Canucks and the art of the (coaching) hire
Personal chemistry, comfort is imperative for a general manager getting the correct bench boss
Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis addresses the media in Vancouver on Wednesday, May 22, 2013, after the NHL team fired head coach Alain Vigneault, associate coach Rick Bowness and assistant coach Newell Brown. Click on the photos tab above this photo, then NEXT for the pictoral history of Canucks coaches.
Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — Doug MacLean is a witty and clever pundit on TV these days. Radio, too. But in his former professional life, he was a National Hockey League president and general manager in Columbus and he hired coaches.
So he knows a few things about the process and what Vancouver Canuck GM Mike Gillis will be going through in the coming weeks.
Hiring a coach, MacLean notes, is a long and laborious process but also an exciting one. You don’t want a ‘yes man’ – at least he didn’t – but you also don’t want someone who says one thing and then does another. That’s never a good thing. So there is much research to be done.
“The Vancouver situation will be fun to follow,” MacLean said. “The challenge there is that the team has to have results right away. This is a high-profile job. This is a team that has to have some success relatively quickly so I don’t think you gamble on this hiring. I think it has to be a guy that Mike is really, really comfortable with and a guy with reasonably good experience.
“Mike has five years experience in the league now as a GM and, with his previous experience as an agent, he’s got a pretty good feel for guys who are out there. I suspect he’ll take a few weeks to let the pool of candidates expand and then narrow it down.”
Typically, MacLean says, when starting the job search a GM will consult with his hockey ops department to ensure they haven’t overlooked anyone who might be a fit with their team. There will be incoming calls as well, from agents representing coaches, or even friends of coaches, letting it be known their man wants to be considered.
“The coach-GM relationship is so critical today,” MacLean emphasized. “You spend a ton of time together. You spend as much time with that person as you do with anybody so the No. 1 thing is you have to feel comfortable that you could have a relationship with that guy.
“Lots of times you think you can have a relationship and once the guy gets the job, he becomes a little bit different of a person. In the interview process, you say: ‘Man, this guy is easy to talk to. This guy is wonderful. This guy is great.’ Then when you hire him, it’s, uh, this is not the same guy I thought I was getting.”
Among MacLean’s hires in Columbus were Dave King and Ken Hitchcock, two men with vast experience in the game.
“You want someone who knows the game inside-out,” said MacLean. “You want someone that you can debate hockey with. You want someone who knows your team reasonably well. You want someone with strong opinions and not someone who agrees with you all the time. I was lucky. I had Dave King and I had Ken Hitchcock. They’re pure coaches. They really, really just want to be coaches. And that’s what you like.”
Once his list was whittled down to the top two or three candidates, MacLean would proceed to the interview phase, a process that might take upwards of two days per candidate.
“So the candidate comes in at noon and you spend the entire afternoon discussing the team and then maybe you go to dinner with him and invite the owners to come, too, or your top hockey guy,” MacLean explained. “Or maybe it’s just the two of you. Then you go through the second day where you revisit things, or talks about things that may have come up overnight, or things you wanted the candidate to sleep on.”
Then, of course, you can always select one person but your owner wants someone else. That happened to MacLean, too.
“The last time I hired a coach, it was mid-season (2006-07) and there were two big names at the time, Hitchcock and Andy Murray,” he recalled.
“I went to my owner’s house with my assistant GM and my director of player personnel and I said I really think Hitchcock is the way we should go. He told me he thought I should hire Andy Murray. I told him I thought we had to go with Hitchcock because he was a Stanley Cup winner, even though both Hitch and Andy were both equal, competent and good coaches. So we debated and I got him to change his mind. Then I read for the next two years that I never wanted Hitchcock and that I wanted anybody but Hitchcock.”
That was MacLean’s final hire as a GM. He was dismissed at the conclusion of the 2006-07 campaign, leading to his current career as a media star.
Pat Quinn hired three coaches – Bob McCammon, Rick Ley and Tom Renney – during his 10-year stint managing the Canucks and said he always placed “integrity and character” at the top of his search list. (His best coach in Vancouver happened to be himself, but that’s another story.)
“The coach’s job is to convince the players to play in a certain fashion and become a team so leadership skills are important,” Quinn noted. “You have to look for someone who is organized and has a vision and a plan, someone who is disciplined and can set an example, someone who is able to articulate the plan and have the players buy into it.
“At the end of the day, that’s what you need more than anything else.”
Quinn said he always went well beyond the interview process in making his selections, figuring some candidates might just tell him what he wanted to hear.
“Like players who become experts at being interviewed, coaches do, too,” Quinn pointed out. “So you do a lot of research on the person. You talk to people they know. You look at their records but then you look past the numbers to see what kind of team they had, how they pulled it together, what adversity they faced. I mean, there is some real research here because you’re hiring possibly the most important person in your organization. As a manager, you’re turning the players over to the coach to mold them and to teach them.”
Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay has been on the other end of the interview process, twice emerging as the winning candidate for an NHL job – Phoenix in 1996 and Calgary in 2000. Although neither stint led to any longevity for him, he said a lot of preparation was involved. There is even more now, he said, in a salary-cap system.
“You’d want to get to know the lineup and the players’ contracts,” Hay explained. “You’d like to know more about the general manager and what he likes and dislikes as far as how the team plays. Where is the team in its evolution? Is there a player ready to break out? Has he been given enough of an opportunity? Who are the prospects on the farm? Are there any draft prospects still in junior who could possibly step up?
“With the salary cap nowadays, I think the coach would want to know which players you’re planning to build your core around and which players might not be around,” Hay added. “A lot of teams have players on long-term contracts, so those things sometime dictate how you’re going to build your team.”
There are other factors as well that a coaching candidate might consider. Is ownership stable financially? Is ownership impatient? Does the organization traditionally run through a lot of coaches? How many years are left on the GM’s contract? What’s the media situation? And, specifically in the case of the Canucks, does the sleep doctor really work?
Mike Gillis and his successful candidate will undoubtedly deal with many of these issues. Then, come October, we’ll begin to see if Gillis made the right call.
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