I started working for the Chicago Blackhawks well into the 1999-2000 season. The Hawks were not a playoff team, but in the second half of the season the team played above .500.
A week before the trade deadline, another GM called and said: “I have just the player for you to get you into the playoffs.”
My response was: “Why will he get us into the playoffs, but he can’t get your team there?”
I had dealt with this GM for more than 10 years. My experience with him was to listen, but not to take him too seriously. We had never made a trade. I certainly was not going to fall for that line. Besides, the player he wanted from us was younger, more skilled and bigger – otherwise known as a “keeper” for the Hawks.
The point is, in my opinion, nothing replaces experience when you’re a GM. The same holds true for the management staff. Every season has a similar yet different rhythm to it. When things are bleak and look even darker going forward, the vultures tend to come out. Listening to them can be deadly. Experience tells you: “Don’t listen.”
The organization that epitomizes experience at the upper management level is Detroit. The Red Wings have clearly been the dominant franchise over the last 20 years. Four Stanley Cups, in ‘97, ‘98, ‘02 and ’08, and 18-straight playoff years reflect their success.
Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the Red Wings in June of 1982. Not only have they built a franchise that looked for and kept experienced people, they have also placed emphasis on stability. The NHL, like other major leagues, all too often makes changes prematurely, often in a panic.
Let’s look at the Red Wings’ combination of experience and stability:
• Jim Devellano was the first GM hired by the Ilitch family in 1982. Twenty-seven years later, he’s still there. This is his 42nd year in the NHL. He played a major role in the construction of the New York Islanders dynasty in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
• Ken Holland is starting his 12th season as GM and his 26th in the organization. A former American League goaltender, he began his post-playing career as an amateur scout, progressed to director of scouting, then assistant GM and, in 1998, GM.
• Jim Nill is entering his 11th season as assistant GM and 15th with the Red Wings. He has a background both as an amateur and pro scout and also served as GM of Team Canada at the 2004 world championships.
• Steve Yzerman, beginning his third season as vice-president. This is his 26th year with the club. He has twice served as GM of Team Canada at the world championships.
• Scotty Bowman, though now with the Chicago Blackhawks, joined the Red Wings in 1993 as coach. His NHL coaching career began in 1967 with the St. Louis Blues and he’s won 12 Stanley Cups in his career. He stayed on as a consultant with the Wings following his retirement from coaching in 2002.
The critical fact is all of these men had jobs in which they had to make crucial decisions.
Being a coach, a director of scouting or a GM of a national team requires decision-making. Mistakes are made. But to grow, you need to learn from the mistakes. Nothing will happen during the season this management group has not seen before. Their years of experience have brought them sound judgment.
Not all ownerships follow the Detroit path. I like the Detroit model, but the new ownerships in Tampa Bay and Vancouver have looked to player agents – Brian Lawton and Mike Gillis – to be their hockey leaders. Both have limited, if any, team management experience. This is not to say they will not be successful. After all, it is hard to criticize the job Pierre Lacroix – a former agent – did with the Colorado Avalanche.
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the ’81, ’94 and ’95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.