Spector: Nicholson a money hire for Oilers

With Bob Nicholson joining the Edmonton Oilers' front office, Gene Principe runs down all the ways it will help the franchise that has been starved for wins over recent years.

EDMONTON — They’re not just hockey teams anymore. They’re “entertainment groups.” Or, in the case of Bob Nicholson’s new baby here in Northern Alberta, the “Oilers Entertainment Group.”

We can’t just call the company the Toronto Maple Leafs anymore. It’s Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Which kind of makes Nicholson, the longtime CEO of Hockey Canada, Edmonton’s Tim Leiweke, right?

Well, not quite. It’s too easy, Patrick Laforge said Friday, to simply call the EOG an Edmonton version of MLSE.

“Similar in some aspects, but significantly different in that MLSE is a large corporate organization with three large shareholders and a very powerful board,” Laforge, the new president and chief operating officer of EOG, explained. “My view of our organization is, we don’t have that restriction and governance over how and what we do. That’s significantly different in the culture.

“This is about vision. It’s Daryl [Katz’s] vision, and the our… execution. I think in that regard, it’s a significantly different culture.”

In short, Toronto is big-city corporate, while Edmonton is still a mom-and-pop shop by comparison. And these guys are banking on the fact that decisions will be made more quickly here, there will be less red tape, and a mom-and-pop shop in Edmonton will do just fine, thanks, over the long haul.

Nicholson leaves Hockey Canada to take the seat right below Oilers owner Daryl Katz, the reclusive pharmaceutical magnate who, once again, was not present at a major Katz Group announcement Friday. Kevin Lowe will sit atop the hockey department, Laforge atop the business side, and each will answer to Nicholson.

Nicholson, who has been president of Hockey Canada since 1998, is all about the business side here in Edmonton, make no mistake about that. This move is about making Katz money. It doesn’t make the Oilers any worse on the ice, but it doesn’t necessarily make them any better there either.

“It’s going to be a big vision,” Nicholson said. “We’ll look at all the different opportunities to bring this organization to another level.”

The newly formed OEG owns the Oilers, the MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings, the American Hockey League’s Oklahoma Barons, the East Coast Hockey League Bakersfield Condors, a dormant minor league baseball team in Edmonton, plus Aquila Productions, an award-winning production house in town. Oh, and it’s building Rogers Place (with plenty of tax dollars), a brand-new downtown arena the group promises will be “the best arena in the world” when it opens in the fall of 2016.

Surrounding that rink will be an arena district consisting of office towers, a hotel, restaurants, residential units and more. And when it opens, the new arena will be a state-of-the-art draw for music and entertainment acts — all of which will fall somewhere into Nicholson’s bailiwick.

“We can take this new organization to another level. This is going to be a lot bigger pie as we grow it. We want this to be a world-class sports and entertainment [entity].”

Nicholson made his name in this business behind the red maple leaf. On Friday, he joined one of 30 NHL teams, in one of Canada’s smaller markets at that.

“Every time you put on the Canadian jersey, you had the whole country [behind you],” he said. “Now it’s really going to be focused on Edmonton and Alberta. There’s such passion in this city for hockey, I see it as the same.”

The question then becomes, Can any of this be a success so long as the team on the ice — the first letter in OEG — is still mired at the bottom of the standings?

“We’re all together on this: The team has to get better, and it will get better,” Nicholson promised. “With the personnel they’re putting in place, we’ll be patient with the team, but we’ll keep the fans informed with where we’re going with all of our sports organizations, and on the business side.”

Folks here are already wondering whether the OEG follows MLSE’s lead and starts acquiring more local sports content. Does the local soccer team, FC Edmonton, entice OEG as a property? What about the Canadian Football League Eskimos, a cash cow that has been community-owned here since 1949?

All valid questions, but on this day — Day 1 of the OEG — details were scarce. Nicholson has bitten off a big piece here, sure. But is it any bigger than running Canada’s Olympic hockey team?

Now, if only he could poach some of that talent, he’d be the best hire the Oilers ever made.

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