Jim Nill had worked in the Red Wings organization since 1994. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
When Joe Nieuwendyk was hired as GM of the Dallas Stars four years ago, he was heralded as one of the game’s bright young minds, despite the fact the only managerial experience he had were short junior portfolios with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Canada’s World Championship team. In retrospect and looking at it objectively, nobody could have had a clue whether Nieuwendyk was going to be a roaring success, unmitigated disaster or something in between.
But he looked good in a designer suit and sounded better when he spoke. And he had a winning pedigree as a player, which seemed really, really important. But alas, Nieuwendyk’s body of work includes zero playoff appearances, some truly abysmal trades and some good work with free agents and building of the prospect stable. But given he was fired over the weekend, it’s safe to say there was more bad than good.
This should come as no surprise. And that’s because when a star player takes over as the head of a hockey department, the whole thing is just as likely to crash and burn as it is to be successful. In fact, you can literally count on one hand the number of men who have had Hall of Fame careers as both players and GMs. They are Lester Patrick, Jack Adams, Art Ross and, possibly, Serge Savard and Milt Schmidt. Only two of those guys have been a GM in the past 50 years.
Teams are much more likely to have sustained success by hiring guys such as Jim Nill, who was named the new Stars GM Monday. As a player, Nill appeared in 524 NHL games, each one of them because he worked more diligently than any other player on his team. Over the course of his career, he averaged about a goal every 10 games, but kept moving from team to team because coaches always liked having players like him around. And he never won a Stanley Cup as a player. Most years he never even came close.
Look at the best GMs in the history of the game. Sam Pollock, the greatest of them all, never played at a high level and started out coaching midget hockey and softball. Frank Selke was a hockey geek who managed a bantam team when he was 14. Glen Sather was a journeyman, Ken Holland was an undersized goalie who played four NHL games. Lou Lamoriello never advanced beyond college hockey. Jay Feaster, a guy who never played a game of organized hockey in his life and still doesn’t even know how to skate, won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004.
Compare that to the managerial careers of guys such as Phil and Tony Esposito and Brett Hull, all disasters. Other great players such as Frank Boucher, Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey, Dave Taylor and Rogie Vachon have had varying degrees of success, but for the most part the guys who have the ability to put together championship teams are the ones who either never had decent careers or had to scratch and claw their way through the careers they did have. Even Steve Yzerman, one of the greatest players of his era, is finding it’s one thing to put together an all-star team of players from the strongest hockey playing country in the world, but quite another to build an NHL organization. And the results have clearly been middling.
There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is the guys who didn’t have great playing careers are almost never automatically handed the keys to the kingdom. Just as they did when they played, they have to work that much harder to earn their managerial opportunities. They have to scout harder, watch games more closely, leave fewer stones unturned and make far more sacrifices than star players who tend to dabble into management to determine whether it’s something that suits their lifestyle.
That’s not to say that guys such as Nieuwendyk and Yzerman didn’t earn their chances. But it’s probably safe to say that Nieuwendyk didn’t have even close to enough experience to run an NHL operation, particularly one that was just coming out of bankruptcy and has had significant financial issues from the day he took over.
And the other thing is, and this is an important one, the ability to lead a team to Stanley Cups on the ice has absolutely no bearing on whether or not someone will be able to do it as an administrator. Just recently, Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe was defending his record as an executive by pointing out that there is only one person in hockey today who has his name on the Stanley Cup more times than he does. He used that fact to point out that he apparently knows a few things about winning. Which is true, but that doesn’t mean he knows any more than anyone else about actually building a winner.
When the Colorado Avalanche finally get around to firing GM Greg Sherman, there will no doubt be a hue and cry in Denver for Joe Sakic to take over the operation. But anyone who thinks that just because Sakic was one of the greatest two-way players in the history of the game means it will translate into big-time success for the Avalanche, might be in for a big disappointment.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.