Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan described this in Seven Samurai terms.
Shortly after joining the team in April, he set off across the hockey landscape in search of “innovators” and “great minds” and the “best and brightest.”
“The name that kept coming up was Kyle’s.”
Shanahan said this while standing in the Leafs dressing room on Tuesday afternoon. Beside him, the object of his search – Kyle Dubas – was trying hard to look purposeful. It’s tougher than it seems under the circumstances. Most people resemble potato-shaped lumps in Shanahan’s plinth-like presence. It’s especially hard when you’re trying to look really smart at the same time.
Dubas has a prodigy’s resume – a player agent through his early 20s, the general manager of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at 25.
Now, at 28, he becomes the assistant GM of the Leafs and presumptive heir to the throne.
You’re standing there, potato-like, staring at him. You’re supposed to be thinking about hockey and the James Reimer Problem. Instead, you’re making a mental checklist of the things you had not done by age 28 – bought a car, paid off student loans, gotten a real job. Things you had done: accrued even more debt, built a respectable vinyl collection, started to lose your hair.
Kyle Dubas is the you your parents wish they’d had.
Will he make any difference to the Leafs? Only God knows, and He still hasn’t quite figured out every permutation of the CBA.
Every business is short on savants, and nothing about Dubas’s career to this point suggests he’s one of those. For right now, he’s a very bright guy who’s figured out how to make a living off his fantasy pool.
What will he do, exactly? Again, no idea.
Both men were iffy on the particulars. Shanahan wanted to gently play up Dubas’ Analytics credentials. Dubas was keen to talk them down, emphasizing his real-world feel for the game and its intangibles. Four times Shanahan referred to Dubas as “a team player.”
The impression left was a hire meant to be seen as a statement, but as yet without any particular thesis. For starters, Dubas is here to introduce the new metrics gospel to the club’s hockey Pharisees, who still work off stone tablets. He’s to do it in such a way that no one is offended.
Well, good luck with that.
“If you’re not changing, everything around you is,” Dubas said.
That’s the sort of thing I would say to Randy Carlyle after I’d stepped out of swinging range.
What we can say with certainty is that Dubas puts the Leafs in line with a progressive trend in every big-money business. He didn’t get this job despite his age. He’s here – at least in part – because of it.
At one point, someone started a question with, “You’re only 29, but …”
“He isn’t 29 yet,” Shanahan interjected drily.
Analytics are part of this, but this speaks to a more general change in the way we view youth. Twenty years ago, to be young was to be callow. Now, to be young is to be daring. It speaks to boldness of vision.
Old no longer means experienced. It means being settled in your ways and tied to convention.
As one fresh face was arriving, two careworn ones – assistant GM Claude Loiselle (51) and vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin (55) – were being hustled out the back door.
As a general rule, scientists and mathematicians flower early, in their 20s and 30s.
They’re the new breed of sports executives – wonks and technocrats; numbers people and disciples of the objectivity cult (which, like all faith-based systems, is mainly different from the previous one in terms of style).
The Leafs aren’t giving up on experience and history in the game. They’re buying into the Silicon Valley effect that is overtaking every results-based organization.
Two years ago, the average age of the GMs and their lieutenants across Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s three big-league properties was 53. Today, it’s 40.
This isn’t a change in the game as much as a harmonization of it with the wider world in which it exists. But if you’re on the wrong side of 40, it still hurts a bit to watch.
Shanahan seems immune to that effect, perhaps because he’s so recently removed from his playing career, which is a sort of extension of youth.
At 45, he’s young to be the president of anything. Considering he got his first office job five years ago, it’s prodigious. That puts him in a comfortable space to unite the generations.
“I believe we have people in our organization who’ve been afraid of certain words and certain information,” Shanahan said. “Once you speak to Kyle, he makes it much more logical and easy to apply.”
The application of logic. That’s a step, though it can only be judged positive in retrospect.
Because the only change that ever matters is whether all this adds up to that thing which is timeless and immune to trends – winning hockey.