THN’s Adam Proteau recently spoke at length with two NHL rookies of a different kind: new Phoenix Coyotes co-owner and governor George Gosbee and Detroit Red Wings GM Jim Nill.
For THN’s new Rookie Issue, we spoke with two rookies of the league. But they’re not players. One is a new owner and the other a new GM.
George Gosbee is one of nine co-owners of the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as its executive chairman and governor.
The Hockey News: When the ratification process ends and you’re confirmed as the Coyotes’ new owners, do you celebrate?
George Gosbee: We were more excited when we (agreed to) the deal with the NHL, because it was a long process with many ups and downs. The end of that grind was what we were looking forward to. Once that was completed, it became about hockey, which was what we always wanted.
THN: In my experience covering the Coyotes’ ownership story over the years, a number of people refer to the fact the arena isn’t in Phoenix proper as an issue. How do you see that being a factor?
GG: We’ve always been cognizant of it. One of the great things is the arena. And there’s a large metropolitan base and a huge number of Canadians there. We’re not going to be able to change the distance; we’re going to be able to do a bunch of things, maybe look at some transportation. But it’s about building a winning organization. If we’re successful, we’ll get more fans out to see other Coyotes games and not just their favorite old hometown team’s game. And we’re starting to see that. Growing up in Canada and being part of hockey and seeing how successful the Flames have been since they came over from Atlanta, we realized that what we do as owners off the ice is a partnership with what the team does on the ice. We have to both win on that. So we have to look at a lot of revenue areas, a lot of building aspects of what we do off the ice. And I think once we do all that, we’ll see more fans out during winning seasons and losing seasons. I’m confident of that.
THN: Your ownership group has prevented the team from being relocated. I wonder if that’s one of the most rewarding parts of owning the team – talking to fans at games and on Twitter who are relieved the team is staying.
GG: Absolutely, and I’m enjoying being on Twitter and having that interaction with fans. Those fans had years of ups and downs, losing years and ‘Is your team going to be here next week/next month/next year?’ They stuck with it and that’s been the biggest surprise – just how hardcore those fans are. I’d say there’s about 7,000 of them and…when you feel their energy, that, to me has been one of the most rewarding aspects. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t have felt the same, but thanks to Twitter, I’m feeling a lot more a part of them. And they provide a lot of good ideas, too.
THN: As the team’s governor, you’ve participated in your first Board of Governors meetings. What surprised you the most as an outsider going into that process?
GG: I think what surprised me was how tight the group was. I should’ve expected that. It’s really a big partnership amongst all the other owners. Very like-minded guys had a common interest in making the league successful and not just their team. There was this feeling that they owned part of the NHL, not their team. It’s very team-orientated type of meeting, and guys were very open, making phone calls before and afterwards, sharing their information. It almost reminds me of the oil and gas industry, where we’re really competitive because we’re trying to access property and capital, but at the same time oil and gas companies have to partner with each other. It’s the same type of feeling as the Board of Governors meeting. I was really pleased with it.
THN: Is there someone you’ve been starstruck by since becoming involved with the league?
GG: You mean other than Gary Bettman? (laughs.) No, it was nice that I knew a few of the owners, and I’ve got to know a lot of players in the NHL over the years, some of who have become really close friends. So I feel comfortable in the group, comfortable with everyone. And to be honest with you, Gary has made it that much easier for me to be part of the group and I appreciate that, even though we had our ups and downs during the deal.
THN: The management team you have in place is incredibly respected around the league. With stable ownership, do you get the sense they’re rejuvenated?
GG: I think so. Coming into this process, we talked a lot to Don Maloney, Dave Tippett and even Shane Doan. We told them we were going to keep a low profile, but wanted to keep communicating. And so I think we established a pretty good trust early days. We have a lot of faith in Don Maloney and Dave Tippett and Brad Treiliving and we made it pretty well-known to the league that we signed on because we have a lot of faith in them. So that relationship has been great. We want to stay out of their kitchen. We know we don’t have the skills to go in and tell Tips or tell Don what to do. We work within our parameters and that allows Don to go out and focus on the hockey; we try to do everything successfully off the ice to try and give them more tools further down the road. To be honest, it feels like Don and I have been partners for 10 years. The relationship has been outstanding.
THN: Another CBA process concluded at the start of this year. Did you need to wait until a labor deal was closer to completion to really sink your teeth into the parameters of it and what it would mean to the sale of the Coyotes, or were you being appraised of that throughout the process?
GG: I don’t think anybody was jumping into purchasing an NHL team before the process or during the process. I think everybody had to wait to see what the outcome was. As owners, we’re really bullish on the NHL – on the direction it’s going, on the revenue growth, on the fan base. When you look at any industry, we’re bullish on where the league is going. What the collective bargaining agreement did was give us a lot of confidence that this was really, truly going to be a partnership in the league. So we felt like we were actually buying one-thirtieth of the NHL and managing an asset in Phoenix, as opposed to owning the Phoenix Coyotes and being part of a league. And that was the big difference for us. So far, everything has worked out – knock on wood – and has been better than expected.
THN: The Coyotes have gotten off to a very good start and that makes their fans happy, but are these next five years going to be as much about reinforcing the base and support for the franchise as it will be about pushing full-steam ahead for a Stanley Cup immediately?
GG: I think it’s about building a long-term winning organization. We want a team where players actually want to come and play for us. We want a team fans want to come out and cheer and be proud they’re cheering for this team. We want to create a winning culture and that’s not going to happen overnight. I appreciate the fact we’ve performed well early on, but it’s a long season and we’re in a tough division. We signed a 12-year television deal. We signed a 15-year food-and-beverage deal. We want to create a winning organization and there’s no reason we can’t create something some of the other teams have – not just in this league, but in some of the other leagues we’re trying to emulate. It would be great to win it all every season, but we know that’s not going to happen. But if we can establish that winning culture, that’s what our longer-term plan is. We’d love to be known as one of the top franchises in the league going forward.
Jim Nill was a longtime assistant GM with Detroit before becoming Stars GM in May of this year.
The Hockey News: You’re a veteran NHL management member, but you’re a rookie GM in Dallas. Are there elements of the job that you’re experiencing for the first time?
Jim Nill: When it comes down to it, we had to build the whole front office, so you feel a bit like a rookie that way.
THN: What’s been the biggest challenge for you? Is it implementing that Detroit mentality where success is expected regardless of the circumstances?
JN: Yeah, that’s what we talked about when I got the job. It’s about being an “everyday’er”. It’s about doing everything right, every day, to give yourself the best chance to win. It’s spending an extra 20 minutes before or after practice; it’s getting your rest; it’s going to the gym after practice instead of going for lunch right away. That was the mentality we had in Detroit. A young player sits next to Steve Yzerman. Pavel Datsyuk sits next to (Igor) Larionov. (Niklas) Kronwall sits next to (Nick) Lidstrom. It’s creating that environment where the dressing room almost takes over the team.
THN: The GM’s job is usually so all-encompassing, delegation becomes crucial. Is that true for you, too?
JN: It’s the key to your success. That’s one thing I learned from Jim Devellano and Ken Holland: you have to hire the right people. I talked to my staff about this the other day: the real reward is going to be when my phone starts to ring in a few years and it’s other teams wanting to hire the people we’ve hired. I remember (Wings owners) Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch talking about that. That’s what makes them so proud of their organization: they’ve got a coach in San Jose (Todd McLellan), a coach in Ottawa (Paul MacLean), a GM in Tampa Bay (Steve Yzerman), and a GM in Dallas. It shows you’re doing the right things as an organization and that’s what I want to build here. I want good people to do a good job, and I want them to be rewarded not only on the ice, but in the future.
THN: With the Tyler Seguin trade, some people have said the lack of a hockey fishbowl existence would lead to Seguin relaxing and being himself. Is that what you’ve seen with him so far this year?
JN: I think this whole process really sped up the maturity process with Tyler. To watch him when we went back to Boston, it could have been one of those situations where he said, ‘You know what, I don’t want to deal with the press; I just want to go play the game and get out of here.’ But he came to us and said, ‘You know what, I want to address the media, I want to get it out in the open, let’s talk about it and go play the game from there.’ And that’s what he did. It was very encouraging to watch him take charge of that and know he’s matured that way.
THN: I wanted to touch on goalie fights. After the recent GM meetings, the general sense was the issue would be revisited in March and that something was eventually going to be done to address it. Was that the sense you left with?
JN: Yes, we were told to go back and get our thoughts together on it for mid-March. I think it’s something where we see in today’s game how important goalies are. To get a goalie who’s making anywhere from $5-7-million getting into a fight and getting injured, that could be (the end of) the season for a team. They’re just too valuable a part of the team now and those things can’t happen.
THN: It’s not the primary focus of your duties in Dallas, but as far as the business side of the game goes, now that the team has stable ownership agai, is growing and selling the game and building on the Stars’ legacy a focus nonetheless?
JN: It’s very important. Dallas is a great example; they had a great team when they won the Stanley Cup and they showed hockey can work here. The hockey side of things, through bankruptcy, started to deteriorate, and now we’re back into rebuilding mode. I know it can work here and that’s why I came here. In the end, if you start to win, I know fans will come out. But I know we have to continue building the game here, too. And we’re doing that; we’ve practiced at one of our Stars Center arenas recently to grow the game. Our businesspeople are very entrenched at the grassroots level and Seth Jones came out of Dallas, so you know there’s progress. We just have to do our part by building a winning team on the ice.
THN: There are often questions from young people inside and outside the game who are looking to get a foot in the door as an NHL management person. Having spent so long in the game, what advice would you give to those people chasing their dream?
JN: First of all, keep your dream out there. The biggest thing is going to games. You need to bump into hockey people. We had a great example in Detroit – Ryan Martin. He played a little bit of college hockey, then went and got his law degree, worked with an agent, got to know people, whenever we were at games he was bumping into people. And he got to know Kenny Holland a little , and when the cap world came into effect, he was a perfect fit. In the end, it’s still about players. There’s a business side to the game and a cap side, but in the end you have to go to games because you have to make decisions on those players. So get out to games, be visible, meet scouts and management people, and keep in contact, and you just never know when something might kick in.