Time really is a flat circle. I found myself thinking that as I read this, this past week:
“The Wild has been steady since its inception. But the operation now seems in disarray. And it’s hard to know or make sense of what their plan exactly is.”
That’s the subhead on a piece from Chip Scoggins in the Minnesota Star-Tribune just this past weekend. If you haven’t been keeping track, the Wild just recently fired their GM, Paul Fenton, after just 14 months on the job and as soon as he was gone the floodgates opened on just how poorly the organization had been run during his short tenure.
I read that and I couldn’t help but think of the Vancouver Canucks. In fact, the more I read, the more real the similarities became:
“Fenton tried to go young in reshaping the roster in a semi-rebuild while simultaneously pursuing aging players — a dizzying display of mixed messages. Leipold desperately wants to return to the playoffs and has zero patience for an outright rebuild. But the Wild roster, as constructed, isn’t a championship contender.”
This pretty much describes the state the Canucks were in when Jim Benning took over from Mike Gillis. The difference, however, is that Wild owner Craig Leipold was quick to realize that things were falling off the rails, and that Fenton was nothing more than a glorified scout with no idea how to handle “the other portion of being a general manager, the organizational part, the strategic part, the management of people, the hiring and motivating of the departments.” You know, the skills that make you a manager.
Unlike Leipold, Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, who once went on radio to say that “owners own, managers manage, coaches coach, and players play,” hasn’t been so quick to recognize the managerial shortcomings of the guy running his $700 million sports business.
But look, I’m not here to re-litigate the Benning regime and what might have been if Aquilini had been as quick to see the lack of managerial experience and leadership qualities. I’m fairly certain my views on this well established, and you have now either seen what I saw five years ago, or you never will.
So instead of “what if” the Canucks had moved on from Benning, I want to talk about “what now” that the Wild have decided they don’t want to go down a similar path. But that may be easier said than done.
Although Leipold was quick to see what he had in Fenton, it’s not clear that he knows how to avoid making the same mistake the second time around. Even now, the similarities with the Canucks continue:
ICYMI, as part of helping the #mnwild hire their next GM, Mike Modano has sought the advice of people like Bob Gainey, Ken Holland and Lou Lamoriello. My story on the Hall of Famer's role with the Wild???https://t.co/hg20BlfEIz
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) August 5, 2019
Yes, while Aquilini brought in a fan favourite and 2nd overall pick in the 1988 entry draft to help him identify a new GM, Leipold has done him one better by bringing in the 1st overall pick to help out. Sure, Modano is only an advisor and not the team president but by all accounts he is leading the charge the hire Fenton’s replacement, just like Linden did for Vancouver.
The danger here for Leipold is that by leaning on Modano, he is going to wind up with more of the same. Fenton, you’ll recall, was highly-touted as a GM candidate after serving as AGM with the Predators. And now that Don Waddell has signed a long term deal with Carolina, and Ron Hextall has apparently been ruled out, that leaves only a handful of current and former AGMs as potential candidates: Bill Guerin, Mike Futa, Scott Mellanby, Brian Lawton, Tom Fitzgerald, and Mark Hunter.
If you click through and read the candidate profiles for each of those guys, you’ll see that they are all very similar. With the exception of Lawton, who has been working as a player agent, the rest are AGMs whose biggest accomplishment appears to be that they worked for a name brand GM. There’s little in those profiles about personal achievements for any of those guys, except when talking about their playing careers.
But I suppose that is what you should expect if you are letting someone with no leadership or management experience do the hiring for you. It’s like if the board of a major car company decided to let one of his retired production line workers pick the next CEO. I mean, sure you want to get input from a wide range or stakeholders, both internal and external to help you make the decision, but you don’t let someone with no experience or expertise in identifying suitable candidates for an executive role run the process. If you need help managing that process, you hire a professional recruiting firm to do that for you.
Or, you know, you get Mike Modano talk to his hockey man friends pick the guy that will run your $500 million business.
But there is an alternative.
One that ties this all nicely back together with where we started.
There is another candidate that has received barely a mention in the medial, largely because he is not in the hockey man clique that feeds most of the narratives to the media covering the NHL.
Mike Gillis has been largely forgotten in the NHL, outside his occasional appearances on Vancouver sports radio over the last few years. Gillis may have been out of hockey, but he wasn’t out of management. If anything, he was doing a self-guided advanced degree in sports management:
“I went off and kind of metaphorically went back to school. I pursued all the things that we started with the Canucks – from scouting, to fatigue management, to human performance. I met the best people in the world doing it, and found it fascinating to continue along the trend of analytics and science, and how you get the most out of people.”
So here’s a guy that has experience as an NHL GM. He not only knows how to run a team, but how to put the pieces together to take that next step and become a true contender in this league. And most of all, he has learned from that previous experience, recognizes the mistakes that he made, and understand how important it is to ensure that the management structure, decision-making process, and vision all have to be in alignment:
“At the end of the day, I should have done things differently than I did, in certain circumstances. I recognize that. It’s one of the reasons that I’m after the notions of alignment, vision and a forward-thinking type of process or environment. You can avoid pitfalls by having a more well rounded, thoughtful opportunity.”
And from this introspection, he has clearly put a lot of thought into how he would approach another opportunity to run a hockey team:
“I want people to speak up. I wanted them to express their opinion. I’m a firm believer that isolation is a killer in professional sports. If you isolate yourself, and you’re not getting every piece of relevant information, then you’re going to make bad decisions.”
These are exactly the things that Leipold found lacking in Fenton’s leadership style. If he truly wants to go in a different direction and not only bring real world business management processes to bear on his half billion dollar hockey franchise, Gillis should certainly be a candidate, if not the front-runner.
In a perfect world, Franceso Aquilini would be coming to this same conclusion by now. I mean, that would really bring home the time as a flat circle metaphor. But instead, perhaps we’ll get to watch from a distance on what Mike Gillis 2.0 can do with a hockey team.