TORONTO – Growing up with hockey in his blood, Kyle Dubas learned an important lesson from his grandfather.
“Never let the grass grow under your feet. Keep moving,” Walter Dubas told his grandson.
Dubas has lived that mantra, from his early days when he worked as an OHL stick boy to this week when he was named assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the age of 28.
“I’ve been pretty lucky along the way,” Dubas said. “I’ve been able to have opportunities open up … and then try to make the most of those opportunities every day.”
But to reach this point as one of the youngest assistant GMs in NHL history, the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native has needed more than luck.
“He’s a natural,” said Todd Reynolds, who hired Dubas as an agent at Uptown Sports Management eight years ago. “He’s likable, he’s got a great personality. He’s smart, he knows the game, he loves it. He just soaks it up 24/7.”
When the Leafs take the ice next season, they could have 10 players older than their prodigy of an assistant general manager. Upon hiring him, president Brendan Shanahan made it clear he didn’t care about age—he was looking for a “rising star.”
“I just think that this is somebody that it wasn’t going to be long before somebody else snatched him up,” Shanahan said, “and we feel very lucky that we were able to get him.”
Dubas didn’t become a hot commodity overnight.
Like a lot of Canadian kids, he had what his father, Mark, called “an early beginning” in the sport. Mark, a police officer in Sault Ste. Marie, coached him a bit when he was very young, but his love of game mostly came from grandfather. Walter Dubas coached the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, then a Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League franchise, from 1962 to ’68.
“He was his grandfather’s best friend,” said Dubas’s grandmother Marietta. “They spent a lot of time together and it was all about hockey.”
When the Greyhounds’ equipment manager asked Mark if he knew any kids who might want to help out, Kyle jumped at the opportunity. Time management wasn’t a problem for him even in grade school, when he wrote out charts for what he was going to study and when he could take breaks.
“Even when he was a stick boy with the Greyhounds he’d bring his homework to the rink,” his dad recalled. “If Sunday was game day I’d have to bring him there for like 8 o’clock in the morning so they could things ready for the morning skate, and then he would stay there all day and be looking at stats and all kinds of stuff.”
Once the game was over, Marietta waited outside the rink to drive him home while he did the laundry and cleaned the dressing room. That was all in his spare time when he wasn’t going to school, studying or playing hockey.
Concussions—one in bantam and then what Mark called a little reoccurence at school—cut short Dubas’s playing career. But those close to him knew he wouldn’t be discouraged.
“You could tell early on his passion was to be involved in the management side of hockey. You could tell right away,” said former Greyhounds GM and coach Craig Hartsburg, who Dubas cited as a major influence in his career. “He would come into my office after a practice or before a practice and we’d just chat and just talk about the game, we’d talk about our players. And for a young man, he had such a mature outlook of life but also the game of hockey, it was amazing.”
A hockey operations assistant at 14, Dubas got scouting duties at 17 and continued them in St. Catharines, Ont., where he studied sports management at Brock University. He began working at Uptown Sports while still in school because Reynolds said Dubas came highly recommended from a half-dozen people he talked to around hockey.
Putting hundreds of thousands of kilometres on his car, Dubas had the willingness to be an agent and the likable, trustworthy character and personality.
“He’s not a bulldozer,” Reynolds said. “He doesn’t just (say), ‘It’s my way and this is the way it’s going to be.’ He considers other opinions and other experiences.”
When Kyle opened offices in Europe as an agent, Marietta wondered if the family would ever see him again back home.
“I never thought we would,” she said. “I thought he’d just keep moving on.”
Spurred by what Reynolds called “disappointments”—clients defecting to other agents—and recruited by the Greyhounds, Dubas changed careers at 25 to become one of the youngest GMs in OHL history. Marietta said her grandson dealt with accusations of nepotism because his grandfather used to coach the team, and Shanahan recalled conversations with Dubas in which he talked about the criticism he received locally during a rough first season on the job.
Shanahan, who endured similar hate during his first season in charge of NHL player safety, could empathize.
In his second year as Greyhounds GM, Dubas hired Sheldon Keefe as coach, despite Keefe’s checkered past as a player in the OHL. That move earned Dubas “significant admiration” from commissioner David Branch, whom he consulted before hiring Keefe.
“He wanted to know if I had any concerns or issues given some of the elements that Sheldon faced when he was a youngster playing in our league,” Branch said. “Through that I saw the work he had done to make sure he was making the right decision, and he certainly led me to believe that he took every opportunity to make sure Sheldon was the right person. He really stepped outside the box to do that.”
In Sault Ste. Marie, Branch said Dubas fostered an environment based on challenging the status quo. The result on the ice was back-to-back playoff appearances.
Off the ice, the Greyhounds trumpet Dubas’s transformation of their academic program and what president Lou Lukenda called “mammoth contributions” in the business department. Keefe credited much of that, and the team’s success, to Dubas and his “relentless pursuit for knowledge.”
“He is constantly challenging himself to learn, he’s constantly challenging others around him to learn, and I certainly benefited from that,” Keefe said. “It’s not limited to just the hockey: It’s in business, it’s in all other sports, it’s in life in general. He is a person that just challenges himself every single day to get better and is never satisfied.”
In Sault Ste. Marie, Dubas honed his appreciation for advanced statistics by blending them with the old-fashioned hockey culture and know-how he grew up with. Even after three years he conceded that mix was far from perfect.
“You have to eliminate some of the noise and present the data or the information that’s going to best help the team in whatever regard that is,” Dubas said. “It’s taking what I know works and then incorporating that into the whole team structure and knowing that you’re dealing with a number of subjective pieces to the puzzle.”
Reading stories about Dubas’s new job on her iPad, Marietta knew the Leafs were looking for some new blood. But she believed his history with his grandfather, who died in 2012 at the age of 83, will ensure that “some of the old things will stay with him, too.”
Reynolds and Branch were quick to say it was unfair to label Dubas as just an analytics guy. Dubas noted his “affinity” for the advanced metrics that are in the process of reshaping how hockey is evaluated but added that he didn’t run his team based on them.
Being able to find a balance made Dubas into the kind of innovator Shanahan was looking to talk to as he embarked on his first few months as an NHL executive. Branch, who got to know Dubas more through work on a couple of OHL committees, gave Shanahan the recommendation that led him down the path to hiring him.
In getting to know Dubas himself, Shanahan learned what many over the past two decades knew: that he loved to talk about and debate hockey.
“I probably was expecting to have a two-hour meeting with him, and we spoke for seven hours the first time we met in Toronto,” Shanahan said. “I finally begged him to let me take him to dinner because I was starving. He just had a lot of energy. He was challenging some of my own ideas and some of my own thoughts and I was challenging some of his. He seemed to enjoy that banter, and I enjoyed that.”
Dubas’s father and grandmother aren’t surprised how fast his star has risen. But it’s not a business built for young men in a hurry, which makes his fast track all the more fascinating.
“I think that overall hockey, if it can be guilty of anything over the years, it’s that we’ve been so slow to change and evolve and meet the needs of the players, of our fans, of the game and how it’s played,” Branch said. “Kyle is a new-age person. He’s not alone in this, we’re fortunate that we’re seeing more and more people who are prepared to step forward and make change and not just for the sake of change.”
One day, Dubas could be one of the youngest GMs in NHL, whether it’s with the Leafs or another team. By then, no one will be surprised at his rapid progress.
“He knew exactly where he wanted to be and where he wanted to go, and he still does,” Marietta said. “There’s been no changes in him. In his own polite way, very quiet, he does his own thing and then you learn from him. You can learn something from him every day.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter