BACK IN PLAY

Former New York Rangers G.M. Neil Smith explains why unsuccessful executives also get recycled in the N.H.L. and pro sports in general.

Mystifying top executive hires don’t just happen in the corporate world; they’re prevalent in professional sports as well.

For example, in 2007 the Calgary Flames hired coach Mike Keenan, whose winning percentage in the N.H.L. since 1997 was an unimpressive .397 (in fact, the last time he coached a playoff game was in 1996 with the St. Louis Blues). Earlier this year in Toronto, the Maple Leafs named Cliff Fletcher their interim general manager to begin a rebuilding process. Fletcher’s credentials are lengthy in hockey; however, at age 72 he had not been a G.M. in 11 seasons, most recently having been fired by the same Toronto Maple Leafs.

While positions like coach and general manager are obviously critical ones, the hiring process often doesn’t seem to reflect their significance. Instead, it’s not uncommon to find a hire based on the idea that it’s better to go with the devil you know versus the one you don’t. Or ownership may have a personal bias toward a candidate that has little or nothing to do with their likely effectiveness. A known name may also be seen as a way to appease the fan base, and may be easier than bringing in talent that’s seen as less popular.

In Dallas, the Stars fired longtime G.M. Doug Armstrong in 2007 and hired Brett Hull and Les Jackson, neither of whom had any G.M. experience, to be co-G.M.’s. In the case of Hull, a former N.H.L. superstar with name recognition, the hire likely had much more to do with his star power and public appeal. In fact, in hockey generally, the vetting process more often than not comes down to a subjective decision by team executives rather than a careful examination of winning percentage, leadership ability, and consistency.

But until the people doing the hiring fully understand the demands of the positions they’re trying to fill, this is a pattern that’s likely to continue.



  • “Neil Smith was able to do what no other general manager could in 54 years for the New York Rangers-win the Stanley Cup! It was Neil's bold approach to changing the culture that allowed the team to galvanize into champions.”