Calgary Flames, 1991-1995
Minnesota Wild, 1999-2009
Pacific Division Titles: 1993-1995
Northwest Division Title: 2007-2008
Playoff Appearances: 1993-1995, 2003, 2007-2008
A descendant of the Frank Selke Sr. managing tree (Risebrough worked for Cliff Fletcher who once worked for Sam Pollock who, in turn, worked for Frank Selke Sr.) Doug Risebrough’s NHL career has encompassed the full spectrum of hockey activity: player, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, top echelon front office work, and scouting.
As a player Doug Risebrough was a first round draft pick for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1974 Amateur Draft. A bruising, hard-hitting center Risebrough supplied the muscle for the Habs Dynasty teams that won the Stanley Cup from 1976 to 1979. In 1982 he was traded to the Calgary Flames and it was there he demonstrated leadership skills; sharing the team captaincy while playing for the late Bob Johnson. He was part of the Flames 1985/86 Team that reached the Stanley Cup finals. Risebrough retired in 1987 and served as an assistant coach under Terry Crisp for two seasons before moving up to the front office—serving as deputy Flames GM under Cliff Fletcher.
When Terry Crisp was fired as Flames head coach in 1990, Risebrough took over with mixed results. His rookie season was solid and respectable. As a reward Risebrough succeeded Cliff Fletcher as Flames GM while remaining as head coach. Late in his sophomore year as head coach (with the team losing) Risebrough left the bench to work full time as general manager.
It takes limitless money to maintain a Stanley Cup contender. The Flames possessed big market talent in a small market city. When Cliff Fletcher left Calgary to become GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was handing off to Doug Risebrough the unappealing task of coping with a Stanley Cup payroll while possessing limited resources to meet it.
It took only eight months for Risebrough to do the inevitable. In 1992 he made what was then the biggest trade in NHL history when he sent Doug Gilmour (one of the finest defensive forwards in the game) and four other players to Toronto (managed by his mentor Cliff Fletcher) in exchange for five players (none of whom did anything for the Flames). The Gilmour trade still remains one of the greatest trading blunders in NHL history.
The trade heralded the slow hemorrhaging of the Flames as a team. In 1994 the redoubtable Mike Vernon—the man who manned the pipes when the Flames won the 1989 Stanley Cup was the next to go—to Detroit, where he would help the Wings win the 1997 Stanley Cup while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process. Scotty Bowman biographer Douglas Hunter would later write that “Bowman had pulled an inside job, using his familiarity with Risebrough to make off with the heart and soul of the team.”
Five days after Vernon left stalwart blue-liner Al MacInnis was the next to go—to St. Louis where he would continue to earn All-Star honors. The men who made the Flames winners and champions in the 1980s were leaving—helping other teams contend and win Stanley Cups—while no one was filling their shoes.
Still, despite all this, the Flames won two consecutive divisional titles for Risebrough (but suffered first round losses both times). When the team failed to impress at the start of the 1995/96 season Risebrough was fired (the Flames afterwards entered into an abyss that lasted until Darryl Sutter took over as head coach and, later, general manager and yet even today the Flames are still struggling; still failing to achieve their potential).
Risebrough found work with the Edmonton Oilers (who were managed by Glen Sather) as vice president of hockey operations but in 1999 the fledgling Minnesota Wild gave Risebrough a new lease on life when they hired him to be their very first general manager.
His luck seemed to change. His hiring of former teammate Jacques Lemaire was a brilliant coup. Lemaire was and still remains one of the greatest head coaches in hockey history. He was the perfect choice to forge a franchise from the ice up. Risebrough’s luck continued when the Wild drafted Marian Gaborik in the first round of the 2000 NHL draft. Gaborik remains Risebrough’s greatest draft pick in his twelve seasons of NHL managing; becoming the Wild’s franchise player and fan favorite.
Amazingly the Wild’s teething pains were relatively brief. After two losing seasons, the Wild amazed the hockey world by reaching the conference finals in the 2002/03 season (only to lose to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim).
The team continued to win (winning their first divisional title in 2008) but never reached the same heights in the playoffs ever again. Doug Risebrough has never managed a team to the Stanley Cup finals. Indeed he is one of 16 NHL general managers who have managed teams that earned a minimum of five playoff appearances without ever reaching the Stanley Cup finals (I invented a term to define such a general manager: a heartbreak GM).
Doug Risebrough is tied for 10th place on the all-time heartbreak GM’s list with six playoff appearances without ever reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
Also the same talent drain was going on in Minnesota that went on in Calgary. Risebrough failed to re-sign Marian Gaborik and failed to trade him in order to get any value on his departure. Other Wild stars left too: Andrew Brunette and Brian Rolston to name a few. When the Wild failed to reach the playoffs in 2008/09 the team allowed Jacques Lemaire to resign gracefully but unceremoniously fired Doug Risebrough.
Today Risebrough works for the New York Rangers as a scout (under the aegis of Glen Sather) but in many ways the story of Doug Risebrough as an NHL general manager is one of unfulfilled promise; a failure to grow into the position; a failure to build a team that can stand as a permanent monument of sustained success, growth, and future progress. Doug Risebrough should have been more than he was but in the end proved that he wasn’t.
(My next column will feature former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell.)