There are many important tasks for any GM in the NHL and many competing factors that demand his time. None are as crucial to the success of his franchise, though, as the selection and ongoing relationship with his head coach.
In today's NHL, you can point to a number of coaches who are doing fine jobs with their teams. In each case, the comment could be made that “this is the ideal coach for this team.” And when you look at the teams that fall into this category, there is a special relationship, whether personal or professional, between the coach and GM in virtually all instances. A successful coach is often the ideal coach for a particular GM. These situations are not coincidental and usually result from a coherent philosophy and well-executed plan.
A coach is not usually the first hiring by a GM. Often a new GM will hire front office help and player personnel staff shortly after assuming his duties. These people are sure to be on the same wavelength as the GM regarding philosophy and method of operating and in many cases have previously worked with the GM. Once this structure is in place, the organization must determine what stage of development their team is at, what the timetable for development is and what style of hockey will meet that development plan. Only after those questions are answered can an intelligent choice for a coach be made.
No coach is successful in every environment; the relationship between the GM and a potential coach must be analyzed. Even in situations where the two parties are close personally, there is a natural tension between management and coaching functions. Coaches are concerned with immediate results and any planning is short-term, while management must assess situations with a long-term outlook. Short-term results may often be sacrificed if certain moves can enhance the long-term future of the franchise.
I often look back to the first year of operations with the Minnesota Wild. For a year prior to starting play, our organization was scouring the hockey world in order to prepare for the 2000 NHL entry and expansion drafts. Under the leadership of GM Doug Risebrough, our organization determined we were going to build a strong skating team even if we had to sacrifice size, with the hopes we’d get bigger with young players acquired through the entry draft. The key to our team's development was to improve our young players as quickly as possible.
With these criteria in mind, Doug selected Jacques Lemaire to be the first coach of the Minnesota Wild. Doug and Jacques were teammates for five seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and shared a similar philosophy of how to build a team. Doug knew Jacques had enough personal security to withstand the inevitable short-term losses in order to build a long-term contender. Jacques was an excellent teacher of the game and he loved that aspect of coaching - like Doug, he believed having a skating team was a priority.
A coaching staff in today's NHL does not consist of one man. In Minnesota, the first assistant hired was Mario Tremblay. He was a long-time colleague and teammate of both Jacques and Doug and shared a similar approach to the game. His exuberant, outgoing personality complemented Jacques' more introverted and aloof manner. The second assistant hired was Mike Ramsey. Although not known personally by the others, his reputation as an intelligent, fiercely competitive player was well known. He had enjoyed success as an assistant, was just coming off a Stanley Cup final appearance with the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 and had particular expertise with defensemen. The final assistant hired, goaltending guru Bob Mason, had a previous relationship with Mike and a solid reputation as a teacher through his hockey schools and USA Hockey.
As in life, not everything in hockey is perfect. However, this coaching staff blended well together and fulfilled management’s mandate. The team was well taught and organized, played a skating game and young players were brought in and developed as soon as possible. Without question, Doug made the ideal choice for this situation. He wanted a veteran teaching coach with patience - and Jacques fit the bill.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.