MacCountability


And this is where we're at.

This is Craig MacTavish. We all know him, and some of us still hope against hope that he can clean up the mess that is the Edmonton Oilers. Anyone who has followed the team and grew up in Edmonton probably have their own MacT story or two. I am no exception. Before I get into my take on his press conference today (which is actually just reusing my own words from a comment I wrote over at Lowetide earlier today when I should have been grading my Sociology of Education papers), I wanted to share my MacT story.

A simpler time. Certainly a better time.
In the early 1990s, a younger, more innocent version of me used to take swimming lessons at the YMCA in Edmonton's west end. Craig MacTavish lived in the neighbourhood and also used to like going to the Y to work out, swim and relax in the hot tub. Most people tended to leave Craig alone. I was a bit of a precocious young lad who would generally talk to anyone, including my Oiler heroes whenever I happened to come into contact with any of them. MacT always had time for me. I recall at least 2 dozen chats either poolside or in the hot tub. He even congratulated me after I finished a level exam, sticking around to watch me finish the last part of the endurance exam. He knew my name, which to a 10 or 11 year old kid was pretty special. That helped solidify my opinion of MacT as a person. He cares about the team, the city, the fans and especially the kids. Watching Craig speak to the media today, I saw a completely different person, an older, wiser and certainly more broken man. And the level of despair and disappointment was clear in his voice, his eyes, in his body language. Fans and pundits have been all over MacT today and with good reason – the team is awful and no amount of theorizing about the state of the team or armchair GMing is going to change that. MacT seems disconnected, out of sorts and perhaps a bit delusional about where the team is headed, but it is not to say he isn't trying to fix the problem. In fact, I think there's a small part of him that realizes he is a part of what's wrong with the team. It's heartbreaking as a lifelong fan to watch a man I used to know get torn apart trying his best to fix the team he loves.

Anyhoo, here's what I wrote earlier, for good or for ill:

1) this is a different MacT than I think we as fans have ever seen. The comments about humility going a long way that many of you have made seem off base. Mac looks and sounds shaky, on edge and more than a little frustrated, but his body language was not the body language of a confident, indestructible man. His eyes said almost as much as his words and it looked to me like Craig was on the verge of cracking, especially at the beginning.

2) he handled Spector's question/attack really well. He may have been coach for a long time, but he wasn't in management and at the very least had the benefit of a few years away from the poisoned atmosphere, time spent learning new things both in school and in another organization. He's actually correct when he says he's only been on the job in this role for about 18-20 months.

3A) I think his assessment of Nikitin is not as horrific as many seem to suggest. Mac explicitly stated that he's been inconsistent and has had an up and down year. I think that's by and large completely true – he's had more bad games than good, but he's shown flashes of being a competent 4/5 D with PP upside on more than a few nights. Consistency has been an issue for basically the entire team this season. The only consistent thing about the way the players have played is how seemingly manic-depressive they appear to be on the ice. (This was not meant as an insult to anyone who suffers from mental illness, but rather more a generalizable statement about the sweeping highs and debilitating lows from one player to the next and one game to the next). Nikitin and Schultz are the picture of this inconsistency, but the same could be said of the goalies. I don't necessarily trust that MacT is the best talent evaluator out there, but his position on NN is not exactly wrong. He also wasn't going to throw his player under the bus, perhaps learning from the Penner incident of 2008 a little.

3B) MacT spent a large portion of the presser discussing consistency in relation to accountability and development. While these are just words and we can perhaps assume that they are empty words, they hold a specific set of meanings. When he took Hall and Eberle to task for not taking an active leadership role, he basically suggested that he knows they have been responsible for some of the most inconsistent play on the team this year, particularly in the context of turnovers and soft play in the offensive zone. Accountability comes both from words and actions and I think he was in fact issuing a public challenge to his best players to be better both on the ice and in the room. If this really is Hall's team, Mac knows Hall has to do more, own up to his own on-ice issues and be the leader he needs to be, not the leader he thinks he deserves to be. This statement was not meant to contradict my point in 3A about not throwing players under the bus, and I really don't think he said anything bad or wrong about Hall and Ebs. Those players have to be better, and if they play with more consistency and eliminate their sloppy efforts, it might help the rest of the team.

4) Development – MacT's biggest issue is in development and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said there's been four coaches all delivering the same message. That might be the problem in and of itself. What is this message? Why have the various coaching staffs all been tasked with saying/doing the same thing? Maybe the problem itself is that the strategy is all wrong, and that an actual new message is needed.

And now the critiques:

1) Ok, he owned his mistake in a backhanded way about C depth and kinda looked like a tool doing it.

2) Why is Marincin not being identified as a good player? I don't get it. They've discussed the lack of successful 2nd round and beyond picks, and yet there's a perfectly good 2nd rounder, who like the rest of the D this year has not be consistently good, is still a very talented player.

3) He maybe shouldn't have started off by saying that nobody will be satisfied. That's just setting himself up to be tarred and feathered.

4) When talking about accountability he stayed in the general and didn't get specific enough aside from knowing that not all players can or should be yelled at, citing his own time coaching Hemmer as an example. However I think he should have been more explicit about his expectations for his coaches to ensure accountability. Dallas has to do more on that front as well. He needs to return to the 'ice time as currency' approach to bench management that he used last year, and not be afraid to staple Hall or Ebs to the bench for a while if they mess up any more than anyone else.

I also know that I've mentioned Hall and Eberle a few times in this post and I am not trying to rip on them specifically, nor do I think they're the problem. They're both great players and I love watching Taylor Hall play hockey. I don't much care for him as a person (He summers in Kingston where I lived for 5 years and he's not the most friendly or approachable fellow, unless you happen to be a Queen's girl...my former students have shared a few NSFW stories, but I digress...) but he is easily the best Oiler in a decade and one of the top 3 LW's in the league. However in order for the team to grow, the players need to be accountable to themselves and to each other. It's a difficult thing for kids in their early-mid 20s with all that money and all that attention to understand what accountability and responsibility mean, but they will learn or they will continue to lose. There is really only so much a coach or a GM can do. This process has to be bottom up, not top down.  The leaders need to drive the play a little more. What kills me about watching Calgary play is how much they remind me of the little teams that could (97-03). They outwork their opponents even though they have virtually no top-end talent. These current Oilers could stand to take their inspiration less from the 80s Oilers and more from the Marchant-Grier-Murray/Moreau teams that we all loved so much.


post-script:
I want change as much as any other fan. It's hard to put on my jersey when I watch the games, and increasingly I find myself not bothering to wait until the game is over before calling it a night. I love hockey, and quite frankly I need the distraction from work from time to time, but things are not getting better. As a fan I am frustrated, but no matter how frustrated I am, I cannot even imagine what Craig MacTavish is going through now. I feel for him, especially because I'm starting to realize that things are going to get worse for this team before they get better.

Go Oilers?

cap hits, contract negotiations and commodity fetishism.

So it's come to this, the blog as a teaching tool. I can honestly say I never thought this thing I used basically to complain about the team and game I love would ever be useful to anyone, let alone the basis for an assignment in a class I'm teaching. What has the world come to? Since this is where we are, there's precious little point in complaining about it. In fact, I think it makes more sense to just get to the damn point. This used to be a hockey and theory blog after all, so maybe it's time to return to my roots.


This is John Davidson, president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, apparently a hockey team in the NHL. JD is a really well respected hockey man, knowledgable, insightful, and consistently built winning teams basically everywhere he's been. JD has recently lost his mind and it follows a disturbing trend across the league when it comes to how to handle giving younger "star" players their second contracts. 

Columbus has a kid on their roster named Ryan Johansen. He's 22 years old, huge and coming off of the best season of his career, scoring 33 goals and 63 points. He is also a "restricted" free agent (RFA), which means that the team straight up owns him for another few years and really has all the leverage. Johansen came into the league on a standard entry-level contract three seasons ago and was an average player for two of those seasons. He had his breakout season last year and the kid wants to get paid. The team thinks he's holding them hostage and his agent is inflating his value. As of today, Johansen has not signed any of the offers that have been made, and the latest rumour has him leaving for Russia and a tax-exempt payday. Can't say I blame him...
Extortion? See above...
The Oilers have a similarly aged "star" player, a Defenceman named Justin Schultz who after two years in the league and a distinguished NCAA career was due for his own contract extension. As a group II RFA, the team basically has all of the power. The player cannot be signed to an offer sheet, nor can he take the team into a salary arbitration hearing (an ugly process that players and teams usually try to avoid at all costs). Instead of being completely obstinate, he took the best deal available to him and signed for a "ridiculous" $3.7 million dollar one year contract, a deal that the various talking heads around the league have routinely criticized as one of the worst deals of the summer, over-inflating his own perceived and real value and in effect driving up the going rate for similar group II RFA players in future years, which could be bad for the league. 

Let's think about this for a moment–bad for the league? A league where billionaires routinely extract surplus value from the citizens of the cities they live in, get all the tax breaks possible and have been recording record profits in the wake of not one but two labour lockouts? From where I sit, this is a great thing for the players in so many ways, especially as it pertains to calling out the bosses on their crap, but it begs the question of why players get paid millions to play a game in the first place. That is not the question we will answer today, however. We have other business to attend to.

This brings us back to Marx and the often-misunderstood concept of commodity fetishism. In order to really understand it, we need to first define what Marx means by a "commodity" in the first place:

1) A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production (Capital Vol. 1 Ch. 1).
2) A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses... There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom (Capital ch. 4 sec. 1).
So what does it all mean? Marx basically takes the position that commodities aren't just things abut rather the things that emerge from labour. In Estranged Labour, Marx even goes so far as to suggest that people themselves become commodities by the labour that they produce, and the more that is produced, the less value workers have in the world they create–they themselves become the commodities and their value only exists through their work. "Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general" (ECF 1844). 

In the context of our players and their contracts, they work for their wages, no matter how high or outrageous they seem, but they become constructed and expressed not as people but rather as the outcome of their labour. We speak of players as assets, discuss them in terms of cap hits and potential waiver wire acquisitions for our own enjoyment. And yet when one of these players actually tries to maximize their own value at the one point early in their careers (knowing that they might be one injury away from never playing again, let alone walking–the revolutionary act of asking for a raise! Shocking!), we are very quick to demonize the players for being greedy, for trying to extort the team. This feels like the very essence of what Marx called commodity fetishism.
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism, which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Capital ch. 4). 
An article came out today on another Oilers blog that takes this issue on in a very different way, but the author frames the issue rather well from the perspective of friendliness to the team: 
The following breaks down how team-friendly each stage of the career of a first overall pick (or any  other top prospect to make the team before their age 21 season) is: 
·       First three years: Entry-level deal, very team-friendly 
·       Fourth year: RFA without arbitration rights, somewhat team-friendly (Where we were at with Schultz and 'RyJo').
·       Fifth through seventh years: RFA with arbitration rights, increasingly unfriendly to teams
·       Eighth year through end of career: UFA, where teams pay through the nose

That such an article even needed to come out reifies this particular social relation, the way we perceive the needs of the team (producer, owner, means of production) vis-à-vis the player. The player's contracts and value to the producer is entirely inseparable from the player himself, the focus becomes the player's contract and his perceived value to the team, the league and our own consumption of the player-as-object. The argument that the other writer makes is essentially that players, who take long-term second contracts, recognizing the situation that they are in, ought to consider the team's overall salary structure and the percentage the player takes up while they enter these negotiations. But why should the players take these kinds of concerns into account? They are the ones who take the most risk, as they are the people producing the labour. The team is itself of course a larger commodity, but the players drive up the wealth, the use-value and surplus value of the team. Why shouldn't players be allowed to try and maximize their own benefits and ensure that other players of equal skill are compensated at the same level? Jon Willis at the other blog had this to say: 
It’s an objectively worse situation for player and team alike. The player deferred getting money to later instead of earlier; the team deferred paying money to when it needs every penny rather than spending it when it had cap space galore. Just for good measure, the relationship between the two parties has potentially been strained by an acrimonious negotiation over a bridge contract and possibly even arbitration once that contract ended.  It's a lose-lose. 
This lose-lose Willis describes is a classic case of false consciousness–no matter the result of the contract negotiation the players always lose. Even if they win in terms of the amount of money they have made, they still lose while the owners, generally speaking win almost every single time. Players are no longer people living in the world, they are mere objects for our own consumption and entertainment, assets to be bought and sold depending on the needs and whims of the owners. With commodity fetishism, Marx has very succinctly (for him...) captured the essential nature of all the ideological illusions of bourgeois society. In a league where Millionaires argue with Billionaires, they still end up on the short end of the stick.


Training camp notes: 

There appears to be a flock of actual good prospects as well as legitimate NHL players in camp this year, a welcome change given the relative dearth of talent outside of the big club, not to mention on the big club itself.

During a recent visit back to Kingston, I had the chance to watch the Annual Western Canadian prospects tournament with my now former housemate. Held in Penticton BC, the top rookies from Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver (spits!) and the city to the south that shall remain nameless and devoid of talent played a brief tournament, 3 games each in 4 days. It was a lot of fun to watch and the baby Oilers played very well. Highlights include our hulking twin towers up the middle, Leon Draisaitl and Bogdan (Big Bo) Yakimov. These kids are both under 20, over 6"3 and well in the 215lbs+ range. When they grow up they will be monsters and hopefully be around to lead the Oilers back to respectability. 

Tonight is the annual split squad games in Edmonton and Calgary. Of course the top prospects and players for each team tend to stay home, while the knuckle-draggers, coke machines and hired goons hit the road. It might not be the best hockey to watch, but hey, hockey is back, and not a minute too soon.

Go Oilers

SWS


On Bettman, relocation and value extraction: A guest post


An article appeared on Reddit recently that prompted this post's creation. Nothing seems to get people more interested in writing for this blog (if you're not me that is) than the stink of hypocrisy and bullshit that follows NHL commissioner Gary Bettman like the dust cloud that followed Pig Pen. With that in mind, I'd like to introduce our newest guest blogger, Mikhail Bjørge to the team. He doesn't like Gary very much and wants to tell the world why. This is actually somewhat appropriate given the temporary new mission statement of bringing back the glory (the teaching blog) given that Mikhail will also be giving a guest lecture in my class next week. Here we go: 



For the first time in recent memory, there has been some whining on the internet.  Gary Bettman recently said in regards to relocation rumours: "Nobody's moving. And speculation to the contrary not only is wrong, it's unfair to the team and their fans who are being speculated about."  The plural nature of "fans" in regards to the Panthers notwithstanding, I think people misunderstand the role of Bettman in the league. 

His goal, his only and sole goal, is to make the owners money.  Full stop.  He doesn't want to “grow the game” for the sake of growing the game–he wants to make the owners money.  He doesn't care about the "on-ice product," (suppressing vomit at the nomenclature), he wants to make the owners money.  Everything he does, negative or positive, is to make the owners money.  If the fans like it or not is purely incidental, he wants to make the owners money.  In the 'True Facts About the Gary Bettman', “that’s what the Gary do.” 

A big way Gary makes the owners money is by increasing the value of their teams, and there is no denying that he has done just that with aplomb.  One of the big reasons, if not the biggest reason, that teams have value is because of their potential for relocation, mainly to Canada.  Nobody is going to pay ~$1 billion dollars for a team that loses $10-30 million a year in the American south.  Those teams, in any reality, are worth between a few million and a few tens of millions if they cannot relocate.  They have no gate, they are hockey-revenue negative, and exist to excise rents from non-hockey related revenue (mainly the control of the arena, parking, and concession), all subsidized via revenue sharing and leeching off the local citizens via the local plutocrats/oligarchy.  These hockey-as-vector teams value lies in the potential for moving, and this is good for the league, because it keeps team values artificially inflated.


Now, all hockey teams cry poor.  Nearly every team claims they lose money.  It's almost ubiquitously bullshit.  Take the Edmonton Oilers, owned by Batman.  Katz claims that the Oil loses money, and on paper, that's probably true.  Their only revenue is the gate, and their expenditures are everything, from paying Rexall (Katz's pharmacy conglomerate) for naming rights on the (old) arena, to salaries to sundries - and teams are allowed to write off nearly anything as expenditure.  It should be a scandal, but it’s not.  Also, teams are private entities, their books are closed as fuck, so even trying to untangle the web of economic deceit is a nonstarter.  One doesn’t need to know the recipe to get the essentials on the palate.  The Oilers also own (through Katz Sports Entertainment) other teams that essentially lose money (like the OKC Barons, the primary farm team for the Oilers), appear to lose money, or are dormant, (like the local AA semi-pro baseball team).  All revenue streams are in other, non-KSE numbered corporations.  This is classic Hollywood accounting, maximize paper losses and minimize paper revenue.  Collect losses onto the team, externalize profits into the non-team, and extract concessions from differing levels of government.  The idiots in Edmonton bought his bullshit, and subsidized his team to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in a new arena/arena area/buildings/Wealth Extraction Devices for a local billionaire. 

(Editor's note: this new arena of course had its naming rights conveniently purchased by Rogers, putting more profit into the hands of the billionaire we call Batman rather than back into the hands of the good denizens of Edmonton that subsidized its construction–the same Rogers group that just purchased control of the NHL media network in Canada.)

The thing is, some teams actually lose money, even with revenue sharing.  And these teams are bad for the league.  They cost owners money, because owners have to prop them up.  The NHL isn't the NFL; self-socialism-for-the-rich (really, a boss-owned cooperative) only works if everyone is making decent money. Then it improves the product and produces equity which makes owners money.  This is not the case in the NHL.  There are very weak teams in incredibly weak markets, and this is not going to change going into the future.  One could put a successful NFL team in Toronto, we have collectively seen that one cannot put a successful NHL franchise in deserts and tropical swamps.  One can’t create fandom.  A professional cricket team would fail in Phoenix, no matter how much the Cricket Commissioner talked about its intrinsic stability.

Florida is actually safer than people believe, as it's really only a vector for Sunrise Sports and Entertainment to make money from the venue. As long as that holds, the Panthers are not in terrible danger to move.  The same cannot be said for Arizona, Carolina, and to a slightly lesser extent, Nashville.  Even with Florida’s sweetheart deal, the owners cannot overlook the fact that if they moved to Quebec City, they could move, then immediately flip the team to Quebecor for an easy quarter-billion dollar profit, go back and buy half of Florida, and live the rest of their lives as the parasitic shit-lords they are, but with less stress and exponentially more little tiny umbrellas in tropically coloured drinks. 

Speaking of making obscene profits, there are basically three-and-a-half markets that are salivating ATMs for the rich.  Toronto, Hamilton, and Quebec City, and possibly Seattle if a billionaire tech parasite could be found to be a hockey fan, or at least a basketball fan that tolerates the cold. (We're looking at you, Steve Ballmer, especially if your bid to buy the Clippers collapses under the weight of all that litigation).  I’m leaving Las Vegas out here, because the team wouldn’t be purchased to create a fan base, it would be created as a “draw,” probably by a conglomerate of casinos, and 100% of the tickets would be comps.  It’s a differing situation for this analysis (although it exists within the same capitalist parameters).  A team could conceivably be purchased for $110-$130 million, which is fair market value for a business that is ostensibly deep in the red, and moved in the middle of the night, Baltimore  Indianapolis Colts style. Throw in a $60 million "relocation fee" (bribe) to the owners, and voila, hockey moves to a market that wants it. The problem is, that's a fuck of a lot less than ~$1 billion, which is where the bidding would go for another Toronto team, and ~$300M-~$700M for Quebec/Hamilton.

Relocation fees and expansion tickets are pure profit for the owners. Under the CBA, the players see literally nothing from them - except the headaches of an expansion draft or the pain of relocation.  Bettman exists to make the owners money, and expansion is more profitable for the owners than relocation. However, the owners do not have unlimited patience, and propping up unprofitable (under whatever rubric) teams while there are potential wealth extraction units is leaving money on the table.  What will probably end up happening, despite the relocation/expansion economic juxtaposition, is that two nonperforming teams will move to Seattle and Quebec, and the deep pockets in Toronto and Las Vegas (one corporate, one wealthy family) will pay an insane fee for a new franchise. This is the plan the makes the owners the most money, and that’s Gary’s job, so that’s probably the plan. They can’t say that, because then the teams are worth nothing, and that wouldn’t make the owners money. But anyone with any business acumen can see that the plan will not look substantially different. This will lead to league-wide stability, and huge profits for the owners going forwards. Bettman exists to make the owners money, and he will.

For more on profit scoundrelism see:

And finally, for more on the CBA and revenue sharing, this is essential reading: 

Go Oilers!