By the third bomb, P.K. Subban couldn’t contain himself.
Facing the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the second round, Subban delivered in just the kind of high-stakes contest he was acquired for. His first power-play blast was tipped by Colin Wilson on the lip of the crease, but most of the rink likely figured the goal was Subban’s when No. 76 slowly dropped to one knee and delivered a few deliberate fist pumps. The second tally was unmistakably his — another cannon from the point that cleanly beat Blues goalie Jake Allen. This time, Subban went with his signature move, pulling a pretend arrow from the quiver as he lazily glided through centre ice. While both celebrations met P.K.’s ornate standards, a certain spontaneity was lacking. That changed when Subban fired yet another rocket, this one caroming off Allen, then Preds forward Filip Forsberg before finding the net. All pre-packaged material was tossed as Subban snatched out his mouth guard, tilted his head back and let out a primal howl.
That three-point performance kicked off a six-game series win for the Preds, cementing the franchise’s first-ever trip to the Western Conference final. But even in the moments immediately after the berth was secured, there wasn’t a whiff of outward exuberance in the press box from David Poile, the only GM in the team’s history.
While the composed non-reaction is in line with Poile’s famously measured nature, he shares more genetic coding with Subban than most realize. The player’s go-for-broke mentality is central to Subban’s identity, but the fact the GM is fully capable of pushing in his chips as well often gets overlooked. A hockey lifer of the highest order, Poile has relied on a trusted network to build this trailblazing Predators squad. The man, like the team he runs, has absorbed his share of blows, with 2017 representing just his second conference final trip in 35 years as a general manager. No less staggering, however, is the fact that in all that time, through countless negotiations and excruciating decisions, Poile has seemingly failed to make a single enemy. That’s why, beyond the all-in citizens of a suddenly hip and exploding city, there are folks far and wide in the hockey world ready to high-five Poile and his Predators.
One of the many people to send Poile a congratulatory message after Nashville beat St. Louis was Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke. If everyone who wears a suit and works in hockey was placed on a spectrum according to their natural disposition, Poile and Burke would land on the two opposing poles. “He’s cautious by nature,” says Burke, who often casts his own impatience as a virtue. “I joke with him that I’d hate to watch him get dressed in the morning.”
Whatever clothes Poile eventually settles on these days, he wears them to an office in Bridgestone Arena where the walls are peppered with framed photos. The volume is what you’d expect to see in the room of a 14-year-old who just discovered the band that sings directly to her. The images document an expansive career that, despite 23 post-season appearances as a GM prior to this spring, has yet to feature a single trip to the Stanley Cup Final. It would be impossible for anyone with that odds-defying resumé not to play the “what if?” game and Poile doesn’t hide from the anguish. “It’s bothering me, that’s for sure,” he says.
Poile’s passion for what he does is obvious, but helming the Preds — or Washington Capitals for 15 years before that — isn’t the best gig he’s ever had. That distinction, Poile says somewhat tongue in cheek, is reserved for the job that allowed his supposedly non-existent impulsive side to run wild: assistant general manager. When Poile held that post with the Atlanta (and, eventually, Calgary) Flames in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he would barge in on GM Cliff Fletcher and spew solutions for whatever ailed the team. “I would come into his office every day and say, ‘Trade this guy, trade that guy,” Poile remembers.
While Fletcher was usually gracious with his understudy, that leeway could be tougher to come by after a loss. One day, when Fletcher was on edge, he slammed his hand on the desk, extended an admonishing finger and put an end to the conversation. It’s an exchange Poile can still recite: “‘If you are ever so lucky as to become a general manager in the National Hockey League, you’ll know the feeling [of] making a trade and how difficult it is,’” Poile says, quoting Fletcher. “I kinda walked out with my tail between my legs.”
That scolding stung, but it was never going to deter Poile from his goal of running a hockey club. His father, Bud, played 311 career games for five different Original Six teams and won the Cup in 1947 with the Leafs. After his playing days, Bud ran the Detroit Red Wings’ top affiliate in Edmonton — where David lived from age three to 13 — and fully expected to take over as GM of the big club from his mentor, Jack Adams, in the early 1960s. Instead, the position went to Sid Abel and the Poile family was suddenly on the move to Northern California so Bud could guide another minor-league outfit, the San Francisco Seals.
Years later, Bud was operating the Vancouver Canucks when a hotshot college scorer and former captain at Northeastern University came to training camp. Despite his offensive chops, Poile was cut by his dad’s club and a couple more at lower levels, prompting his decision to look for employment that didn’t involve wearing skates. He was working in BC Tel’s executive training program when Fletcher, whom David had met while tagging along with Bud to NHL events, told the junior Poile the newly formed Atlanta franchise needed people on the ground to get things up and running. Poile’s first job there, working in a trailer just off Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, was running the contest to name the team. Soon enough, he was negotiating half the Flames’ contracts and running the farm team. “One of the first things that really impressed me was his attention to detail,” Fletcher says.
The opportunity to run the team in Washington arose when the Capitals, nearly 10 years into their existence and without a single playoff berth to show for it, seemed as though they might dissolve completely. After a months-long gap between his first interview and being told to come back for a second, Poile packed two huge suitcases and told his wife, Elizabeth, if he was hired, he was just going to stay in town. Only a matter of days after he was granted the job, Poile, just 32 years old, was at a hot-and-stuffy Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto for a board of governors meeting. “I got in the room, totally intimidated,” he recalls.
That being the case, the decision to speak with Irving Grundman, who was seated beside him, may have been as much about calming nerves as anything else. Regardless, by the end of the meeting, the two had worked out a six-player trade that, most notably, sent defenceman Rod Langway to Washington and Capitals captain Ryan Walter to Montreal. Poile then had to call owner Abe Pollin to explain that, less than two weeks into the job, he’d traded the only player on the team Pollin could name. “He says, ‘You better know what you’re doing’ and hung up,” Poile recalls.
Langway won the Norris Trophy in each of his first two years in Washington. The Caps made the playoffs during Poile’s first campaign overseeing the squad and didn’t miss them again until his last, 1996-97. But even now, as a seen-it-all 67-year-old grandfather whose decisions have been vindicated time and again, the words of his old boss stick. “Every time I make a trade, I think the same thing: ‘You better know what you’re doing,’” Poile says. “It’s always a big gulp.”
It stands to reason, then, that the struggle to swallow was never greater than when Poile made the watershed decision to trade Shea Weber for Subban almost one year ago. While the potential merits of the move were easy to spot — Subban is four years younger than Weber and distinctly quicker — the symbolic importance of trading a franchise face cannot be underestimated. Weber isn’t just the centerpiece of Nashville’s Mount Rushmore, his hard-rock game legitimized the entire ‘Smashville’ mythology to begin with. “There’s no doubt that’s the kind of trade that could have serious impact on your franchise, both good and bad,” says Poile, acknowledging it was a difficult move to make both personally and professionally.
Really, the Langway move and the Subban deal are just two examples of Poile’s willingness to take a swing. A decade ago, he brought Paul Kariya to Nashville and traded a bundle of futures for banged-up Peter Forsberg in an attempt to move the franchise forward. Five years back, he allowed Alexander Radulov to return to the Predators team he’d previously spurned by leaving for the KHL. The moves didn’t pan out, but nobody could accuse him of sitting on his hands.
Still, it’s not hard to understand why Poile’s conservative reputation persists. In an era where the term has become a not-so-backhanded compliment, Poile might be the original hockey nerd. And while he cuts an impressive figure for a man who’ll soon be 70, there’s no real trace of swagger in his gait. When he mentions in passing that his parents were very gregarious, Poile expresses mock outrage that the term isn’t likely to spring to mind when describing him. The same playful sentiment is on display when his slow-and-steady reputation is brought up, with Poile throwing his arms up in sort of faux exasperation: “I’ve made more trades than any GM in league history!” The declaration has the feel of a dad putting on a backwards hat and asking his kids, “Who says I’m not cool?”
Poile’s need to meditate on things is legendary. Former Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell, who worked with both Burke and Poile building U.S. Olympic teams, says Poile always returns a call promptly, but won’t necessarily have an immediate answer for you. “If I told him, back in the heyday, that I was going to trade him [a player as good as] Marian Hossa for a seventh-round draft pick, he would tell me, ‘Let me think about it and get back to you,’” Waddell chuckles.
During the 2004-05 lockout, Waddell and Poile often got together with other GMs to golf under the guise of productive meetings. The men teeing off with Poile knew they could tack on about half an hour to their expected playing time. “Everything took longer,” says Waddell, now an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes. “Getting in and out of the cart took longer.”
Burke says Poile is one of the first people he’ll call for a dinner date and the last one he’ll seek out for a night on the town. But in a field characterized by forceful personalities and captain-of-industry types, there’s universal praise and respect for the way Poile carries himself. “This guy is fearless,” says Burke. “He’s made some huge trades. Meticulous and cautious should not be confused with timid, because this guy’s made blockbuster deals. To this day, the riverboat gambler side to David is still very much alive and well. He just might spend more time weighing the risk than some of the other guys.”
Recently, there’s been an unmistakable trend to Poile’s acquisitions. About sixth months before acquiring Subban, Poile sent heralded young blue-liner Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for big, playmaking centre Ryan Johansen. Left winger James Neal has been in Tennessee for three years after being swapped for the more rounded — but less overtly skilled — Patric Hornqvist. Young Swedes Forsberg — heisted by Poile from his old team, the Caps — and Viktor Arvidsson have been given every opportunity to shine. It all traces back to a desire for more offence, which became a franchise-wide mandate when longtime coach Barry Trotz was let go in the summer of 2014 in favour of Peter Laviolette. “Barry was fabulous with us and for us for 15 years, but Peter Laviolette [wanted] to play the game a little bit differently,” says Poile, adding he, too, was ready to modernize the organizational philosophy.
For all the turnover, there are still many constants. The backbone of the team remains largely homegrown, including crease-mainstay Pekka Rinne, top-end defencemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, as well as Arvidsson, who broke out for 31 goals this season. Poile deflects much of the praise for those finds onto his staff, where continuity is king. Assistant GM Paul Fenton has been there pretty much since Day 1; chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty was a defenceman playing for Nashville’s AHL affiliate before swapping his stick for a tie 15 years ago; Brian Poile, David’s son, is the director of hockey operations and cut his teeth in the Dallas Stars organization before joining his father’s staff in 2010.
“He empowers you to do your job and grow and make mistakes,” says New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, who worked as Poile’s assistant GM in Nashville from 1998 to 2006 and quickly realized there was also an expectation errors would be learned from, not repeated.
Many of the men still in the Nashville fold have seen the franchise go through two ownership changes and lived the moments when it seemed the entire team could be swept away. Today, with a stable ownership group comprised largely of locals, it’s easier to focus on the good things. The Predators had a huge hand in revitalizing the now-jumping block of bars along the Broadway strip Nashville has become famous for. Passion for the team spills out well beyond the arena’s immediate vicinity, with flags pinned up in shops and yellow Preds hats dotting the town like moving egg yolks. You can enjoy a ‘Smashville IPA’ at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, and when the local weatherman talks of rain staying away from the area, a picture of Rinne flashes on screen, the rationale being that the big Finn can stop anything.
Subban, like so many others who’ve poured into the city in recent years, has adjusted well to his new home, largely because of the workplace Poile has created. “The one thing I think David has done an extremely good job [of], and I can speak to, is the people he’s put in that locker room,” Subban says. “The hockey players, that’s one thing, there are great hockey players on this team, there’s great hockey players on any team. But it’s the people that have really blown me away, it’s a great group that [you’re] happy to work with every day and [that you] respect … and that goes a long way, those are the guys you want to go to war with.”
With the battle coming down to the wire, support is swelling for Nashville and its chief architect. “There are a lot of people that are pulling for David,” says Waddell. “And the franchise, they’ve done a good job there.”
Poile was in Montreal with his son on the night in 1989 when Fletcher saw the vision they once shared for the Flames come to fruition in the form of a Cup win over the Canadiens. Nearly 30 years on, the latter is hoping for some symmetry. “[I’m] looking forward to being at the deciding game of the Stanley Cup when Nashville is playing — and I certainly hope it’s this year,” Fletcher says.
If it is and things go his way, Poile can stop bothering with plaques and pictures and finally hang that elusive banner.
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