Brian Burke sits in the stands. The GM job can sometimes be a lonely one.
A few days ago I rode down in a crowded press room elevator with a GM. His team had just been beaten and they were barely competitive that night. His team was struggling and he spoke to no one. He probably wasn’t even aware of the others on the elevator. No one spoke to him. There was nothing to say.
I had an idea what he was thinking about, at least the range of thoughts that were going through his mind.
“When will the power play click?” “Why can’t our penalty killers get it done?” “Turnovers?” “Our 5-on-5 is bad!” “What can we do to get going?” “We can’t win with average goaltending, I wish we could get average goaltending.” Not many good thoughts, not much good happening.
What I did know is that no one else on that elevator knew what was going through his mind. Not the assistant coaches, not the pro scouts (at least those who hadn’t left at the 55-minute mark), and not the hockey writers. The GM job is one that you must experience to grasp the pressure.
When your team is losing, you think every team is better than yours. Every team appears to be a playoff-bound club, something your club is not. You begin to wonder if you will ever win. You try to remember that distant feeling when you were winning. You may even, in a moment of clarity, wonder why you took the job.
A good sense of humor can be helpful.
Every GM has experienced something like this: Your team has lost five in a row, four regulars are out for a month and the coach calls you after practice. The leading scorer has been injured and he has gone for x-rays.
You ask, “How did he get hurt?” The coach replies, “He slipped on the ice”, pauses, then continues “when he got out of his car in the parking lot.” Your laugh turns into a profane scream or is it your profane scream turns into a laugh?
Whatever, you get the point.
Deep down you believe in your team, your players, your coaches, you believe things will get better. The power play will click, the goalie will have a shutout and you will win five in a row. But, you wonder, when? Will it be this month, this year, when?
Managing a team is like climbing a slippery mountain. Every time you think you get close to the top, it gets slick, very slick.
Pretty soon you are convinced someone is flooding the mountain top, making it impossible to climb. Pretty soon you see someone up there with a hose. You shout, “who are you?” He bellows back, “I’m the keeper of the mountaintop, God put me here to keep everyone off the top.” You yell back, “but someone always makes the top!” He replies, “that may be, but it won’t be you.”
Riding down that elevator, looking at the GM suffering, I thought back several years to when I heard someone ask a seasoned GM what he’d be when he stopped managing.
The GM replied in a nanosecond:
“Happy, I’ll be happy.”
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.