( Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Specialization and a wealth of data to break down has led to a significant expansion of front office personnel around the NHL.
By Wayne Fish Most of us seem to enjoy living in the Information Age, but some, like the growing number of people employed by professional hockey teams, have to work hard to reap the benefits. There’s so much data out there and not enough time to figure out what is useful and what isn’t. From a technological standpoint, it can be dizzying. Imagine – or remember – what it was like 20 years ago at the dawn of cell phones and digital video. There wasn’t a need for large staffs, mainly because so much of scouting, training, medical treatment and the like were done the old-fashion way, i.e., by the book. But when the book gave way to the Internet, everything changed. Take a team like the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1995-96, the hockey operations staff – from owner down to equipment guys – totaled 21 people. Ten years later, that number jumped to 32. Today, the hockey ops roster has reached 43.
Through this expansion, the GM has had to be aware of what’s best for his team. Hall of Famer Bob Clarke knew that when he was serving as GM in 1996. Paul Holmgren followed that lead when he took over in 2006. And Ron Hextall faces the biggest challenge of all as he completes his second full year running the show in 2016. Hextall learned how important “modernizing” can be when he was assistant GM for the Los Angeles Kings, helping to build a team that won two Stanley Cups. “There’s data in everything,” Hextall said. “There’s a lot of information out there and you have to streamline it. I’m not talking about analytics specifically; I’m talking about coaching, breaking down video. “You have to figure it out because there’s so much out there. You have to narrow it down: ‘This is important to us’...There’s more work, it’s more complex than it used to be. I think it was a lot simpler 15 years ago.” Simpler, indeed. Going back to 1996, the Flyers had six full-time scouts. Now they employ 18. “Do you need more staff?” Hextall said. “Yeah, you used to have a strength and conditioning coach. Now you have an assistant or maybe interns. Sweat studies. Sometimes the hardest thing is figuring out what’s going to help us and what’s clutter. You don’t want too much video, too many studies.” Holmgren, now the president of the team, points out that a lot of additions to staff pertain to important areas, such as medical. For instance, 20 years ago, concussions weren’t taken all that seriously. Now? “We have a concussion spotter up in the press box,” Holmgren said. “It provides another view. “The medical staffs on each team today are greater than they used to be. I think we treat our players tremendously.” Director of sports medicine Jim McCrossin has been with the Flyers since the ’90s. He appreciates the advances in his field and the added personnel. “We have more support staff,” he said. “It’s grown, from assistant trainers to a strength coach, where I used to be both. We’re able to take care of the player on an individual basis.”
In ’96, no one in hockey had heard of analytics. Now the Flyers, like many teams, have a manager of analytics (Ian Anderson). Even an old-school guy like Clarke can see the dividends. “We weren’t as refined back then,” Clarke said. “There weren’t as many statistics. The analytical stuff is crucial now. How it’s used by the manager or the coach is up to them. I think it’s information that can be very useful. “You have to be on top of that. It’s not going to change. It’s going to get more advanced. Nothing in the world stays the same. Hextall’s job now – I guarantee you he has to work to get a day off. And when he does take a day off, he’s calling or texting on his phone. It’s 365 days a year, that job now. Twenty-four hours a day.” In turn, those coaches who used to burn the midnight oil can now make better use of their time simply by knowing what they’re looking for. Without question, the advance of technology has accelerated more over the past 10 years than it did for an entire generation before. “Everyone works longer hours now,” Hextall said. “The coaches are probably the one thing in terms of hours that hasn’t changed but their ability to micromanage a game is better than when they spent a lot of time doing probably 10 or 15 percent of what they do now. So they put in a similar timeline but they get more done. They critique the game more in the same amount of time. That’s part of why the game is so tight now. Because of the coaching, they work hard and they do a good job. There’s a lot of information for them to gather in a short period of time.” As for scouting, one would think there’s not a need for so much personnel, but it’s the opposite. Competition for players is fiercer than ever. Video scouting is great but doesn’t tell the whole story. “There’s something about seeing a game live,” Holmgren said. “You get to watch a guy’s mannerisms, body language.” All the more reason why the Flyers scouts’ head-and-shoulder photos take up nearly an entire page in their media guide. It’s the age we live in.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the March 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.