By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Trust. Communication. Processing. Analyzing. Managing People. What do these five things have to do with each other? They are the fundamental principles that go into the job of being a National Hockey League General Manager.
Are you surprised that negotiating trades and contracts isn’t mentioned? Don’t be. While negotiation is a key skill for NHL GMs to have, it’s really a rather small part of their daily jobs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important and certainly the part of their jobs that gets the most publicity. It’s just not nearly as big a part of the job as people think.
For all of you who spend countless hours sending hundreds of trade requests to your pals in your fantasy sports leagues, sorry to burst your bubble. All of you armchair GMs who stay up all night until your fantasy league’s waiver wire deadline just so you can put in a claim before somebody else, I’m sorry. That’s just not how the job works.
To bring some clarity to those of you who think – but don’t actually know – what an NHL GM does on a day-to-day basis I’ve recruited four special panelists to explain just what the job entails.
Jim Devellano, Scotty Bowman and Ray Shero have all spent many years of their respective careers as GMs in the National Hockey League. (Scotty Bowman, in addition to being the winningest Head Coach in NHL history, also had several stints as a General Manager). And just so we can have a well rounded discussion, I’ve also invited current Portland Winterhawks GM (as well as Head Coach and Senior VP) Mike Johnston to help us out. (Johnston also served as the Head Coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2014-2015).
Now that we know our panelists and our mission, let’s dive into the jobs of NHL General Managers.
“I always say that if you had a business card or something like that, what the General Manager does is right on the business card,” Shero explained. “It’s being a manager of people, that’s really what you’re doing. In terms of, obviously, with ownership, with players, with agents, your training staff, medical staff, certainly with your scouting staff. You’re managing people and empowering people in their roles. You empower them, because, as the GM, things go up and things go down, in terms of information. That’s for any sort of staff. You’re probably looking at 60 plus people. This is outside of the players obviously.”
“You need information and things like that,” Shero continued. “So I really think a lot of the day-to-day stuff is the planning part and managing people. A GM is dealing everyday with his coach, checking in on the lineup and injuries and things like that. You’re checking in on your Director of Pro Scouting. The pro stuff is more immediate (than the amateur side). A lot of what a GM is doing is managing people and planning. The information part of it is critical. In terms of your scouting staff, they need to know what type of player you’re looking for, or if you have a hole or a potential injury. We might be looking for that. A lot of it is managing and empowering people to do their jobs.”
In order to succeed at the “managing and empowering” aspect of the job you have to pick the right people. Once you choose the right people, then you have to trust they will do what needs to be done. The ability to trust those around you is an important one, especially when you have to be the Coach – on top of being the GM.
“I got some people to be assistants to me,” said Bowman. “Coaching (and being a GM), both jobs are time consuming. I mean, there’s just so much time during the day. So I kind of gravitated more to coaching and had another person as my assistant. I’d give him a lot of responsibilities. I did the trades and I did the negotiation, but I didn’t like the managing part as much as the coaching.”
“When you’re the General Manager,” Bowman continued, “all the scouting (staffs), amateur and pro, they’re in constant communication with you. Nowadays, a lot of teams, what they’ve done is, they have an Assistant General Manager. He kind of looks after the scouting people. And he usually runs the most important farm team. That’s The AHL team.”
We’re getting a tad ahead of ourselves, so let’s put the farm team aside for a minute. Before we can move onto the finer points, we need to make sure we really know everything a GM is responsible for.
“It’s a bigger job than people believe it is, because they don’t know the full extent of it,” Devellano explained. “You’re also in charge of a fairly big company; budgets for instance. You have a major league player payroll that reaches $70 to $80 million. You then have an American Hockey League farm team where you have another 20, 21 players who need to be signed, albeit to minor league contracts. But all of a sudden, now you see you’re dealing with 50 players. 25 or 26 at the major league level. 20, 21, 22 at the minor league level. You’re basically in charge of all those people. And that’s two teams. Well, each one of those teams, the NHL and the American League, have a coach who you have to hire and you have to sign. So you’re in charge of the coaches.”
“Your responsibility is to develop good teams,” Devellano continued, “preferably at the NHL level and if possible at the American League level. So that in itself is a fairly big job. You have to pick the coach. There are a lot of people you can choose from, but some, just like players, are better than others. So, it’s very important who you pick to coach. Then you have to run two separate scouting staffs. You have to run an Entry Draft department. That’s probably at least 10 people who are responsible for the Entry Draft. It’s very, very important who you draft. So you’ve got about 10 Scouts who you’re responsible for who have to go out and put the Entry Draft together. You’ve gotta do their contracts. They’re all contracted employees.
“Then there’s another scouting department. It’s the Pro Scouting department. You’re gonna make trades and you’re gonna sign free agents. You’re gonna try to better your hockey club. You’ve gotta know every player in the NHL and the American Hockey League. You can only imagine how many people it takes to do that. That’s another 10 people on your staff who you have to hire.
“So when you take about 50 players, plus 10 people on the Entry Draft side and 10 more on the Pro Scouting side, you’re already at 70 employees and you haven’t hired your trainers yet. You’re responsible for hiring a complete training staff, which is Equipment Managers, fitness people and nutritionists. That’s what the press and the public don’t see. They just picture the General Managers, making trades, sitting up in a box, watching the games, getting mad if we lose and happy if we win. Firing coaches, hiring coaches, that’s all they see.”
Remember, almost everything we’ve spoken about until this point is at the NHL level. But the job of a GM gets even more complex when you look at leagues like the WHL (Western Hockey League). Although, you will notice some similarities.
“As a General Manager in the Western Hockey League, you’re involved in first overseeing your scouting staff,” Johnston said. “That’s how you find your players. So you have to have Scouts in different provinces and different states in the US who are constantly looking for players. The second important thing for a General Manager is that you have a template of how you want to play; what type of player you’re looking for. The third part of it is recruiting. Once you’ve drafted a player or listed a player, then it’s meeting with their family, recruiting that player because, usually, the top players are gonna have options.”
“We’re in competition with NCAA hockey,” Johnston continued. “So we are recruiting the player to come and play in Portland. And then, a lot of the time, a General Manager is involved in the day-to-day operation of the team. Our players move away from home at 16-years of age. They stay with billet families. They go to school on a daily basis. You have to monitor the players from week-to-week.
“The final piece for us is player development, on and off the ice, because they’re 16, 17, 18-year-old kids. How they mature and how they develop will determine their hockey future. When they come to us, we have to have a good development plan for them.”
As you can see, once you move away from the NHL, the job of the GM becomes even more complex. Yes, they are still overseeing Scouts, but they are now also responsible for recruitment and development. You might say that recruiting a player at 16-years-old is no different than wooing a 25-year-old free agent, but you’d be wrong. At 16 the player is moving away from home for what is likely the first time in their life. They are still going to school. You have to be a lot more hands on with players at that age. A 25-year-old NHL free agent isn’t still going to school. They’ve already lived away from home for years. They’re much more mature – at least, they should be – and therefore it’s a very different situation.
Now, getting back to the AHL part of the discussion. As most people know, each American Hockey League team has its own staff, complete with its own GM. However, as you’re about to find out, the AHL GM is more like an Assistant to the NHL GM.
“Ryan Martin (when he was the GM for the Grand Rapids Griffins — Detroit’s AHL team) would help Steve Yzerman (Detroit’s GM) with the American League team in terms of the contracts and analyzing the players,” Devellano explained. “At the end of the day, yes, Ryan had the title of GM, but it all stops at the desk of the (NHL) GM. At the end of the day, the guy who has to sign off on things and is responsible is the (NHL) General Manager.”
That’s not to put down or diminish the job of being an AHL GM, but it is a distinction that matters for the purposes of our discussion.
One of the things to remember is that, regardless of what level of hockey you’re talking about, the GM has to have the ability to trust those around him. As Shero said, ‘it’s about empowering people to do their jobs.” Once those people do their jobs, if they did them well, that’s when the GM gets to shine. GMs are not in it for the glory, but, to borrow a phrase from former US President Harry S. Truman, “The buck stops here.” That “here” is the GM.
“As a GM, you have to make the final decision, “Shero explained. “You have to take all the information, whether it’s scouting information, analytic information, injury information, salary cap information, your budget or whatever it could be. You empower people to do their jobs so they know what you’re looking for, communicating that and having those discussions (that’s the key). In the end, it’s not a Democracy. Someone’s gotta make the decisions. And that’s the GM.”
“But again,” Shero continued, “I think there’s probably only one trade I’ve made in my career where everybody was a ‘no’ and I said, ‘I know what I wanna do. I know the market.’ That was when we traded for Billy Guerin in Pittsburgh. And it worked out real well, but there was no certainty in that. I think part of going through that process, the information was obviously essential to make the decision, but at the same time, as I said, it’s about empowering the people who you work with, so that we have those discussions and that’s how they grow as well.”
Johnston echoed Shero’s sentiment when he told me, “The important thing, like any other organization, is to have good people who are connected to you. Ones who aren’t afraid to give you their thoughts. And when a decision gets made we’re all in it together. So having people under you who are responsible and who you can delegate stuff to is important. I pick things that I really want to be heavily involved in and there are other areas where I don’t need to be as heavily involved.”
“In those cases,” Johnston continued, “I trust the person running that department. For example, I go out once a year with our Scouts, watch the top players and give my input on the first round pick. Other than that, I trust my Scouts. We have regular meetings and I’m involved in them. But the person who heads up our scouting department, I trust what he does. I feel he’s capable of running that group. So, I’ll be involved, but I won’t dig in to the level that maybe other people feel they need to dig into.”
By the way, speaking of draft picks, at the NHL level, the GM usually – not always – only puts in his input for his team’s first-round pick. As Devellano shared, the Red Wings currently have a Director of Amateur Scouting named Kris Draper; yes, the same Kris Draper who once starred for Detroit in the 90s and early 2000s. According to Devellano, Draper sits next to GM Steve Yzerman during the draft. But after the first-round, most of the picks Detroit makes are decided by Draper and his Scouts.
And now that we’ve covered the Entry Draft, there’s really only one aspect of the General Manager’s job left to discuss. That’s right, it’s the part you’ve all been waiting for. THE TRADES.
As Shero quipped, “That is more like 10% of the job, probably.” Hey, it’s that “10%” that gets most of the attention so let’s briefly discuss it. Have you ever wondered what those trade discussions are really like? Well here you go.
“For the most part, the GMs know one another,” Devellano explained. “They have General Managers meetings where they discuss league things and rules. So they’ve socialized together. So, for the most part, each guy knows each other. Just like in any business, or life, you’re closer to some people than you are others. It’s hard to just get on the phone and say, ‘by the way, I want ‘Player X.’ If you got on the phone and said that to another GM, especially about a star player, he’d laugh at you.
“What happens is, (when you want to ask about a trade), you get on the phone with another General Manager and, the way I used to do it was, I’d ask, ‘what are you looking for? What do you need?’ We’ve all got needs, and that would start the conversation. He might say, ‘I’m looking for a second line right-winger, somebody who can score 20-goals. Maybe got a little size too. And that’s kind of what I’m looking for. What are you looking for?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I need a left-shooting defenseman. Somebody who can move the puck out of their own end.’ That’s how GMs talk. Sometimes there is a match. Most times there isn’t a match. That’s why trades aren’t made everyday.”
Thank you Jim for the insight into how those conversations go. And now, let’s wrap things up with one final thought about the jobs of NHL GMs.
Bowman summed it up best. “You count on the people who you have working for you,” he said. “You can’t be everywhere. And that’s why you count on your staff. Your staff is important. You have important people on the staff who you rely on for their judgment. Basically, it’s a team game. When you’re a General Manager, you’ve gotta build up a team off the ice, just like you do on the ice.”