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Long Read: How La Forge Became a GM

Like many young Canadian kids, Bil La Forge spent much of his youth in a hockey rink. Unlike most of them, he spent more time watching than he did playing. He was at the rink a lot growing up in the 1980s while his father, the late Bill La Forge, coached in the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and a short 22-game stint with the Vancouver Canucks.

The younger La Forge was more of a hard worker than a skilled player, and that skill set has helped him climb the ranks in the hockey world. This summer he was named the General Manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

So, how does someone become a GM?

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Becoming a GM of a major junior hockey team takes massive commitment and a lot of sacrifices.

Here is La Forge’s story.

“I started playing minor hockey in Enoch, then moved onto Regina, Kamloops, Niagara Falls and Burlington to whichever city dad was coaching in,” said La Forge. “I was a bit of a suitcase in junior. I was a fourth line guy in the OHL, bordering on a fifth-line guy, and in Junior A I was a mid-tier player.”

La Forge was hockey crazy growing up. He loved playing and watching the game. He watched many games with his father, and while he didn’t know it at the time, those early years of watching games and asking questions would be the foundation to a life in hockey.

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There was no senior or junior designation in the La Forge household — his father’s name is spelled Bill and he is Bil. His passion for hockey came from his father, while his mother taught him many valuable lessons and he would follow in her footsteps as well.

Penny La Forge was a school teacher.  She enjoyed seeing kids learn, and the biggest imprint she left on her son was love and compassion.

Bil, born in 1974, is the oldest of the five La Forge children and he was followed by Erin in 1977, Sara in 1980, Holly in 1981 and Bonnie in 1983.

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“Bonnie was born November 7th, 1983, and died May 28th, 1984,” explained her older brother. “She was born with a rare disease where her body had no ability to fight off any infection.  They didn’t expect her to live more than a couple days, but my mom was amazing with her. She showered her with love. We did birthdays for her every month, instead of every year, and many other neat things like that and Bonnie was with us longer than anyone expected.

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“Obviously it was a terrible experience, but my parents were great throughout it and included all of us. We did get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing Bonnie, even though it was only seven months. My youngest daughter is named Alexa Bonnie after her.”

While the La Forge family dealt with Bonnie’s illness, Bill was also coaching the Kamloops Blazers to a Memorial Cup appearance. Imagine coaching a junior hockey team while your youngest child is living on borrowed time. I can’t fathom how emotionally taxing that would have been.

La FORGING A PATH 

Bill La Forge’s path to the NHL was very unique.

“He was the Recreation Director in Enoch and coached their Junior B team,” explained Bil. “The story, as I recall, was he went to a Junior B tournament in Ontario and met Sherry Basin. He told me he phoned Sherry every day and said he wanted to be his coach. He agreed to such a low salary and Sherry hired him to coach the Oshawa Generals.”

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He was six years old when his father got the job in 1980.

“When dad started coaching they gave up everything to go to Oshawa,” explained Bil. “Mom gave up her teaching job, and dad gave up his secure job as the recreation director at Enoch. They bet on themselves and went to Oshawa.

“He made $6,000 his first year in Oshawa and four years later he was in the NHL.

“He coached one season in Oshawa, but he got suspended 50 games for getting into a fight with Dave Dryden on the ice in 1981,” Bil said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to serve it so he went to Regina in the WHL for one year.

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“The Edmonton Oilers owned the Kamloops Blazers at the time and after a good year in Regina, they offered him the head coach and GM job.

“The first year in Kamloops (1982/1983) they broke the record for most points improvement (37 to 92) and the second year they were in the Memorial Cup. Then he was hired by Vancouver Canucks,” said Bil with a large, proud smile.

His father coached the Canucks for 22 games. It didn’t go well and he was fired.

“The one thing he said many years later was he never should have went to the NHL as fast as he did. He should have been an assistant coach in the NHL or a head coach in the AHL. He wasn’t ready for the NHL when he took the job,” continued La Forge.

It was a lesson young Bil would experience later in his own career.

It was a brief stint in the NHL, but the younger La Forge saw how his father kept coaching because he loved it. He was passionate, and while he had a reputation of being a hard-ass coach who encouraged tough hockey, his biggest focus was team camaraderie.

“As a coach, he was very team oriented and did a lot of team building,” La Forge said. “He really believed in the brotherhood of the team. I’ve had many of his former players call me the past few weeks after I got the job and they were very excited for me and they all talked about how my father focused so much on team closeness.”

Bill La Forge passed away in 2005. He battled various sicknesses for many years, but he was around long enough to see his son coach. He was a very proud papa.

“I got into coaching and I loved it,” said Bil enthusiastically.  “I had the coaching bug pretty hard right away. I coached for five or six years, and my last year we won Westerns in 2007 with the Sherwood Park Kings Bantam AAA club. After the season I sat down with my wife and said I didn’t think coaching was something I wanted to do going forward. So I got out of coaching and moved into the scouting world with the hopes of moving up in hockey that way.”

PASSION AND FAMILY

Nella, Izabella and Alexa La Forge.

La Forge enjoyed coaching, but it wasn’t his passion. To be successful in sports, and life, you have to be passionate and love what you’re doing. He enjoyed coaching, but those hours as a young boy watching hockey with his dad kept pulling at him.

After coaching the Kings in 2007 he went right into scouting with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL and worked his way up the ranks over 10 seasons. He started out as the Edmonton regional scout, then became Northern Alberta scout before being promoted to head scout and finally director of player personnel.

Ten years of grinding, but it paid off when he was hired as GM of Seattle. But the grind as a WHL scout is much more than just hockey.

WHL scouts need a full-time job to support their passion, and LaForge was the director at Mount Carmel Hockey Academy while working for Everett. He became a teacher right out of college. He taught for 15 years at Mount Carmel and prior he was a teacher at St. Edmunds, St. Augustine, St. Martha and Anne Fitzgerald, where he met his wife Nella. She was a grade one teacher while Bil taught Grade six.

Nella has been Bil’s biggest supporter. His journey has been her journey as well and she has had to sacrifice a lot.

“I’d watch 400 to 500 games a year,” Bil said. “Some weekends you would go to a tournament and you’d watch 20-25 games. You need a very supportive family. Our anniversary is Sept. 2, and I’ve been on the road every year. It can be difficult. It is important to be present when you are around. When I’m home I’m really home. I take my daughters to school, to practice and I focus on them.

“Without my wife and the support of my kids I couldn’t have done what I did. My kids don’t know anything else. Izabella was born right before my final season coaching and Alexa was born when I was scouting. The one who really has to carry the weight is my wife. She is incredible. She knows how important this is to me and she knows it has been a goal of mine for a long time. She is supportive in every way and often has to carry more of the mail at home for sure. I owe her a lot.”

His love, admiration and respect for Nella was very apparent in his words. Hockey has become a family affair for the La Forge’s.

“My wife comes to a couple games and my girls come to a lot of games,” Bil said. “Izabella could take or leave hockey, she loves soccer, but Alexa is a hockey nut. She comes to a lot of games, and her insight is very straightforward. Once when she was seven she said, ‘“You should draft that guy, he has the puck a lot.’

“It was a great point, he was around the puck all the time and now they are old enough that some of their friends’ older brothers are playing so they do enjoy the games. Once a year I bring them on a road trip, but they are more interested if the hotel has a pool or waterslide. They like hockey, but on the road the pool and waterslide are the most important.”

Scouting isn’t easy, but it wasn’t that difficult of a transition for La Forge.

“I was in rinks from a young age following my dad. I watched hockey with him and I’ve always been around the game. You learn as you go,” said the Thunderbirds GM. “Drafting bantam age kids, the mistakes happen quite often. In Everett, I looked at finding core values: skating, speed, and hockey sense. When we stuck to that formula we would limit the mistakes.

“When you are drafting 14 year olds you don’t know if they will be big or strong, but you can tell if they play smart or fast. Garry Davidson (Everett GM) is an absolute genius. Having him around and learning from him, having conversations with him about hockey and scouting really helped me. We still made mistakes in Everett, don’t get me wrong, but when you stick to your belief in what you are looking for in a young player you will limit your mistakes.”

GM STRENGTHS

Now he has an entirely new challenge. He is the General Manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He feels prepared for the challenge, and he still remembers his father explaining to him that rushing to the NHL wasn’t the best career move.

“The first year after I was head scout in Everett I spoke to a team about being their GM. I thought I was ready at the time. I didn’t get the job, and I look back now I’m thankful I didn’t, because there was no chance I was ready. I wouldn’t have been successful,” Bil said.

His father’s experience as a GM in Kamloops and his mother’s career as a teacher has had an obvious influence on Bil’s career path.

“I think being a teacher will help me more as a general manager than as a scout,” he said. “When a young player decides to come to the Western Hockey League they are making a choice to come to the University of Hockey. They are passing up going to the NCAA and they are going to give their hockey a go. We are making an eight-to-10-year commitment to these kids. The four or five years they are on our team and the four or five years after. We are preparing them to go play professional hockey, but just as importantly we are preparing them for USports or ACAC and to move on with their life.

“I think the education background will help me as a GM. I want to develop these kids and give them the opportunity to move on in every way. That means making sure they are graduating on time, making sure their marks are where they need to be and then also their on-ice development. Bring in guys to help them work on skill development. Sometimes in the past, when I played, it was about we have to win X-number of games and it wasn’t about ‘let’s get these players to go to the next level’. I want to ensure we prepare them on and off the ice for the next phase.”

When you speak with La Forge he is almost more passionate about the education paths of his players than he is about their on-ice success. Don’t get me wrong, of course he wants to win, but his education is near the top of his priority list. He also cares about their overall development.

“I tell kids all the time. I’ve never seen anyone come up (to the WHL) too late,” La Forge said. “I’ve seen lots of players come up too early, but never too late. I talk to our coaches here (Seattle) and to be a 16 year-old our mindset shouldn’t be, ‘I think we can get him in 40 games.’ It has to be the opposite. ‘I hope we shelter him for four games and give him a breather now and again.’

“If they aren’t a huge part of your team I’d rather they go back to midget or tier two (Junior A), find success, have the puck and then come here as a 17 year old and be excited. Plus, then the coaches are excited about them too, they aren’t annoyed over all the mistakes they made as a 16-year-old.”

La Forge himself won’t be coming up too early. He’s been around for 10 years and the benefit of having an experienced hockey man to speak with daily in his rookie season as a GM.

“The ability to learn is important for me. I want to learn from the people who are there. Having Russ Farwell (Former Thunderbirds GM, and former Philadelphia Flyers GM who acquired Eric Lindros) stay on for a year will be hugely beneficial for me, and will only help me going forward, while I bring in my way of looking at things,” La Forge said.

He will also stay true to his scouting roots. He believes strongly is trusting your scouts, and doesn’t plan on overstepping his boundaries as a GM.

“I will let my scouts do their job,” he said. “I know how much time and commitment they put it. They are watching games on a Wednesday night in Dauphin, Manitoba, or Red Deer, Alberta and then driving home for hours. I won’t come in after watching prospects for one weekend and tell them I think this player is the guy.

“I will provide my opinion, but I will be an advisor and they have to make their decision and we will live with the players we draft. You have to have confidence in their scouts and let them do their job. I believe in fast, skilled game. Your players need to be smart, and competitive is always important, but speed, skill and hockey sense are a must. That is what our organization will look for.”

GET INTO SCOUTING

There are many different paths into hockey outside of just being a player. Coaching, scouting, managing as well as analytics. I asked La Forge what advice he would give people looking to get in as a scout.

“You have to make the commitment to go to the games. When you are getting in the business you need to be seen in the rinks. You have to commit to it. It isn’t easy. You have to do it because you love it, not because you view it is a job,” he said.

“It is important to have an opinion on players, but you need to educate yourself on that opinion. Get in the rinks, watch games, have an opinion, stick by your opinion, but mainly be willing to put a lot of time in the rinks. As you move up you will get a lot of opportunities.”

We also discussed analytics and how, if at all, they have impacted scouting at the WHL level.

“Analytics hasn’t really impacted scouting bantam players, because there aren’t many available,” he said. “I still believe in the eye test. Analytics has a place in the game, no question, but as a scout my job was to watch for hockey sense, do kids have skill and do they anticipate where the play is going.

“Coaches use analytics a lot in the WHL, likely because they have more numbers available, but it hasn’t really impacted how you scout bantam players.”

Hockey has been in Bil’s life from the age of six, when his father got his first coaching job, and it has always been a family affair. With Nella, Izabella and Alexa by his side he is excited about the next challenge.

They are currently living in a hotel in Seattle as they look for a new home. On top of running the Thunderbirds he has already been informed he has another commitment.

“My kids love it,” he said. “Izabella has already told me we are buying Seattle Reign season tickets (the women’s soccer team), so I guess I’m going.”

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