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Hockey Agents are Taking Over in the NHL GM Landscape

There used to be a time when the best way to become an NHL GM was by being a former NHL player. But Florida struck gold with a player agent-turned-GM, and Montreal and Vancouver hope to do the same thing, too.
Emile Castonguay

There used to be a time when the best way to become an NHL GM was by being a former NHL player. 

There are exceptions, of course – for every Bobby Clarke, Red Kelly, Jim Rutherford, Steve Yzerman and Bob Gainey, there have been non-NHLers such as Punch Imlach, Julien BriseBois and Lou Lamoriello. Nothing is absolute or guaranteed about getting a shot at running a team. But in recent months and years, NHL teams have looked beyond the obvious – there’s an easy cachet that comes in employing a former star in a city – and now are filling crucial management roles with former NHL player agents.

The most recent example of this development came early Monday, when the Vancouver Canucks hired player agent Emilie Castonguay to be their assistant GM – the first woman to hold that post in NHL history. This follows last week’s hiring of longtime agent Kent Hughes as the new GM of the Montreal Canadiens. And the Florida Panthers – arguably the best team in the league this season – has been built by former agent Bill Zito since September of 2020.

One of the reasons why ex-agents are being given the reins is very simple: they come into the job with as much experience with the NHL collective bargaining agreement as anyone. While teams employ salary cap-ologists, player agents have to be hyper-aware of the loopholes and competitive advantages that exist in the CBA. When they make the transition from player agent to team architect, they have a built-in exposure to the labor deal, and can make the most of it.

Another reason: agents make their living developing relationships with on-ice talent. At a time in NHL history when (thanks to the salary cap) the same approximate amount of can be thrown at players by just about every franchise, a team can have an advantage with potential free agents and trade acquisitions if their GM is savvy enough to build relationships with current players and their agents.

For as much as player agents will tell you they love their job, never make the mistake of believing they do not have grander ambitions. There are current agents who are closely monitoring the NHL Players Association and the employment status of NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, and who would jump at the chance to replace him. Similarly, agents are keeping an eye on each NHL organization to see whether there is a chance to be the next agent-turned-GM.

In some instances, top player agents prefer being an advocate for players, rather than being an advocate for teams. High-profile agents such as Pat Brisson and Don Meehan probably could have stepped into any number of situations as an NHL GM in recent years, but they remain in their present roles because (a) the money is better; and (b) you do not have to report to anyone but your clients. NHL GMs have to report to the owner of the team, as well as the media and fan base. It is an ever-evolving job that needs great teamwork and cooperation at the management level if the GM and their roster is to be a success.

Other agents clearly prefer the challenge of putting together a Stanley Cup championship-winning roster as the builder of a team. Their window in which to do that can be quite short, but the pressure GMs are under to deliver positive results invigorates them in their day-to-day duties. That is a thrill that probably beats winning an arbitration case, or landing their player a lucrative new contract.

People like Hughes and Castonguay will be judged with the same metrics as any hockey lifer and former player: it is all about winning, and those who fail to produce positive on-ice results will be shown the door in favor of another new face. While it is terrific to see the NHL branching out with a more inclusive work environment, do not pretend teams will give GMs a longer leash than they would have given to a retired star player. If they think moving off the beaten path to find new GM and management voices is an improvement that will give them an advantage, team owners will not blink twice in continuing to hire new team officials.

For the moment, though, the pressure is squarely on Hughes and Castonguay to prove ownership was right to take a chance on them. They already are breaking ground in their own way, but they need to make the most of the opportunity that has been given to them.

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