You’d probably be a little tentative too, if you were a 29-year-old newbie swimming in a pool of seasoned business sharks.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas reflected back to that anxiety-inducing June of 2015, when he’d suddenly and temporarily been handed the keys to shop.
It was a transitional off-season in Leafland. President Brendan Shanahan had recently fired his inherited general manager, Dave Nonis, but had yet to hire Lou Lamoriello, so he slapped “interim GM” tags on assistants Dubas, his young protégé, and Mark Hunter.
“Just don’t say anything to anybody,” Shanahan advised Dubas before the rookie walked into his first GMs meeting with the other executives.
“I was scared s—less when I walked into Vegas. That was one of the most nervous times I’ve ever had in my life,” Dubas, smiling, recalled on an enlightening NHL Zoom conference Friday.
“I’ve known Ronnie Francis my whole life, so he was like the only person I felt I could talk to. I just went in, sat in my chair and took notes at the meeting and got up and left. But I was nervous as anything.
“I really didn’t feel like I belonged in there. I’d only been in the league for one year, and we were still a month away from having Lou hired. So I just went in there, took my notes and got on the plane.”
Retired NHL star Bill Guerin, 49, is still on Year 1 at the helm of the Minnesota Wild. Despite his pedigree in the game and experience in Pittsburgh learning from Jim Rutherford, Guerin agrees with Dubas.
Those meetings can be rife with intimidation for newcomers, who tend to defer to experienced voices like Doug Wilson, Doug Armstrong, Ken Holland and David Poile.
“I wasn’t saying a word. I know my first couple of meetings — nothing, nothing at all,” Guerin said. “You’re going to learn more with your ears, not your mouth.
“Some of the guys that have been around a long time, they obviously know what they’re doing and they’re kind of in control of the agenda a little bit.”
Guerin, once famous for his on-ice chirping, said he sits next to Montreal’s Marc Bergevin, “Who’s one of the funniest people you could ever meet, and he’s always cracking jokes or throwing a jab at somebody.”
One-liners pop into Guerin’s head — “But I’m doing a pretty good job of not letting it out of my mouth,” he said.
Dubas also rehashed the emotions surrounding his first NHL trade, which was consummated that same month.
Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon held a University of Michigan wing prospect named Zach Hyman, a Toronto native Dubas had his eye on. In exchange, Tallon wanted a young checking centre in the Leafs’ system, Greg McKegg.
“At first, I thought it was some type of setup to pull one over, but in getting to know Dale, he was just trying to be helpful. And it ended up working out for them and for us,” Dubas said, modestly avoiding to name the players involved.
“[Tallon] was great to deal with. I don’t think you could ask for somebody more straightforward and blunt about their position on it. It was kind of refreshing and actually very helpful to me, because he recognized it was my first trade.”
We score Dubas’s first trade as a win for the Maple Leafs. Hyman has established himself as a fixture of Toronto’s top six, while Florida waived McKegg in 2017.
More stressful, Dubas explained, have been recent deals in which he’s moved multiple assets for a known commodity. Like 2019’s Jake Muzzin deal with Los Angeles, which came at the cost of two prospects (Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi’s rights) plus the Leafs’ first-round pick.
“Just wondering, ‘Is this the right thing?’ And you get caught up in what you’re giving up versus what you’re returning back,” Dubas said.
“It’s always nerve-racking, I think, but you try to just educate [yourself], and you’re mostly dealing with a great group of people. So, it’s all pretty good.”