It’s Good To Be An NHL GM…In America

Right Wing Conspiracy – 31 OCT 2013

Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.

It’s Good To Be An NHL GM…In America

This is all Paul Holmgren’s fault…well, and maybe Jay Feaster’s, too.  I’ve been wondering of late about the average tenure of NHL General Managers, compared to that of Head Coaches.  It began with a question:  How does Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren still have a job?  For that matter, why hasn’t Jay Feaster been run out of Calgary on a rail?  It seems that NHL coaches are on an increasingly short leash, while GMs have a remarkable degree of immunity from the on-ice woes of their respective teams.  Not content to simply throw my uninformed opinion on the table, I decided to look at the numbers.  What I found was very interesting, if unsurprising:

  • Average tenure of an NHL GM:  7.2 seasons.
  • Number of GMs who have won the Stanley Cup with their current team:  7.
  • Average tenure of an NHL Head Coach:  3.6 seasons.
  • Number of coaches who have won the Stanley Cup with their current team:  5.

So just 7 of 30 General Managers have won the Cup with their current team, compared to 5 of 30 coaches, but the average tenure of a GM is exactly twice that of a coach.  Why the disparity?  Simply put, coaches can be fired for many reasons, some of which are listed below:

  1. The team is underperforming due to injuries to key players.
  2. The team has “tuned out” the coach.
  3. The coach has failed to properly utilize the talent at his disposal.
  4. The coach has a dispute with the face of the franchise (see Nolan, Ted and Hasek, Dominik).
  5. The GM has failed to assemble a competitive squad and now needs a scapegoat (and it’s easier to fire a coach than pull off a trade in the salary capped NHL).
  6. The team hires a new GM, who wants “his” guy behind the bench.

Note that several of the aforementioned “fire-able” offenses are based on circumstances beyond the control of a coach; such is the nature of the beast.  On the other hand, the career path of a General Manager seems to have far fewer potholes.  For the GM of an American NHL franchise to earn a pink slip, he must:

  1. Fail to ice a competitive team over a period of several seasons.
  2. See his team sold, as new owners often want “their” guy to run the team.

While the average tenure of an NHL GM is 7.2 seasons, the difference between American and Canadian GMs is eye-opening:

  • Average tenure for the GM of an American NHL franchise:  9.4 seasons.
  • Average tenure for the GM of a Canadian NHL franchise:  3.6 seasons.

Because hockey is “Canada’s Game,” the seven Canadian General Managers are under intense pressure from fans, the media and team owners to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Since the last Canadian Cup victory came back in 1993, the pressure continues to build.  Thus, Ottawa’s Bryan Murray, currently in his 7th season, is the senior GM in Canada.  In the Great White North, team owners must demonstrate to the fans their desire to win, which means GMs, like coaches, operate on a short leash.

In many American markets, though winning is always the ultimate goal, fan and media pressure are (compared to Canada) almost negligible.  Some owners undoubtedly view their NHL franchise as part of a package, in some cases a tool which allows them to manage a highly profitable arena.  In those instances, the team becomes a “loss-leader” of sorts, similar to the way Las Vegas casinos used to view their lavish buffets.  In other cases, a cynic would say, owners are more concerned with turning a profit than with winning the Cup (I remember a certain GM back in the early 90s – though I can’t find the exact quote – who said his goal was not to win the Cup every year, but to simply ice a playoff-caliber team and hope for the best, thus ensuring a profit for the owner without spending too much money).  In many American markets, it would seem, the GMs relationship with the owner can trump on-ice success.

While the desire to win is the same for GMs on both sides of the border, the pressure to win increases exponentially with each added degree of North latitude.  Will the pressure on General Managers south of the border increase now that Canadians are buying American franchises (Dallas and Phoenix)?  Time will tell.  For now, though, it’s good to be an NHL GM…in America.

Follow Matt Pryor on Twitter:  @BigTex1926


About Matt Pryor

Freelance writer of hockey, history and travel. Born and raised in Texas. Saw first hockey game 22 FEB 1980 (USA 4, USSR 3), was instantly hooked. Attended first NHL game 26 DEC 1981 (Colorado Rockies 6, Calgary Flames 3). Semi-retired beer league player. Shoots left.

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