NEW YORK – When Bob Nicholson stepped down as president and CEO of Hockey Canada in May, he made it clear he was looking for another challenge. Well, if that was his desire, he certainly found one. And while the Edmonton Oilers have had all kinds of trouble attracting big free agents for their on-ice product, they appear to have succeeded in landing the most prized free agent hockey executive in the world.
A TSN report has been confirmed by thn.com that the Oilers have a news conference scheduled for Friday in which they are expected to announce that Nicholson has been hired to be CEO of Rexall Sports, which owns the Edmonton Oilers. As first reported on Twitter by thn.com Wednesday night, Nicholson chose the Oilers over offers from the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks. It’s believed the Capitals offered the most money, but the challenge of being a part of rebuilding the Oilers on the ice appealed to Nicholson.
When reached by thn.com Thursday night, Oilers president and chief operating officer Patrick LaForge decline to offer any specifics on the appointment. “It will be a good day,” LaForge said. “There won’t be too many changes.”
The Oilers are obviously hoping the golden touch Nicholson showed with Hockey Canada will rub off on their organization on and off the ice. As it stands, the business side of the operation is run very aptly by LaForge, who has been a driving force behind the financial success of the team and the push to have a new arena built and opened in time for the 2016-17 season. The hockey side of the franchise is currently headed by former Oiler defenseman and GM Kevin Lowe, who is president of hockey operations.
As CEO, Nicholson would above both LaForge and Lowe on the organization’s flow chart and will essentially be owner Daryl Katz’s right-hand man on the sports side. The Oilers also own the Memorial Cup-champion Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western League, as well as the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL.
Nicholson’s biggest strength is as a consensus builder who makes a habit of surrounding himself with very good people. On the business side, his dealings with Hockey Canada have him on speed dial with basically every major corporate sponsor in Canada. When it comes to hockey, his involvement with Canada’s national teams and the International Ice Hockey Federation make him a major player in the hockey world.
So Nicholson won’t immediately have an impact on the Oilers woeful performance on the ice or at the draft table, but there’s little doubt he will eventually put his imprint on the hockey department. Where that leaves the much-maligned Lowe is unknown at this point, but it’s not expected he’ll be leaving the Oilers in the short-term. The Oilers are in desperate need of a better on-ice product, having been among the league’s bottom feeders since going to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. Because of their poor finishes, the Oilers have built up a stable of young talent with high draft picks, but do not have any players in their mid- to late 20s to show the young players what it takes to win. And beyond the obvious ability to pick high-end talent with top three picks, the Oilers have a rather abysmal draft record.
Off the ice, the Oilers have consistently been healthy revenue producers since the 2004-05 lockout and construction has already begun on a $480 million downtown arena that will be home to the team in two years.
But Katz did not endear himself to many taxpayers in Edmonton in his pleas for public money to pay for the project and several times almost scuttled the project. In 2012, Katz travelled to Seattle with former Oiler icon Wayne Gretzky and toured the KeyArena to determine whether it could serve as a temporary home for the Oilers if the arena deal fell through, pushing Katz to relocate the team. He also proposed a drop-dead date for a deal to be done, moves that were seen as an attempt by Katz, whose personal worth is about $2 billion, to get more concessions out of Edmonton City Council. Katz later apologized for the trip to Seattle.
Nicholson, with both his contacts and track record for success in putting management teams together for Hockey Canada, could be the panacea the Oilers need on both sides of the business. One thing is for sure, Nicholson was in demand and getting him was a major coup for them.