In the 1990s, when the money started getting really big in hockey, there was widespread doubt that millionnaire star players would ever consider working in the industry after hanging up their skates. The work was too hard, and it’d mean paying minor-league dues all over again. Why would anybody want to take the pay cut and put in all the hours required to become a coach, a general manager or an executive when the rewards from their playing careers had already left them on easy street?
In fact, just the opposite has occurred. All around the NHL, big-name players of that generation are moving into NHL front offices and are often willing to put in the time and effort to learn the business. It is a topic that may come up Wednesday when Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini holds a press conference to explain why he fired general manager Mike Gillis on Tuesday with three games to go in the 2013-14. The rumour mill suggests some combination of former stars Trevor Linden (as president) and Markus Naslund (as general manager) might join the organization in Gillis’s place.
They may be the two most popular players in Canucks’ history – Linden as the long-serving captain who led the team to the 1994 Stanley Cup final, and Naslund as their all-time leading scorer.
The Canucks badly need a public relations boost, after a season in which they significantly fell short of expectations, and Gillis was both a convenient and deserving target. On Monday, playing their third-last home game of the season against the Anaheim Ducks, they were shut out by a goaltender, John Gibson, who was making his first-ever NHL start. The Canucks put up only meek resistance against a Ducks squad that was playing its second game in two nights. The chants of “Fire Gillis” rained down, and the empty seats in the lower bowl were visible even on television.
Of course, hiring popular ex-players to fill key front-office positions can be a recipe for disaster if they are unqualified to do the job. Any public-relations gains made by the change will be quickly forgotten if things get worse before they get better. But until March, Naslund worked as general manager of the Swedish Elite League team MoDo, and thus knows the job, even if he learned his craft on the other side of the Atlantic. (Jarmo Kekalainen, a Finn, became the first European-born NHL GM last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets.) And as president, Linden – who runs a chain of fitness cubs – would be tasked with running the business and making sure the team’s place in the community remains secure.
In the immediate aftermath of the Linden-Naslund report, people pointed to the Colorado model, where the Avalanche hired Joe Sakic as executive vice-president of hockey operations and Patrick Roy as coach last summer. The two hall of famers oversaw a complete about-face in the franchise’s fortunes.
The Buffalo Sabres attempted something similar earlier in the year, bringing in Pat LaFontaine as president and Ted Nolan to coach, and it only partially worked out: LaFontaine resigned a little more than three months into his tenure as president.
But there are multiple examples, most of them positive, of retired players who do well running the show on both the business and hockey side of their former teams. Al MacInnis is a senior advisor to the GM in St. Louis. Ron Francis, projected as the heir to Jim Rutherford, is vice-president of hockey operations in Carolina. Doug Wilson was the first San Jose Sharks captain and has been the team’s GM for nine years, overseeing the most successful era in franchise history. Steve Yzerman apprenticed with the Detroit Red Wings, spending four years as a special assistant to Ken Holland before getting the Tampa Bay GM’s job.
For a time, Joe Nieuwendyk, who won a Stanley Cup there in 1999, was GM in Dallas during the Stars’ bankruptcy period, before an ownership change swept him out. Luc Robitaille is president of business operations for the L.A. Kings, and this past season, when assistant GM Ron Hextall left the Kings to join the Philadelphia Flyers, he was replaced by Rob Blake. And of course, much less successfully, the Edmonton’s front office is peopled with ex-players from the Oilers’ glory days – Kevin Lowe is the president of hockey ops and Craig MacTavish is the general manager.
In advance of the outdoor game in L.A. earlier this season, Robitaille was asked why he’s willing to put on a suit every morning and punch a clock.
“If you look at guys like Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Brendan Shanahan, Stevie Yzerman, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, Ron Francis, what people probably didn’t realize is how much we loved the game,” said Robitaille. “Like every player, we fought lockouts. Once we retired, we felt we had an opportunity to make a difference. I know that’s the reason I’m involved. Besides, while I like golf, I can’t play every day. There would come a time when my wife would kick me out of the house too. It’s our love of the game, plus having a chance to make a difference.”
If Naslund and Linden do join the Canucks’ management group, they will be granted a prolonged honeymoon period because of their stature in the game and in that community. Then it will be up to them to roll up their sleeves and get down to the hard work of turn around a team that’s going in the wrong direction.
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