I don’t know how many folks around this area have seen Neil Smith’s (relatively) new website (with a hat-tip to Mirtle). Smith, you’ll remember, was the General Manager of the New York Rangers when they broke their long-standing drought and won the Stanley Cup in 1994. He was also the GM of the New York Islanders for about two months, until he was punted aside by Charles Wang in favour of the backup goaltender. His website tells us that he is presently a scout for the Anaheim Ducks, and a television analyst on the NHL Network and elsewhere.
Smith’s been writing about business and leadership in a column for the Conde Nast Portfolio, and his website has some of the articles archived. His latest has him grinding away at some familiar axes (including a very enjoyable shot at ex-Rangers coach Mike Keenan). Here is a pair of excerpts from the article:
While positions like coach and general manager are obviously critical ones, the hiring process often doesn’t seem to reflect their significance. Instead, it’s not uncommon to find a hire based on the idea that it’s better to go with the devil you know versus the one you don’t. Or ownership may have a personal bias toward a candidate that has little or nothing to do with their likely effectiveness.
In fact, in hockey generally, the vetting process more often than not comes down to a subjective decision by team executives rather than a careful examination of winning percentage, leadership ability, and consistency.
Despite the fact that Smith’s preaching a self-serving message (and the amusing Mark Messier head on his website), he isn’t wrong. He cites the Dallas Stars as an example, but the league is rife with them—Calgary and Florida both hired successful coaches for a job that required an entirely different skill-set, while teams like Vancouver and Tampa Bay hired player agents. Smith didn’t mention his former team, but Charles Wang’s decision to employ Garth Snow as General Manager has been the most bizarre GM hiring in recent memory.
Another team we could mention here is the Edmonton Oilers. Kevin Lowe, the team’s first draft pick, was an assistant coach for exactly one year before being handed the head coaching assignment. A single season as head coach and the departure of Glen Sather led to his installation as General Manager. The line of Smith’s about “personal bias” would certainly seem to apply here, and it’s been a hallmark of the EIG’s ownership. Craig MacTavish, the current coach, had three years as an assistant before being put into his current spot, but like Charlie Huddy, Craig Simpson, and countless others, he seems to have been hired primarily because of his connection to the team’s glory days. The fact that he can coach was fortunate, but hardly assured.
The good news is that the Oilers seem to be moving away from this tradition. Steve Tambellini, who seems to have had a good working relationship with Lowe from their time together at Hockey Canada, was plucked from outside the organization after many years learning the ropes in various capacities with Vancouver. The new coach in Springfield, Jeff Truitt, brings a track record of success from the WHL with him, and also doesn’t have a history with the Oilers. It isn’t so much that it’s wrong to hire people who have history with an organization; it’s just wrong to hire second-tier candidates because of that history.