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In NHL managerial world, there's no substitute for (playing) experience

The Los Angeles Kings recently announced that they would not be renewing the contract of Mike Futa, the assistant GM who was a managerial cornerstone of two Stanley Cup winners. There's a good chance he'll be replaced by one of GM Rob Blake's best friends and former teammate, Nelson Emerson.
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When it comes to the recent managerial moves made by Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake, a couple of things will likely transpire. The first is that Mike Futa, the assistant GM whose contract will not be renewed by the Kings, will stay unemployed for the hockey equivalent of about 10 minutes. The other is that former NHLer and current director of player personnel, Nelson Emerson, will likely move into Futa’s vacant spot.

Because this is the way it works in the hockey world and it’s part of the reason why former players hold the levers of power in the NHL more than any other sport. And it’s not even close. Those in power in hockey surround themselves with people they trust. And that’s certainly understandable. And when most of the people in those positions have played in the league, to whom are they going to turn? To fellow players. Because there’s nothing that develops trust and unconditional loyalty more than winning, losing and laying it all on the line on the ice alongside someone. Blake and Emerson have been together much of their lives. They played together in college at Bowling Green and were later teammates on the Kings. It’s almost impossible to penetrate that kind of bond.

(When Blake was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014, the then-assistant GM of the Kings said in his speech: “I get to come to work every day and spend time with two of the greatest teammates and two of the best friends I could ask for in Nelson Emerson and Glen Murray…I couldn’t ask for two better guys to enjoy that with.”)

That doesn’t mean that either Emerson or Murray, the Kings director of player development and another of Blake’s former teammates, won't develop into quality hockey administrators. They’ve both been on the coaching/development side of things for a long time and are hard workers and, by all accounts, good people. And as for Blake, even though the results have not been there during his tenure, anyone who underestimates a former star NHLer’s ability to manage does so at his own peril. It wasn’t long ago the hockey world was fairly united in believing Joe Sakic was hopelessly out of his element.

Futa, on the other hand, is not a former player of any note, although he was an outstanding performer in Jr. B. Futa made it to the NHL and stayed there by dint of hard work and an ability to judge talent. And that ability made him one of the cornerstones of the franchise as it built its way up from a doormat to two-time Stanley Cup champion, and back down to a bottom feeder. Any team’s successes and failures cannot be attributable to one person and they are not in this case. But Futa did do his part. He found players.

And that’s why Futa will almost certainly find work in the NHL again, probably not long after the next NHL draft, whenever that is held. The 52-year-old Futa has not yet been a GM, but he’s been close. He interviewed for the vacant jobs in both Calgary and Buffalo and was not chosen and turned down an opportunity in Carolina. The reality is Futa may never be a GM in the NHL, not because he’s not good enough, but because he’s never bled on a sweater at a high level.

Consider this. Of the 32 GMs in the NHL today, 19 of them have played at least one game in the NHL. Another two – Brad Treliving and Kevin Cheveldayoff – played in the minors. Another six – Stan Bowman, David Poile, Pierre Dorion, Chuck Fletcher, Doug Armstrong and Kelly McCrimmon – have family ties to former NHL players, officials or administrators. So that means of the 32 jobs that are available, almost 85 percent of them (27 of 32) are held by former players or those who have an NHL background. It’s pretty tough to overcome that kind of advantage. And when you think of who is likely to be most hotly pursued for the next GM opening, the name that comes up most often is Chris Pronger.

But there are still plenty of places in the game for people who work very hard, know their craft and work well with others. Futa has demonstrated that, and with a 13-year body of work with the Kings, has earned his place as a reputable hockey executive. For years, Jim Nill worked in the background with the Detroit Red Wings and was content to be in the second row of the team picture for a modern-day dynasty. Those guys, as much as anyone else in hockey, are responsible for a team’s success. And it’s not as though Blake didn’t try with Futa, making Futa his assistant GM when he was elevated to the GM chair three years ago. But it didn’t work. There’s no shame in that. And whether or not the Kings resurrect themselves to respectability will be up to Blake and his two trusted lieutenants, all three with long resumes as players and relatively short ones on management experience.

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