The Case for Experience and Stability in Building a Management Team

Mike Smith has been a GM with two NHL teams and with Team USA. He is well known as one of the cerebral people in the game, having studied the game at different levels and written books on various hockey topics. Now one of his projects is a blog on His post on November 23/08 deals with building a management team and he uses the Detroit Red Wings as his elite example. As an assistant coach for the Red Wings for three seasons, I saw first hand of which he speaks. Here is an excerpt…

The point is, in my opinion, nothing replaces experience when you’re a GM. The same holds true for the management staff. Every season has a similar yet different rhythm to it. When things are bleak and look even darker going forward, the vultures tend to come out. Listening to them can be deadly. Experience tells you: “Don’t listen.”

The organization that epitomizes experience at the upper management level is Detroit. The Red Wings have clearly been the dominant franchise over the last 20 years. Four Stanley Cups, in ‘97, ‘98, ‘02 and ’08, and 18-straight playoff years reflect their success.

Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the Red Wings in June of 1982. Not only have they built a franchise that looked for and kept experienced people, they have also placed emphasis on stability. The NHL, like other major leagues, all too often makes changes prematurely, often in a panic.

Let’s look at the Red Wings’ combination of experience and stability:

  • Jim Devellano was the first GM hired by the Ilitch family in 1982. Twenty-seven years later, he’s still there. This is his 42nd year in the NHL. He played a major role in the construction of the New York Islanders dynasty in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
  • Ken Holland is starting his 12th season as GM and his 26th in the organization. A former American League goaltender, he began his post-playing career as an amateur scout, progressed to director of scouting, then assistant GM and, in 1998, GM.
  • Jim Nill is entering his 11th season as assistant GM and 15th with the Red Wings. He has a background both as an amateur and pro scout and also served as GM of Team Canada at the 2004 world championships.
  • Steve Yzerman, beginning his third season as vice-president. This is his 26th year with the club. He has twice served as GM of Team Canada at the world championships.
  • Scotty Bowman, though now with the Chicago Blackhawks, joined the Red Wings in 1993 as coach. His NHL coaching career began in 1967 with the St. Louis Blues and he’s won 12 Stanley Cups in his career. He stayed on as a consultant with the Wings following his retirement from coaching in 2002.

The critical fact is all of these men had jobs in which they had to make crucial decisions.

Being a coach, a director of scouting or a GM of a national team requires decision-making. Mistakes are made. But to grow, you need to learn from the mistakes. Nothing will happen during the season this management group has not seen before. Their years of experience have brought them sound judgment.

Not all ownerships follow the Detroit path. I like the Detroit model, but the new ownerships in Tampa Bay and Vancouver have looked to player agents – Brian Lawton and Mike Gillis – to be their hockey leaders. Both have limited, if any, team management experience. This is not to say they will not be successful. After all, it is hard to criticize the job Pierre Lacroix – a former agent – did with the Colorado Avalanche.

Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA More from Mike Smith

NHL Hockey Players Initiate Environmentally Friendly Program.

NHL Hockey Players Initiate Environmentally Friendly Program.

This article appeared as part of the March 14, 2008 email newsletter from Inside Hockey. The newsletter is a mix of commentary and analysis. There are typically a number of articles that would interest any hockey fan. The major focus is on covering the NHL, but you will find other levels of hockey covered in an informative way. Go to [email protected] to check out Inside Hockey.

This article got my attention and it serves as a good example of how hockey players, and people connected with the sport in general, see the importance of being good citizens. Boston Bruins Andrew Ference is the player behind this program. There are other league wide programs, and every team has players doing things on the local level in their respective communities. Be sure to check out your team’s website and see what they are doing. You can go to the league websites, such as or, to find individual team sites.


This space isn’t typically reserved for political discussions about environmental responsibility, but it’s surely nice to see the NHL’s players take aggressive, proactive steps to set a positive example. This week, the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) announced that a stunning 523 members have agreed to “go green” and take action on global warming through the NHLPA Carbon Neutral Challenge, a program initiated by Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference.

The players participating in the program have gone carbon neutral by purchasing high quality, Gold Standard carbon credits to offset the travel emissions associated with playing professional hockey, in a program designed by the David Suzuki Foundation. In measuring each player’s environmental impact, the program included emissions from the following major sources: air travel for away games; road travel for home and away games; and energy used during hotel stays. On average, each player was found to be responsible for 10 tonnes (metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions.

“As I’ve said before, hockey players have great character and they continue to show it by taking action on such positive initiatives,” Ference said. “This is an exciting step in the right direction.”

Indeed it is. Thanks, Andrew!