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Top Shelf: When stars shoot for the GM’s chair

Whether with a suit or a stick, Mark Messier's impact on the game continues. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Whether with a suit or a stick, Mark Messier's impact on the game continues. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Foreign jokesters must be having a field day with Mark Messier being named GM of Canada’s 2010 World Championship entry. Think about it; the face of Canadian hockey is officially a Moose. Does this make ‘The Little Beaver’ Marcel Dionne a shoo-in for coach?

Semi-funny stereotypes aside, Messier’s appointment by Hockey Canada calls attention to an emerging point of intrigue in the NHL, namely highly-decorated Hall of Fame players who have designs on GM jobs.

One of those men, Steve Yzerman, is running Canada’s Olympic team. He got his managerial feet wet with Hockey Canada as GM of both the gold medal-winning 2007 World Championship team and the 2008 squad that won silver on home soil in Quebec City.

By hiring Messier, Hockey Canada continues a pattern of handing the World Championship GM’s job to a person who doesn’t occupy the same seat with an NHL team.

Messier is a special assistant to Glen Sather in New York, while Yzerman is just one of the shrewd VPs Ken Holland has working under him in Detroit. Last year, Blues GM-in-waiting Doug Armstrong took the reins for Canada. If the pattern holds, maybe we can expect Blues vice-president, hockey operations Al MacInnis or Carolina associate coach-director of player personnel Ron Francis to get a crack in coming years.

It’s a mutually beneficial approach because men who want to prove their salt as player selectors get a chance to craft a team, while Hockey Canada gets a less-distracted, but still highly competent and motivated person calling the shots.

As for making NHL inroads, it will be interesting to see how things shake down with these big stars. We’ve long known star players rarely make the best – or even good – coaches and it’s really no different when discussing the type of people who typically become high-caliber GMs.

Right now, the best former NHLers running hockey teams are Bob Gainey and Joe Nieuwendyk, with an honorable mention to Doug Wilson. It’s a bit of a microcosm that the No. 3 guy on that list is the best GM.

Nieuwendyk was tapped to run the Dallas Stars last summer, but of five new hires league-wide, he’s the only one with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to absorb an NHL bodycheck. Of the four other men – Chuck Fletcher in Minnesota, Greg Sherman in Colorado, Stan Bowman in Chicago and Randy Sexton in Florida – only Sexton played the game at any kind of high level, having spent four years at St. Lawrence University.

Sticking with the above examples, all four of the non-players had somewhere between ample and extensive working experience within the hockey operations department of an NHL team prior to becoming first-time GMs.

Guys like Nieuwendyk, meanwhile, tend to get fast-tracked. They spend a couple years wearing a suit with an organization they previously wore a uniform for, then package that experience with the knowledge of what it’s like to play with and against the best in the world and start firing off resumes.

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Tracking GM DNA is fascinating because such a wide spectrum of people is represented, from Harvard grads to guys who barely – if at all – finished high school. Holland, typically regarded as the best in the biz, was a minor league goalie. Tampa’s Brian Lawton is a busted No. 1 overall pick. Whether you were a bruiser or bean counter in a past life, there’s a good chance some of the skills you picked up along the way translate to being an NHL boss.

There has been a general sports management shift over the past number of years to emphasize brains over brawn, a quasi revenge-of-the-nerds scenario whereby the boys who were never picked for the team are now suddenly proving adept at team-picking.

Former Tampa GM and current THN.com blogger Jay Feaster basically parlayed being a really sharp fella from Williamstown, Pa., into running a Cup-winning team in 2004. That same year, Theo Epstein, hired by the Boston Red Sox as the youngest GM in Major League Baseball history, constructed a squad that ended an 86-year World Series drought. His first baseball job was as a media relations intern with the Baltimore Orioles.

By the same token, imagine owning a hockey team and having Mark Messier, nothing if not a leader, stroll into your office, look you dead in the eye – which is partially blinded by the glow from his Cup rings – and declare he’s ready to get to work building a top-flight team. Casting Mess aside in favor of some guy who looks like he might get shaken down for his lunch money is likely easier said than done.

There’s an engrossing element to all this in the fact that – even in the complex salary cap world – there’s still some basic feel-it-in-your-gut aspects to being a GM. Sather summed it up best when he said some variation on, “It doesn’t matter who you are, if you can watch 50 guys skate around a rink and pick out who can play, you can be a GM in the National Hockey League.”

More and more, we’re going to find out if his protege – and others of Messier’s decorated ilk – can do just that.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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