NHL Should Let Stars Shine Not Manage

Former Detroit Red Wings vice-president Steve Yzerman addresses the media during a news conference in Tampa

In graduate school I took a management course where we had to read canonical leadership books (most of which seemed to come from the 1960s and 70s).

I read THE PETER PRINCIPLE, which maintains that every employee within an organization rises to their level of incompetence. It sounds cynical, but the logic is that someone is good at their job so they get promoted. If they’re successful at the new position, they’ll get promoted again. If they’re not, they won’t get promoted anymore.

The book makes the case that you need to look at an employee’s skill set before you promote him, since being good at a job and being a good manager are often two very different things.

I think about this a lot because of the way the NHL works.

Great players tend to find their way into management positions, even though there’s really no correlation between the skill of scoring goals and the skill of managing an NHL franchise.

Steve Yzerman is now running the Tampa Lightning after a lengthy apprenticeship in the Detroit organization.

Presumably he’s learned the skills to be a successful GM, but could someone else have learned them more effectively? What if someone with a formal statistics background had had the same kind of apprenticeship as Yzerman? Which would be the stronger GM?

In Denver, there’s a small buzz Joe Sakic might be interested in beginning the process of learning to be an NHL GM.

Like Yzerman, Sakic was a gifted NHL player with a lot of insights into hockey. But does that guarantee he’ll be a good GM? Do the skills of playing well translate to managing well?

We could ask Calgary’s Darryl Sutter. He was a solid NHL player, a great NHL coach, and is now a GM. If you want to know how the skills of management have translated, all you need to know is that the Flames’ president is insisting Sutter take on some people to help him with his GM duties.

Obviously, being a great player doesn’t preclude anyone from being a great GM. But not being a great player, or a player at all, also doesn’t preclude anyone from becoming a great GM. And some of the NHL’s great GMs weren’t/aren’t great players. Guys like Punch Imlach, Bill Torrey, and Lou Lamoriello, to name a random few.

It’s great that the NHL has so much respect for its great players and it’s great that these players want to maintain a role in the league. But as GM duties become more complex, requiring skill sets beyond simply evaluating talent, maybe it’s time for teams to look beyond fame. Maybe it’s time for teams to train managers who can do more than score goals.

Just as the NBA and MLB are embracing managers with statistics/data analysis backgrounds, maybe it’s time for the NHL to do the same. Guys like Yzerman and Sakic might eventually make fantastic GMs, but there’s really nothing in their training to indicate that should be the case.