One of the more interesting things for me is the “business” side of hockey, and how NHL franchises operate. I say business side pretty loosely here, considering that professional leagues don’t exactly follow standard business rules and operate more as a cartel. Teams are obviously in competition with one another, but they’re all under the NHL banner and have to abide by a lot of rules and standards, both explicit and implicit. Really, they’re just 31 different business units or divisions within the same company.
I always find it amusing when professional hockey is referred to as a business and is made to sound like some cut-throat, high-stakes industry. Because when it comes time to make decisions and trying to find an edge over the competition, most club managers become so conservative and risk averse. I get maintaining relationships and playing nice with other managers, but it’d do the game a lot of good if teams would think outside the box and demonstrate a real drive to be winners. The prime example of this are offer sheets, which fall within the rules. But teams are so reluctant to exercise their full suite of options to improve their clubs.
There’s a good reason why general managers have such a short shelf life in the NHL. And there’s a good reason why the NHL is not a global, mainstream sport.
The on-ice product isn’t good enough – and I think it’s in large part to the management teams and their lack of creativity and competitiveness that’s failing the game. The league would be much better off if managers based their roster decisions on sound logic and reasoning to make smart, calculated moves. Unfortunately, we keep seeing teams continue to make bizarre decisions, year after year, even when there’s enough publically available evidence suggesting they do otherwise.
When the product isn’t good enough, and you see the same teams continue to flounder, it’s pretty obvious that there are real systemic issues at play. And it’s not going to be a new general manager or a new coach that’s going to magically turn things around for a team. What teams really need to do is start operating like a real business, with a clear organizational mandate and a strategy that the internal people, processes and tools align with. Conduct a SWOT analysis, assess your past work, uncover your flaws and look for new opportunities. In other words – start with the mere basics.
What NHL teams really need to do is follow what baseball and football teams have been doing in teams of organizational structure and decision making processes. Two books that I would highly recommend for anyone interested:
- The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (2011) – Jonah Keri
- The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (2010) – Bill Walsh
What’s critical for any organization is establishing an underlying strategy and process, that encapsulates the values and approach that’s really geared towards building a winner. It’s in this stage teams have to identify what it takes to win games, and use as much information as possible to set up a structure for things to operate within. From there, you hire the right people, implement the right processes, and leverage whatever tools you have at your disposal. This is obviously easier said than done, and requires a lot of planning and resources to carry out. But if you’re an NHL owner that wants a competitive club, you have to consider taking a different approach than what’s been done.
In regards to decision-making processes, I thought what the new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in March 2018 was interesting.
“I don’t know other owners, I’m assuming they have sign-off. But that’s how I look at this. Green and red you can prove, yellow is the things that are debatable. I have no interest in yellow. We have to create the structure so that we know the difference…I want to make as few decisions as possible, because we’ve created a structure that is clearer for everyone.” (Source: Sportsnet)
This makes a lot of sense if you have the right strategy and process in place. Teams should already have some basic fundamental practices and philosophies that are inherent throughout an organization. Things like how to approach free agency (i.e., don’t sign veteran players to huge contracts), how to handle the draft (i.e., pick the best player available) and how to best develop players (i.e., maximize your contracts and build a proper farm system). There has to be an acceptance that there’s a considerable amount of luck involved in hockey. And really the best you can do as a manager is stick to the process you’ve established and ice the best team possible.
As long as your strategy and process is fine, I think keeping general managers operating within a model that’s built on sound logic and reasoning reduces your chances of making a poor decision. The challenge is building that model and ensuring that there’s buy-in from all areas of the organization, especially from the coaching staff whose job is to optimize the roster the manager has built. And it’s critical that the model itself is measured and re-calibrated when more information becomes available.