When Bob Nicholson took over as president and CEO of Hockey Canada in 1998, few people outside the hockey industry knew who he was. Over the next 16 years, Nicholson went on to create a corporate monolith that generated millions of dollars in revenues and won countless gold medals on the international stage.
That will be an enormously difficult act to follow. That the board of Hockey Canada has reportedly handpicked Tom Renney to do it is, well, a little curious. Renney is a man of enormous integrity and has a coaching resume – particularly in the international game - that would rival that of anyone in the world. But this is the thing. Hockey Canada is not a hockey team. For the purposes of the president and CEO, Hockey Canada is far more a business than it is a hockey organization.
Perhaps there are multi-million dollar companies that would be comfortable hiring and NHL assistant coach to take over their day-to-day operations. Perhaps Renney will be brilliant at this and will transfer his vast hockey knowledge into the business of running Hockey Canada. But he’s going to need help. Lots of it.
While Renney will have input into who coaches Canada’s national teams, he won’t be evaluating players, selecting rosters and charting the direction of the teams that represent Canada in international competition. Hockey Canada already has a lot of people who do that sort of thing. Most of Nicholson’s time when he held the job was to oversee the completion of business deals such as securing lucrative sites for the World Junior Championship, negotiating broadcasting contracts and keeping the corporate sponsorship money flowing into Hockey Canada’s coffers.
Because it’s that money that not only funds the programs of excellence that keep Canada competitive in international competitions such as the Olympics and World Championships (men, women, under-20 and under-18), but it also flows down to the grassroots programs that fund minor hockey programs across the country. At a time when Hockey Canada faces very real registration challenges – numbers are going down, costs to play minor hockey and the sacrifices involved are huge issues and lower birth rates in Canada indicate there will be a small pool of children from which to cull hockey players – it needs to continue to fund those programs.
And the person who did most of the heavy lifting on that front was a 48-year-old man by the name of Scott Smith, the chief operating office who was essentially Nicholson’s right-hand man. Like Nicholson in 1998, Smith is not well known outside the hockey world, but has been instrumental in bringing hockey events to Canada and for putting together the deal for the WJC in Toronto and Montreal in 2015 and ’17, each of which will easily generate more than $20 million in profits.
Smith has been integral in Hockey Canada’s relationship with TSN/RDS and the sponsorship side and has been with Hockey Canada for the past 17 years, working in almost every facet of the operation.
Sounds like a natural to succeed Nicholson, no? Well, that’s what most people in the industry thought was going to happen. There was certainly no ironclad agreement in place, but the plan at Hockey Canada always seemed to be that Smith was being groomed to take over for Nicholson once Nicholson decided to move on, which he did in June to later become the vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
And this is where Renney is going to have to do some of his most important work. As soon as he takes control, his first job will have to be to ensure people such as Smith remain engaged in the organization. Renney has the hockey background to be sure in everything from grassroots minor hockey to elite world-level programs. That will not be the issue. But he’s going to need Smith, if he’s interested in continuing in his role, to keep working behind the scenes to keep Hockey Canada the powerful corporate machine it has become.
Hockey Canada has lost some very good people on both the business and hockey sides – vice-president, hockey operations/national teams Brad Pascall recently stepped down to take a job with the Calgary Flames – and it faces some unique challenges with recruiting and retaining players. Losing Smith if he were to decide to leave after being passed over for the top job, would be another huge blow. The betting here is that the 59-year-old Renney is up to the challenge and he’s smart enough to seek the help he needs to address those challenges.