Earlier this week, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Islanders GM Garth Snow. Snow discussed how he became Islanders GM, some of the events that have taken place during his tenure including the Rick DiPietro contract, the Ryan Smyth trade and the team’s recent 14-game winless streak, and his blueprint for the future of the franchise…
Brad Kurtzberg: You went from backup goalie to general manager which is an unusual progression. How did you get the job?
Garth Snow: In the spring of 2006, Mike Milbury had resigned and our season had come to an end in April. At that time, I talked to Charles Wang our owner about the opportunity to help out in a capacity—in any capacity to help us out because at that time there was no general manager. There were a series of interviews that I went through and it’s something that not a lot of people are aware of but it’s not a scenario that just came out of nowhere for me to come on the scene as GM. I had gone through the interview process as early as April with Charles and from that point on I ended up getting surgery. They ended up hiring a coach and a general manager, I was just rehabbing from my hip surgery and preparing to come back as a player the following September. Then I got a call in July from Charles talking about the position again.
Q: Were you surprised when the job opened up again?
A: It’s obviously a situation where you don’t expect to get a call like that, so yeah, it was a surprise.
Q: What was the biggest adjustment for you going from a player to a GM?
A: I think the biggest adjustment going from a player to a GM is that as a player, you’re really concerned just about yourself and a little, I hesitate to use the word selfishness, not in a bad way but it’s ‘I’ve got to prepare myself in the offseason, I’ve got to prepare myself for practice, myself for a game to perform at the highest level I can’ whereas as a general manager, you’re more concerned about your players on the Islanders, your prospects in Bridgeport, your prospects that are in junior hockey and college hockey and Europe, your scouting staff, your staff on a day to day basis in the office. So it went from as a player mostly concerned about yourself and your own game to as a general manager, a concern for the overall organization and it definitely went from a situation from as a player, you put your two or three hours in of training in the offseason or in season to as a general manager, it really is a 24/7 job, 12 months out of the year. It’s something you don’t totally ever get away from and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way, I love it.
Q: The first major move after you became GM was the Rick DiPietro contract. It was revolutionary at the time. Tell me how it came about.
A: It was a scenario where I had lived with Rick, played with him as his teammate. I think we all knew that he was not only a special goaltender but also a unique personality where he is driven to be the best. For us as an organization, I think it was in September 2006, we got a goalie who that season started at the All-Star Game at a very reasonable number. At the time, Rick took a contract that was at a lesser value than he would have if he had gone to free agency so it was a commitment from the organization to the player but just as importantly, it was a commitment from the player that wanted to stay on Long Island and wanted to play for the New York Islanders. The last couple of years have been tough on Rick, it’s a situation where he is so driven to be the best goalie that he can be, it’s very rewarding and satisfying to see the success he’s had after putting all that sweat into his rehabilitation.
Q: Rehab has to be difficult both for him personally and for the organization to wait it out.
A: For someone that might have never have been injured or doesn’t know what it’s like, I can tell you from my own experience coming off injury, it’s not just the hard work you put in to rehab, it’s also the patience to heal. Sometimes, the first phase of any rehabilitation from injury, waiting is the toughest part. You want to get moving, you want to get sweating, you want to feel that, I call it “good pain” that workouts have on the human body. It’s going to be happier for Rick. He’s been through more I think than anybody I’ve ever played with or managed when it comes to the type of commitment that he has put forth to get to where he is today.
Q: It’s almost like his competitiveness was working against him in this situation.
A: There’s an old saying, you’d rather rein in a thoroughbred than whip a mule. He’s a thoroughbred in that regard.
Q: When did you first say, I feel comfortable with this job, I’ve got control over it, I’ve mastered it?
A: The moment you think you have it mastered or think you have total control over a situation, something arises that you haven’t experience or dealt with before. I could tell you stories of things that have happened behind the scenes whether it’s a player or a player’s family. It’s not just managing a player; you’re really managing a player and his family. There’s a lot of things that happen on a day-to-day basis whether it’s a staff member, whether it’s a scout, whether it’s a player, whether it’s a coach, you’re never in a situation where you have everything mastered so to speak, it’s like life, it evolves and you handle different situations as they come in the best way that you can for not only the organization but for the player or the staff member.
Q: Tell me a bit about the thinking that went into the Ryan Smyth deal and how it came off?
A: We were a team that was battling for fourth place in the conference. We were in a situation where I felt we needed a winger that could put pucks in the net. It just so happened that Ryan at the time was in the middle of negotiations for an extension, that fell through at the 11th hour and to me it was a deal I would do again today. Without making that trade, we wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs and you’ve got to remember too, at that time when we were battling for home ice in the playoffs, we had a healthy team. I think shortly after the trade, Rick ended up getting hurt and missed a significant amount of time and there was a few other injuries on the defense that also contributed to the fact that we went from competing for home ice to the fact that we ended up getting in [to the playoffs] on the 82nd game of the season on a shootout. I still remember that move by Viktor Kozlov and the two big goals that Richard Park scored against New Jersey.
Q: When Smyth did not re-sign the following summer, the organization seemed to change its philosophy regarding free agents. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: Along with not being able to sign Ryan at the time there were other quality players that we made strong attempts to bring to Long Island. At that point in time, I thought we were better served by going in a direction to build through the draft and develop those players and really the toughest part of that transition is the patience part of it and not deviating from the plan. There’s going to be times where a move will be made to improve this organization but it’s still the same belief that we have to rebuild through the draft and develop our players properly and at the right time, sprinkle in the right free agents on July 1 and if an opportunity to make a trade to upgrade our team presents itself, we’ll do that as well but at this point, we’re not going to deviate from that plan, we’re going to stick with our young players and do it in a way that I believe is the way to build a consistent contender that can compete for a Stanley Cup on a year-to-year basis. There are no quick fixes and there’s not going to be any short term fixes. It’s a process for me that…we still haven’t even seen the team we assembled in the summer…We had some misfortune before we even played a preseason game where we lost Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit, two of our best players. From that point, we signed Mike Mottau, who was still a free agent at the time and picked up Michael Grabner who I believe is our third leading goal scorer, for goals, not points. We so just have to get healthy at this point. Once we get healthy, you can make a fair assessment of who we are when we get most of those injured players back. We’re in a situation right now where I look at the board and we have eight players out. We’ll never use injuries as an excuse but it is a fact that we’ve been decimated by some key injuries.
Q: One thing I’ve always respected about you, you never seem to be afraid to go against popular sentiment.
A: At the end of the day, anyone who knows me knows that I’m an honest person, I’m a person who will do what I feel is right for the organization. I’m a pretty up front person to work with or communicate with, sometimes maybe guilty of being too honest.
Q: The recent losing streak had to be difficult for you and the entire organization. What goes through your mind when something like that is going on?
A: I think I said earlier the word is patience because we are set up really nicely to be strong in the future. We have not only good young players here; we have good young players at Bridgeport. To me and the hockey community, we have one of the strongest prospect pools this organization has ever seen so good days are ahead and we’re trying to get to that place as soon as possible. It goes back to being patient. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is not do anything with regard to personnel. There were lots of conversations that I had where we could have tried quick fixes but at the end of the day, I wasn’t comfortable in making a move that could compromise what we’re trying to do in the future.
Q: What was the toughest decision you’ve had to make as GM of the Islanders?
A: There’s been a few decisions that weigh on you. I can tell you from my experiences whether it’s a player trade or dealing with a staff member, those are things you stay awake at night and think about the pros and cons of each decision and what the impact is going to be for the organization now and in the future. Those types of decisions are the ones you wrestle with and at the end of the day when I come to my decision, you make it.
Q: What is the one accomplishment so far that you are most proud of during your tenure?
A: Probably that the future of this organization is in a great place. We’re set up for the future. We’re a team that is on the rise. It’s a situation where we all, when I say we all I mean us as an organization and our fans, don’t like where we are in the standings right now but we’re not going to do anything that would compromise how we’re set up for the future. I’m bullish on where we are and where we’re going.
Q: Is there one decision you’d like to have back or do differently?
A: More focused on what the next decision is going to be. No, I don’t. It’s so easy to reflect back on a situation and saying hindsight’s 20/20 but when you make a decision at a particular point in time that has the best interests of the team and the franchise in mind, you can’t second guess why you made that decision. I think I said we’re in a position where we’re set up for the future; we’re heading in the right direction. I know sometimes it’s disheartening when you have a 14-game losing streak like we did but, you’ve got to recognize that we do have some valuable players that are going to come into their own. We’re still in a phase where we have a very young core and the key is to keep getting better and to learn from the experiences of the past, particularly like a 14-game losing streak. You learn from those and you become a better player and a better person because of it.
Q: How does the situation with the building right now and the team’s future on Long Island affect your job?
A: I don’t even like to comment on this. We know we’re here until 2015 and we were fortunate enough to have Charles put over $250,000 towards an upgrade in the locker room. You can see it now, players coming in earlier and players hang out in the room, it creates a good camaraderie within the room. At the end of the day, it’s something that’s uncontrollable. We as a hockey team have to win games and that’s all I’m focused on right now and we as a team are focused on.
Q: What message do you have for Islander fans who have stuck with this team through the years as this season continues and we move on into the future?
A: Hey, we’re moving in the right direction and I know it’s a tough pill to swallow when you look at where we are in the standings right now but we do have a great young core not only on the Islanders but our prospects in Bridgeport and in junior hockey and in Europe are at a level that I don’t think this organization has ever seen. So we are set up for the future and it’s up to us to develop these guys and get these players at a stage of their career earlier than otherwise would be so you got the John Tavares, and the Josh Baileys. Even though we made a move last week to put him in Bridgeport, it was all with a mindset of getting his confidence back to get him the player that he was in junior hockey when we picked him ninth overall. Travis Hamonic, who has played a couple of games with us has played extremely well, a 21-year-old defenseman, Calvin de Haan could be the captain of the Canadian World Junior Team, Matt Donovan has been dominant at times at college hockey in Denver, Nino Niederreiter is going to be a gem for us in the future as well. Kevin Poulin has a .940 save percentage in Bridgeport in his first year of pro hockey. We’ve got a great future ahead of us. Enjoy the ride because it’s always fun when you build something from the ground up and watch players blossom right before your eyes and it’s going to be that much more satisfying when we are a consistent contender and we bring that Stanley Cup back to Long Island.