Front Office Material: Hockey’s Greatest GMs

Sadly, for the third time in 18 years, the NHL has gone into lock-out and hockey fans (young and old) around the world must go to bed at night without their fill of hockey because of the collective intransigence of management and players alike.

The fact that the NHL is deliberately inflicting this horrid situation upon its fans (there’s no other way to say it better) brings the action of management into greater focus. Ordinarily, I would be writing about the teams and the players and the coaches doing what they do best: displaying the greatest band of hockey on the Planet Earth but right now I cannot do that so, instead, I would like to write about a new topic: NHL general managers.

Interestingly there is not that much literature about hockey general managers (or general managers in the other three major North American sports) and yet it is the general managers who possess the most enormous impact in the game of hockey today (as well as the other North American sports). Their impact has been significant since the NHL began and will always continue to be that way.

Sportswriters and fans always focus on the players and head coaches because they are the most visible aspects and extensions of the game itself. We see them on the local news and during the game broadcasts but in reality they only play a partial role in how games are won and lost. Hockey general managers play a major role too but nearly always in the shadows; behind locked doors; or, on rare occasions, you catch glimpses of them in their skyboxes during the games. When they emerge from their corporate cells it is usually to announce the drafting, signing, or trading (usually the latter) of a player or the hiring or firing (especially the latter) of a head coach.

Fans forget tend to forget that general managers are the most powerful figures in the world of sports. They are second only to the team owners in the pecking order of a team’s internal power base. Indeed some general managers (if they are lucky enough to have an owner who is sufficiently disengaged) can perpetuate their reigns regardless of how good or bad a team can perform. NHL history is replete with GMs who kept their jobs during long, lean or mediocre periods while players and coaches lost theirs.

A GM can make or break a player or coaches’ career with a stroke of the pen or a single phone call. Hockey history (as well as sports history) is replete with examples of players and coaches, great and not-so-great, whose careers foundered because they got on the wrong side of a general manager who had an agenda that did not include the player(s) or coach in question.

General Managers work from an Olympian perspective: spending hundreds of millions of dollars on playing and coaching talent, proven and unproven. The great and good ones gamble every season with the house’s money in the hopes that the monies they wager on a draft-pick, free agent, player or head coach’s talent will make the difference between winning the Stanley Cup or winning the conference finals or winning the division or winning at all. The mediocre ones spend merely to break even and keep the fans coming in. The bad ones don’t spend the money to improve their teams at all.

Hockey coaches deal solely with 23 players. The general manager’s realm is vaster still. Not only do they sign the players and the coaches; they must tender to the scouting resources in North America and abroad. They must assign players to the minors. They (along with an enormous staff of subordinates) must deal with press relations, public relations; the physical plant of the hockey arena itself, charities, doctors, and politicians. They negotiate with lawyers and agents and politicians constantly. They deal not only with contracts but in labor disputes as well. In short their impact (good or bad) is enormous but seldom truly appreciated by the common hockey fan.

A team can possess the finest players and coaches in the game itself but even the most highly talented teams have foundered at the hands of a poor general manager. The god-like stature of a hockey GM can make or break a franchise. Hockey history is replete with such examples of great teams being dismantled or failing to achieve their full potential because of poor general management.

Using a plus/minus system devised by myself that rated all NHL general managers past and present on a weighted rating scale that judged GMs on six standards of success and four standards of failure, I was able to determine the 50 greatest hockey GMs from 1917 to the end of the 2011/12 NHL season. In the weeks to come you will learn the names of those fifty men in reverse order from #50 to #1 himself.

In the weeks to come it will be this writer’s task to identify and examine the NHL’s greatest general managers to see how they earned their rank in the pantheon of hockey managerial greatness; how did they get there? What qualities made them great? What were their innovations? What were their greatest trades; greatest draft picks; or greatest free-agent signings? Or else what were their greatest mistakes? (Even the great ones made their fair share of clunkers) How good were they at hiring coaching talent? Which GMs served the longest or won the most Stanley Cups? Or had the most playoff appearances without winning the Stanley Cup?

This series “Front Office Material: Hockey’s Greatest GMs” will attempt to answer these questions and provide hockey fans with a greater insight into the men who built (and/or dismantled) some of the greatest hockey teams of all time; who signed (and/or traded away) some of the greatest hockey players of all time; who hired (and/or fired—particularly the latter) some of the greatest coaches of all time.

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