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'Wild Bill' Guerin Goes to Work

A hard-charging power forward who shot first and asked questions later, Bill Guerin had to slow down and learn the ropes as a novice NHL GM. But he hasn’t wasted any time putting the Wild into position for a long playoff run.
Bill Guerin

In the surprisingly small and insular hockey universe, there might not be any better place in the world to be than at a game-day morning skate. Hockey people sit in the stands and talk freely, exchanging stories and dropping valuable nuggets of information. Broadcasters and journalists search for storylines, players try out new equipment and the near-empty rink brims with anticipation.

The injured and suspended players and healthy scratches get some extra reps in, and everyone wonders who will start in goal, so you look to see which guy gets off the ice first and which one stays out for some extra work. It’s still 0-0, and will be for a few more hours. No matter where a team sits in the standings or whether the player is on a heater or ice cold, the morning skate is a clean slate. Everyone feels pretty good.

So you may be surprised to learn that Bill Guerin generally eschews them. He makes an exception on this morning in Toronto, but his general rule is that he stays away from the rink in the morning and tries to leave as soon after the final buzzer as possible at night. The way he sees it, the coaches, led by Dean Evason, and players have enough to be concerned about in the morning that they don’t need him milling about and getting in the way. 

And what if he notices one of his players dogging it during the morning skate? It’d be enough to throw off his entire day. Once the game ends, he gets in his car and immediately drives home from the Xcel Energy Center or, if it’s a road game, he makes a direct beeline to the team bus.

“‘Deano’ will call me later, usually about an hour after the game,” Guerin said. “Everybody’s calm, everybody’s cool, and there’s no emotion. Then we can have a better conversation.”

It all represents the stark dichotomy between Bill Guerin the player and Bill Guerin the 51-year-old hockey executive. As a player, there was nowhere Guerin liked to be more than at the rink trading friendly jabs with teammates, working on his stick, getting treatment. He’s hardly in a minority among ex-players, almost all of whom acknowledge the No. 1 thing they miss about the game once they retire is being around their teammates. 

They certainly don’t pine for the summer workouts to get ready for the season, the bag skates and waking up every morning with at least one part of their bodies in pain. Guerin loved being a player, and hockey definitely loved him back. He was a popular figure in each one of the eight NHL dressing rooms he called his workplace, even if he often crossed swords with the same men who have the job he now holds. The final two years of his career, he was the father figure on a young and talented Pittsburgh Penguins team with which he won a Stanley Cup, a role he would have filled for another 20 years had Father Time not finally defeated him in a spirited tilt.

In fact, after he took a year off to be with his family, Guerin thought his path in the game would be through coaching, which is the closest a guy can get to being a player again. He became a development coach with the Penguins, but then he discovered that he and the people he worked with were really good at finding NHL-caliber players where nobody else seemed to be looking. He got excited about negotiating contracts, player development, free agency and the trade deadline. 

So the day Jim Rutherford took over as GM with the Penguins, he named Guerin as one of his assistant GMs, and Guerin was suddenly on the fast track to take over his own team, which he did with the Wild in the summer of 2019.

But old players don’t die, they just play in charity games. The playing mentality has never left Guerin, which is basically why he stays away from the rink when a game is not being played. So much of his game was based on emotion, but that’s not something that serves hockey executives particularly well. On this day in Toronto during the dog days of February, Guerin is still stewing about a rather uninspired effort by his team in Ottawa two nights before. 

But even more, he’s still getting the feels over an agonizing decision to send veteran Victor Rask to the minors. “That’s terrible,” Guerin said. “That’s not a great phone call to have to make. Victor is not a confrontational guy, but I talked to his agent and he’s rattled by it. And he should be. I’m probably off the Christmas-card list now, but I have to do what’s right for the team and the organization.”

Ask any former player who’s in management and he’ll tell you the most difficult thing about the transition between player and executive is that what made him so effective on the ice is often his biggest enemy as a GM. Players are accustomed to taking matters into their own hands on the ice, whether it’s willing their team back into a game or settling a score for a cheap shot. The inclination is to come in and want to make a bunch of trades, fire a bunch of people and just…do things. 

The reality is that you need very good people around you, which Guerin had and still has in Minnesota, and decisions must be made dispassionately and methodically. The late Tom Kurvers, the Wild’s assistant GM who died of cancer last June, was invaluable to him in those first days. Guerin jokes that the best thing for him and the Wild was that he got the GM job in late August, which basically didn’t give him any time to do anything rash. “I wanted to come in and, boom, Day 1, make a big trade,” Guerin said. “Tom was huge at the beginning of the process, just slowing me down and talking to me every day. He used to say to me, ‘Hey, let’s just watch.’ I want to make a big deal on deadline day. We all have an ego, right? But I have to work very hard to not let mine get in the way of my decision-making.”

If Guerin wanted to make a big deadline-day deal, he certainly knocked that particular item off his bucket list when he obtained Marc-Andre Fleury from the Chicago Blackhawks to shore up the Wild’s goaltending. He also knocked it out of the park, and it had everything to do with making his team better and nothing to do with ego. Some of his other deals around the deadline – acquiring depth forwards Tyson Jost and Nicolas Deslauriers – were solid. But it’s what he did under the radar and addressing the future that was most impressive, dealing the rights of disgruntled collegian Jack McBain to the Arizona Coyotes for a second-round pick, then using his surplus in goal to trade Kaapo Kahkonen to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Jacob Middleton.

When Guerin arrived in Minnesota, there were decisions to make. Big ones. And Guerin made them to a roster that was good but nowhere near good enough to be a serious Stanley Cup contender. And on that count, he’s done a solid job. Guerin has definitely put his stamp on this team, one that was right in the thick of the unforgiving Central Division. Most of the moves he has made have amounted to addition by subtraction, but that subtraction has allowed previously less heralded players such as Kevin Fiala, Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman take on bigger roles. By far, his most impactful decision, which came with the blessing of Wild ownership, was to swallow hard and buy out veterans Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer, a move that will cost the Wild $12.7 million in cap space next season and $14.7 million in each of the following two seasons. Prior to that, he made the decisions to trade veteran center Eric Staal and goalie Devan Dubnyk. The decision to trade Jason Zucker, who loved it in Minnesota and was a pillar in the community, was particularly difficult. But the chance to get a defense prospect in Calen Addison and a first-round pick, which was used to take defenseman Carson Lambos – and free up $5.5 million in cap space – was too difficult to pass up. “It was necessary,” said Guerin of the moves. “We needed a change. They’re all good guys and good players, but we needed to go in a different direction. Difficult decisions need to be made. That’s why we have these jobs.”

When Ray Shero was a GM, his biggest fear when a former player would come to him seeking work was that the guy was looking for a corner office with a nice view, a fancy title and a steady paycheque. Would he really be willing to put in the boots-on-the-ground work that those who had not played the game professionally knew needed to be done in order to become a legitimate executive? He had those same fears when Guerin called him out of the blue a year after he retired as a player. But Shero, who was then running the Penguins, realized that Guerin was ready to work hard and learn. So much so that Shero now works for Guerin as a senior advisor. Guerin brought Shero on last summer, coincidentally after Shero took a year away from the game after being fired by the New Jersey Devils.

“I’m one of the guys who can say to him, ‘Billy, why the f--- would you do that?’ ” Shero said. “But Billy has got a real good feel for his team, and it’s no different than when he played. He had a really good feel for the group as a player, and he’s funny as hell. And he’s certainly not afraid to make decisions. There are people in this game who put in a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of miles…and if you’re not prepared to do that, I don’t care if you’ve played 1,000 games or you’re in the Hall of Fame, you’re not going to earn anyone’s respect. Billy doesn’t want to let the group down.”

If Guerin was grooming himself for a life after hockey while he played, he had no shortage of examples. The guy played for eight different organizations and won two Stanley Cups over the course of his 18-year NHL career. He was traded four times and signed with teams as a free agent three times. (Who can forget those heady days of Bill Guerin as a San Jose Shark?) He watched the managerial styles of each of his GMs, even the ones with whom he clashed. And two of them happen to be the most decorated in the business in Lou Lamoriello and Glen Sather. When Guerin was dealt from the Oilers to the Boston Bruins in November 2000 – by Sather’s successor, Kevin Lowe – Guerin found out from some fan at the West Edmonton Mall while he there was watching his daughter skate. He learned from that experience, and all the others.

When Guerin was in a contract stalemate with Kirill Kaprizov in the off-season, he held firm and was patient, not swayed by passion. Which sounds a lot like Lamoriello, his first GM. The biggest thing Guerin said he learned from Lamoriello is that it is never personal, even though he might have had a difficult time processing that back in January 1998 when he was finally dealt to the Oilers. Guerin had earlier been in a contract dispute with the Devils and missed the beginning of the season. 

So Lamoriello, who was running the 1998 U.S. Olympic team at the time, did not name him to the preliminary roster. Guerin said Lamoriello told him that he would trade him as long as he was signed to a contract, so Guerin took Lamoriello at his word. And, sure enough, he was dealt in time to play for the Olympic team.

“He wanted more money than I wanted to pay him,” Lamoriello said. “What else is new? I said to him, ‘Go play in the American League or the International League. At least you’re playing.’ And we were able to get things worked out. The one thing that never changed was the relationship, from Day 1. And in some of the conversations we’ve had, he now sees how things are done and why they can’t be done sometimes. Through a player’s eyes, they see things a little differently.”

Guerin wholeheartedly agrees with Lamoriello on that one. A good number of GMs in the league are guided by the WWLD principle – What Would Lou Do? – and Guerin counts himself in that group. “I always do, a hundred percent,” Guerin said. “Because he does what he feels is right and stands by it. He won’t waver. I think Lou has a tremendous amount of balance.”

And if that weren’t enough, Guerin spent the first part of his managerial career learning from Rutherford, one of only two men in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup as the GM of two different organizations. Guerin recalls sitting down to lunch one day when both were working for the Penguins – coincidentally at the St. Paul Grill, which is about a quarter-mile from the Xcel Energy Center – and Rutherford advised him that when he became a GM, it was wise to make deals that are fair to both sides. You don’t have to win the deal to get a good player, and if you obliterate another GM in a deal, you’ve just lost a trade partner. 

“All these guys have just been around forever,” Guerin said. “They’ve traded a million guys, they’ve signed a million guys. They’ve all won Stanley Cups. They’ve been through a hundred times more than what I’ve been through. All my experience with them as a player or coworker, it’s been invaluable.”

There is still a bit of a cloud of uncertainty over Guerin from his days in Pittsburgh. The Penguins and former AHL assistant coach Jarrod Skalde (and his wife Erin) settled a lawsuit for wrongful termination after Skalde alleged that Clark Donatelli, the former head coach of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, had sexually assaulted Erin Skalde. Even though the Penguins dismissed Donatelli, Skalde alleges Guerin told him to keep the reasons for Donatelli’s termination quiet. The NHL investigated and found that Guerin reported the incident to the Penguins’ upper management immediately and did nothing wrong. But the U.S. Center for SafeSport has not yet released any of its findings or whether it has completed its investigation.

Guerin, meanwhile, is watching the Wild finish their morning skate, and he’s looking rather Zen. He acknowledges that becoming a GM has been an adjustment for him, and he continues to learn. He says something about how grumpy he’ll be if his team loses this game, which it goes on to do. It’s the second of what will morph into a four-game losing streak. After winning nine games and gaining points in 10 straight contests from mid-January to early February, the Wild hit the skids a little, going 8-10-1 from that time until the trade deadline. It can all be a little difficult to handle for a former player who is accustomed to quick fixes. But Guerin remained patient and dispassionate, even if it goes against all his instincts. “I have my moments,” Guerin said. “I definitely have my moments. I’m trying to get smarter in my old age. I don’t know if it’s going so well.” 

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