What Makes a Successful NHL General Manager?

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Finding a leader for a $445 million hockey team doesn’t happen overnight.

Montreal Canadiens owner and CEO Geoff Molson spent over a month carefully trimming a list of approximately 20 candidates before finally finding the man he hopes can rebuild the historic franchise.

“We were looking for a candidate with very strong leadership capability, great communication skills at all levels, and someone with a clear determination and commitment to winning,” Molson said earlier this month after introducing Marc Bergevinas the 17th General Manager in Canadiens history.

Bergevin moves into the Montreal top job after serving as Assistant General Manager for the Chicago Blackhawks last season.  He also brings a wealth of hockey experience to the position with nearly 1,200 games played and job titles dotting his resume such as a scout, assistant coach, and Director of Player Personnel.

But will Bergevin have success in the pressure-cooker hockey market of Montreal?

Few have taken the time to study hockey management like Jason Farris, author of Behind the Moves: NHL General Managers Tell How Winners Are Built.  Farris spent 18 months traveling across North America to speak at length with every living GM who had taken a team to the Stanley Cup Final.  His 252-page book is the byproduct of those discussions and gives unprecedented insight into what makes these iconic GM’s tick.

Farris is a jack-of-all-trades.  He’s currently an Executive Vice President with the Dallas Stars, but has also served as CEO of Citizens Bank of Canada, Vice President of software company Fincentric, and earned degrees in political science, physics, and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  He’s seen leadership in action (and destruction) across a number of industries and his interest in hockey motivated him to study what really makes a successful General Manager.

Network and Information-Gathering

The key to any successful hockey executive is his network. Unlike CEO’s of companies in the Fortune 500, NHL GM’s aren’t poached from other industries with the lure of excessive pay.  Like Bergevin, most GM’s have spent decades playing, scouting, coaching, and managing their way up the hockey food chain.  Along the way, they’ve stared across the ice or the bargaining table at many of their peers who now lead other organizations.

“I think hockey is a unique industry in the sense that the interconnectedness between GM’s does not exist between leaders in other industries,” says Farris.  “These guys are competing so hard against one another, but the reality is it’s a closed industry.  There are 30 teams and they all have to cooperate to succeed.  If you’re the leader of Wells Fargo, you don’t necessarily have to cooperate with your top two of three competitors.”

The lifetime these men spend building their networks and interacting with peers in various roles also gives them access to insight that helps guide their decision-making.

“At the core, the GM’s are in the information business,” Farris says.  “If they can access information from all over the world ahead of other teams, they can gain an advantage.  If they’re bringing a player in, they want to have a good read on the situation that the player is coming from and how he might impact the locker room, in addition to his on-ice abilities.”

Decision-Making and Structure

Filtering and calibrating that information effectively is also critical to management success.  Farris’ book documents the evolution of the front office from a time when it contained just a General Manager, head scout and secretary, to the extensive modern-day hockey operations department.

“You don’t really have the all-singing, all-dancing GM anymore,” Farris explains.  “Most GM’s come off a certain experience track so who they surround themselves with is very important.  I think the ability to complement their skills with people who can challenge the decision-making and brings new ideas to the table is really critical.”

Farris says that Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman, is a perfect example of the administrator/delegator that effectively manages a network of talented associates.  It shouldn’t be a coincidence that the NHL’s last two GM hires were spawned from the Bowman front office.  Both Bergevin and current Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Chevaldayoff played prominent roles in the Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup run.

One of Bergevin’s most important tasks in Montreal this summer will be deciding how to structure his organization.

“I’m just a piece to the puzzle,” he said, giving the sense he plans to adopt Bowman’s cohesive strategy.  “We’re all going to do this together.  It’s about teamwork.  I’m not scared of things I don’t know because I’m going to make sure I surround myself with the people who can help me make the right decisions.   I’ll take all the responsibility for my decisions, but it’s a team effort and we’ll work together.”

Controlling the flow of information and using it to drive internal decision-making is critical to success, but no optimal method exists that automatically translates to Stanley Cups.

New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello, currently the NHL’s longest-tenured GM, takes a very different approach than Bowman.  Instead of encouraging cooperation and teamwork amongst his staff, he creates information silos to eliminate the groupthink mentality.

“Lou purposely keeps certain people away from each other on the scouting and hockey operations staff,” Farris says.  “He’ll say ‘look, the most important thing for you to do is X, go do it’ and he won’t tell anyone else what that guy might be doing because he wants to protect the integrity of the information.”

Identity

Lamoriello not only has complete control over the information flow within his organization, but he’s also known for his surly and reclusive PR presence.  Farris explains that while the secretive approach may not appeal to fans or journalists who crave up-to-the-minute information, it’s a strategy that works.  The Devils have made the playoffs 14 of the past 15 seasons.

“By doing what he does, Lou is reinforcing his stamp on the team that ‘it’s us against the world and everybody else is trying to gain an advantage on us’.  That can be extremely influential and I think that’s what the successful GM’s do.  They put a unique stamp or identity on their team.”

On the other end of the PR spectrum from Lamoriello is Toronto’s Brian Burke, who can be just as surly at times but seems to bask in the media spotlight.  Burke insists on being the face of the franchise and has clearly defined what he expects from his team on the ice.  Mention the adjectives ‘truculence’ and ‘sandpaper’ to any Toronto hockey fan and he or she will know you’re describing a “Burke type of player”.

Toronto has also built their organization around the power of ‘Big Blue’.  As a GM in a constrained salary capped system, it’s important to create capacity for yourself.  Maple Leafs ownership has given Burke the green light to outspend almost every team in the NHL when it comes to off-ice luxuries.

“Toronto has the best practice facility, a dedicated goalie coach, a player development staff, a scouting staff of 35 when most teams might have 20,” Farris says.  “You’re limited in what you can spend in player salaries, but they’re outspending everyone off the ice to try and create a competitive advantage.”

In Pittsburgh, the home of high-priced superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, GM Ray Shero creates capacity for himself by also striving to provide players and their families with the best possible experience.

“Ray lobbied ownership on his way into the job [in 2006] to have money in the budget to provide team services that would create an environment that’s healthy and attractive for players to come to,” Farris says.

The healthy environment has allowed Shero to retain many of his star players at discounted salaries and also attract quality free agents who hear glowing reviews from their peers.

It can take years for a GM to build and solidify an organizational identity, but Bergevin has already made it a point to reconnect with the unique French Canadian fanbase in Montreal.

“The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is here in our backyard,” Bergevin said at his introductory press conference.  “My vision is to put people in place to make sure we don’t miss guys from Quebec.  The goal is to win, but there are good Quebec players all around the league and we’ll do the best we can not to miss them.”

Innovation

Identity can even be defined through innovation.  Burke’s charisma and personality compels others in the organization to follow his lead — perhaps a softer side of innovation — but others like Mike Gillis in Vancouver are more surgical in their approach.

“Mike has taken a lot of flak for how he’s gone about touting his innovation,” Farris says, “but whether it’s sleep doctors or nutritional studies, he’s been determined to be an independent thinker.”

Farris even wonders whether the interconnectedness of the NHL GM’s discourages independent thinking and hinders front office progress.  Billy Beane and his ‘Moneyball’ approach forever changed the way baseball is managed, but what if his Athletics hadn’t won 20 straight games and the AL West Division title?  Would Beane have gone down as just another GM with a goofy idea that didn’t work?

The biggest challenge for any GM like Bergevin in a hockey-crazy market is managing the expectations of the fanbase.  Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said Bergevin plans to “build his team for long-term success through player procurement and development,” but Farris says the pressures of losing can force even the best leaders to question their methods.

“Once you lose your way and you’re very quickly in the back end of a five-year contract, you start taking quick hits to try to make up and things can unravel quickly,” he says.

“Maybe an unsuccessful GM will be swayed by the need to sell tickets and keep a long-time player, or hire a friend of his in the front office that may not be the best fit.  Nobody will ever identify these little things as the seeds to destruction.  We don’t document that.  They just go down at the guys that didn’t win.”

**All images courtesy of US Presswire**

2 Comments

  1. Interesting says:

    Great read.

    I think GMs are starting to realize that off ice luxuries will give you a competitive advantage – especially when it comes to signing players at discounts, and attracting UFA’s.

    Gillis is the most unique to me. He’s probably the best combination of Lamoriello, Burke and Shero.

    He has a group of advisers (unlike Lou), but keeps internal information solied out from the outside. You rarely hear of trades before they happen, in fact you never do. You never hear internal details of contract etc. He keeps a lid on the flow of information, but makes sure he surrounds himself with people who he can talk to.

    He also has created this unique off ice culture. One that includes a high degree of charity work in the community, and provides off ice luxuries for families and players. The sleep dr.s, nutrionists, these odd private rooms in the dressing rooms that no one will talk about, personal skills coaches etc.

    Like Burke, he’s the face of the franchise and readily available for media interviews. He doesn’t divulge tons of information, but he’s always available to the media – so fans can hear what’s going on and feel informed.

    He’s definitely done something right, cause he’s got a roster full of players who’ve taken discounts to stay and play there – more than any other NHL team.

  2. Pingback: Big Market Success Should Be Determinative | Overtime

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