps us amply updated on draftable players who may bring relief in the future.
But most importantly, he reminds us of the ideals that the Oilers once stood for: the prairie-poor work ethic of a remote region that was built up from nothing but the labor of immigrants working the grey, wind-quiet land. What we fail to see in the organization, we are left to find in its greatest chronicler.
Sometimes I wonder how difficult it must be for Lowetide to do what he does every single day, writing so eloquently about an organization that is so undeserving of it. One hopes, for his sake if not for our own, that the team pays him back in wins for all that he has given them.
And if they don’t, I’ll gladly join Dennis King and the other rabble rousers of the Oilogosphere in burning the whole house down. The Oilers should be grateful that Lowetide is here to restrain us, in his seemingly endless capacity to forgive the team of its worst sins.
Yet that should not surprise anyone, for Lowetide is our moral conscience and most important guide. Simply put, he is the best of us.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.