The NHL once ran a funny series of TV ads in which the league’s stars were seen struggling with mundane, regular-people problems. In one spot, Joe Thornton was frustrated by the challenge of spreading hard butter on brittle toast.
“NHL players are just like me and you,” went the tagline. “Plus they’re really good at hockey.”
Of course, NHL players are not like me and you. The league’s average salary last season was US$3.2-million. Minimum wage was US$750,000.
Yet when it was revealed that newly-hired Columbus Blue Jackets coach Mike Babcock had once again been playing psychological power games with his employees, the average Joe and Jane Lunchbucket could relate. Even if you’ve never been tormented by an abusive boss who got in your head and gave you an ulcerous knot in your stomach, you’ve heard stories. You’ve feared it happening to you.
So when, after an investigation by the National Hockey League Players Association, Mr. Babcock lost his job – before even the first day of training camp – a lot of regular clock-punchers felt the warm glow of Schadenfreude.
But how much of that was really him? Was the insecure creep who introduced himself to his new teenage employees by demanding to go through their phones really so wicked smart?
As Don Cherry once said about coaching Bobby Orr, the job involved opening the door and telling the kid it was time for his next shift.
Everyone has known corporate ladder-climbers who climb by being good at marketing and managing up, but aren’t much for managing down. More like punching down. And coming up with ever more elaborate ways to exert dominance, even if it hurts the team.
In Mr. Babcock’s case, the petty power moves included benching future Hall of Famer Mike Modano before his 1,500th game, leaving him to retire one shy of the milestone; not allowing future Hall of Famer Chris Chelios to play the Winter Classic in his hometown; and benching beloved veteran Jason Spezza before his first game as a Maple Leaf.
The coach drove Johan Franzen, who was suffering from concussions and depression, to a nervous breakdown on the bench. Mr. Franzen has called him “the worst person I have ever met.” Mike Commodore has story after story of all the ways Mr. Babcock tried to humiliate him, apparently for sport.
All of this started coming out after Mr. Babcock lost his job four years ago in Toronto, in part because of the revelation that, when Mitch Marner was a 19-year-old rookie, the coach forced him to write a critical assessment of each of his teammates – and then shared it with those teammates.
“It’s just so unnecessary the things that [he] did to players, and how awkward and uncomfortable it could be,” Mr. Chelios recently said. We can all relate.
All of us have experienced how, with bad managers, management becomes about making people worse at their jobs. It takes actual skill to manage a group so that the sum is greater than the parts. I spent much of the middle part of my career managing people, and my management genius often led to more subtraction than addition.
One other thing most of us can relate to is job insecurity. The NHL minimum salary may be three-quarters of a million dollars, but careers are short and contingent – and 19-year-olds arriving at camp don’t yet have a career. And never will if they don’t do exactly as they are told.
An NHL team is like any other workplace, just amped up to the nth degree. It’s hyper hierarchical, alpha male and high testosterone, with on-the-job violence part of the job. The payoff to getting hired and staying hired is huge, so nobody wants to rock the boat. Saying boo could put you back on the bus to the Soo.
And NHL culture is still, despite a flood of European and American players since the 1980s, a residual Canadian culture. Not the culture of Rosedale or West Point Grey in 2023. More Flin Flon and Fort Saskatchewan, three generations ago: A stoic, blue-collar culture where life is expected to be nasty and brutish, so suck it up and shut up.
The NHL is also something your business isn’t: a monopoly. There’s no draft for first-year accountants, banning them from signing with any other firm. There is for players. Hockey culture mitigates against complaining – but more importantly, so does the structure of the NHL.