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How to Find a GM Who Will Bring Home Lord Stanley's Cup

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By Glenn Rowe and Thomas Watson

Nobody but Jack Welch really knows why he turned down the opportunity to take on the CEO job at Coca-Cola when it was offered to him in 2004. But since the legendary former head of General Electric is a smart guy, it is safe to say that he probably knew his success at GE did not necessarily mean that he would be a proven winner at the soda drink maker. That's something National Hockey League team owners and presidents should consider now that the usual round of coach and general manager firings are happening in the NHL.

Because winning Lord Stanley's Cup is the endgame in the NHL, losing teams have long tried to improve their chances of victory by replacing existing general managers and coaches with a so-called proven winner, meaning someone who has already won a Stanley Cup at another team as a GM or coach. For example, Richard Peddie, former head of Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, hired Brian Burke as GM of the Leafs in 2008 because Burke had won the Stanley Cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Peddie also considered Ken Holland, now a three-time Cup winner with Detroit, and Jim Rutherford, a one-time Cup winner with Carolina. At the time, Ken Campbell, a senior writer with The Hockey News, argued the move was clearly better than hiring a non-winner.

This logic persists to this day. When Peter Laviolette became the new coach of the Predators this year, GM David Poile called him "a very successful coach," noting he was glad to land "an experienced coach who won a Stanley Cup." As far as Poile is concerned, hiring a Cup-winner from another team gives the predators a competitive advantage.

This line of reasoning is understandable. After all, past experience plays a key role in the success or failure of pretty much every management position out there, so when the goal is winning a Stanley Cup, hiring someone who knows what it takes to get the job done through personal experience obtained elsewhere seems to make sense. Hiring a proven winner to lead a lacklustre team also goes a long way toward showing fans and other stakeholders that positive steps are being taken to improve performance.

Unfortunately, as the data presented in the latest issue of Ivey Business Journal shows, a growing body of statistical evidence suggests the odds of winning a Stanley Cup are no better with recruited proven winners in the coaching or GM positions. In some cases, the odds even appear worse.

Building a Cup-winning NHL team involves hiring the right combination of front office, scouting and coaching staff, while bringing together an appropriate group of on-ice talent through drafts, trades and promotions from the minors/juniors. It is a daunting task. In the history of the NHL, only one GM has won the Stanley Cup with more than one team. This exceptional leader was Tommy P. Gorman, who won seven Stanley Cups -- three with the early edition of the Ottawa Senators (1920, 1921 and 1923), one with the Chicago Blackhawks (1934), one with the defunct Montreal Maroons (1935) and two with the Montreal Canadiens (1944 and 1946). Meanwhile, coaches who did not even play in NHL have won Cups twice as many times as ex-players who became coaches.

Successful GMs are astute evaluators of talent. Indeed, it wasn't a fluke that Sam Pollock, who as GM of the Canadiens was the architect of the team's dynasty years in the 1960s and 1970s, had his eye on Bob Gainey before most people in the hockey world even knew he existed. Meanwhile, the best coaches -- meaning guys like Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman -- are able to get the talented players to buy into the importance of team. So with all due respect to Cup winners, being a proven winner as a coach or player does not mean you have the skill set to build a Cup-winning team as a GM. And being a proven winner at the player level does not mean you have what it takes to lead a team to a Cup win as a coach.

When faced with finding new management for a losing team, it is easy to fall for the allure of a proven winner. But when it comes to winning the NHL playoffs, hiring a Cup winner isn't a silver bullet. Indeed, it might just keep Lord Stanley's mug out of a team's reach. As a result, owners and presidents need to look beyond the pool of proven winners.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Glenn Rowe is the Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership and an Associate Professor, Strategic Management, at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario.

Thomas Watson is the Editor, Ivey Business Journal, at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario.