While Brian Burke is one of the most outspoken GMs in the game, Darryl Sutter is known as one of the most quiet. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
“The inspiring talker produces zeal, whose intensity depends not on the rationality of what is said or the goodness of the cause that is being advocated, but solely on the propagandist's skill in using words in an exciting way.” – Aldous Huxley, famous author
At a point in history where image and optics trump truth nine times out of 10, it is paramount not only to be able to walk the talk, but to talk with sufficient verve to make people want to stick around and see if you can walk it.
Rarely has that been more apparent than in today’s NHL, which has a number of teams clearly struggling to mold messages for their fan base – and consequently, taking consistent and predictable public relations poundings because of it.
Where some GMs – Detroit’s Ken Holland and San Jose’s Doug Wilson, to name two – speak freely and easily, offering insight into their organization without divulging crucial inside information, others labor through each and every interaction with the media, speaking as if each word was a massive boulder carried slowly off their tongues and out of their mouths, the way ancient Egyptians moved giant rocks as they built pyramids.
In Montreal, Canadiens GM Bob Gainey has been unable to illustrate or elaborate clearly on the Habs’ plans for success, leading to a slew of questions wondering why he went the route he did during the summer’s unrestricted free agency period.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Rangers boss Glen Sather has simply abandoned the idea of justifying anything he does to the media or public; the results of that curious customer service policy have been as negative as any NHL team outside of Arizona.
By contrast, some NHL teams have been blessed with executives who accept the necessary dance with the media, as they know it can either help or hurt the creation and management of fan expectations.
Blackhawks president John McDonough has been especially proficient at the job; he fired his coach and GM the same season the team made the Western Conference final, yet emerged from the moves relatively unscathed because he was savvy enough to hand both Denis Savard and Dale Tallon brand new contracts (ostensibly reverting the duo to their former roles as team ambassadors) as he delicately shoved them out the door.
Why? Because McDonough knew the last thing the Hawks needed was Savard and Tallon taking their stories to Chicago news crews and stirring up public outrage. It’s far easier to come to terms with a public sacking after your bank account has received a fresh injection of legal tender.
Other teams also understand what’s at stake in the media/team dynamic. The St. Louis Blues were coming off a fire sale of talent and change in ownership not too long ago, but thanks in large part to silver-tongued president John Davidson – whose experience as a TV commentator proves invaluable on a daily basis – they’ve changed the optics of their situation, won back many of their fans and now are converting new ones.
However, when it comes to managing the message in the NHL, nobody can touch Brian Burke. The Maple Leafs GM is the undisputed champ’een of the chat, verbally painting pictures that – compared to some of the drudgery emanating from his colleagues (I’m giving you the stink-eye, Darryl “Ben Stein” Sutter) – come off looking like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
In a recent radio interview, Burke spoke of the league’s trade market as a bazaar (perhaps confusing phonics-learners in Leafs Land who interpreted the remark as an adjective rather than a noun); when he was running the Canucks, Burke said the only way goalie Alex Auld would return to Vancouver was if he “flew to France during the summer and bathed in the holy waters of Lourdes;” and, has referred to Toronto as “the Vatican” of the hockey world numerous times.
But beyond the colorful rhetoric, Burke’s willingness to engage – and, if necessary, enrage – the local media serves a couple vital purposes.
It allows fans to feel as close as possible to the process of building a winning roster – and gives reporters enough grist for their mills to keep them from slowly picking the team and players apart, a fate that befell John Ferguson Jr. during his stint as Leafs GM.
Indeed, now that franchises are splintering the duties of their management teams like never before, it makes a lot of sense to add one more specialist to the cause. Most organizations already have a ‘cap-ologist’ to manage the minutiae of the salary cap; bringing in a smooth-talker to serve as a “yap-ologist’ – i.e., somebody whose sole focus is to provide effective and vibrant communication to fans – doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
It wouldn’t take Burke’s bombast to do the job; current TSN/NBC analyst Pierre McGuire or NHLPA executive Glenn Healy – or, when he retires, a gregarious player such as Calgary’s Craig Conroy – would function well in the role.
Think of the positive possibilities if, for instance, one of those men were hired to be the mouthpiece for Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey. No longer would Garden State-area microphones, notepads and cameras be subjected to tight-lipped edicts on the state of the Devils – and without media commitments, Lamoriello and his 29 other colleagues would have more time to concentrate on the day-to-day running of the team.
So how ’bout it, guys? Feel like putting a mouth where your money is?
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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