ST. PAUL, Minn. — Billy Guerin sat across the table in the legendary St. Paul greasy spoon Mickey’s Diner. Eggs over easy, white toast, black coffee.
His Minnesota Wild are 2-6 to start the season. But, hey: There aren’t many Stanley Cup contenders hiring new general managers, right?
“Nobody’s handing you the keys to a Porsche,” said Guerin.
Here in the State of Hockey and the home of the great Herb Brooks, there will be no miracle on ice with the Wild, but rather a slow, proper build by a first-year general manager who has been around long enough to know that the long way is the right way.
“I’m not in a rush to do anything. I have to be patient,” said Guerin, fresh from speaking at a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting of the Twin Cities Dunkers, a local business group. “I don’t want to do anything knee-jerk to put my stamp on it. Makes no sense. I’m not saying one year or one month — this group just needs a chance.”
The plates at Mickey’s are big, and the breakfasts are as flavourful as Guerin, a man I go back with some many years. Here’s what the NHL’s newest GM had to say about repairing the state of hockey in the State of Hockey, and how it took eight NHL organizations to raise the Minnesota Wild’s new GM:
Sportsnet: You’ve played against some of the players on your roster. What’s it like now that you’re their boss?
Bill Guerin: “They’ve been super receptive. They’ve bought into everything. I played against (Mikko) Koivu, (Zach) Parise, (Ryan) Suter. Koivu told a story where it was his first or second year in the league and he did something to me, and I told him ‘you better keep your head up or I’ll kill you.’ We laughed about that.”
SN: You played under eight GMs over a 17-year NHL career…
BG: “Actually nine, because Slats (Glen Sather) left and Kevin (Lowe) took over when I was in Edmonton.”
SN: OK, nine. How does that shape you?
BG: “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in a lot of different places, and I’ve seen how different teams are run. I have relationships all around the league. I played with Kevin, he sat next to me in the dressing room, then he was our coach, then our GM. Then he traded me. I must have made a big impact on him.”
SN: What did you learn from Sather?
BG: “The biggest thing with Glen was his confidence. We would scratch and claw to get into the playoffs, but he made us feel like a top team. I’ll never forget the dinner we had going into Game 5 of the playoffs against Colorado (trailing 3-1 in 1998). He stood up and said ‘Don’t worry about a thing guys. You’ve got ‘em right where you want ‘em.’ We were down 3-1 and beat them in seven. I’ll never forget how we rattled off win after win. We dusted them in the last game.”
SN: Who are your Top-3 influences?
BG: “Probably Jimmy, Lou and Ray (Rutherford, Lamoriello and Shero). I learned a lot from Lou early in my career. Just before he traded me to Edmonton we had a talk and he said ‘You’re going to learn from this and realize how important a team structure is.’ I’m trying to build that here. When you’re sitting across from Lou at his desk and all you’re doing is listening, you’re learning. Jim is old school where he calls everybody. He doesn’t text people. One of the great lessons I learned from Jim was having lunch at the Saint Paul Hotel and he said ‘Billy, never try to win a trade. Don’t try to screw the other guy over. Make a fair trade and you’ll get more deals done.’ That stuck with me. With Ray, he was the second call I made after Philly let me go at my last training camp when I was 39. I phoned (wife) Kara, then Ray, and I said ‘I want to come and talk to you about the next stage of my life.’ He told me his biggest concern with former players was they just want a card with their name on it, a paycheque and a title but they don’t want to work. He told me I had to work.”
SN: Define “work.”
BG: “To see how hard an amateur scout worked, to see a pro scout’s schedule where he works 30 games in a month. I thought, ‘How the hell do you watch 30 games?’ I learned how you do it, how you book a flight, getting hotel rooms. I wanted to be ready for this chance I have now, nine years ago. I wanted to go to Prince George and Penticton and Rouyn-Noranda, all the places in Europe. I wanted our scouting staff to respect my work ethic. I wanted to earn their respect.”
SN: You played 17 seasons? You didn’t know all of that?
BG: (Laughs) “We used to see a list of who was watching our games, and you just thought that they were a bunch of old guys just watching hockey games. No, no, no. They’re writing reports on you. So when they see Billy Guerin take a stupid penalty or blow the zone before the puck’s out, they’re filing all of that away.
“As a player, you drive up in your car, you go in, take your suit off, put your equipment on and play. Now, the world just opens up, all the things that have to happen for that game to get played. The one thing that really opened my eyes is how passionate the people are about the team they work for. As a player, you just don’t know that there is some Alberta area scout, or New England area scout, who is pulling for you every single night. You have no idea.”
SN: What did you tell your Wild scouts when you met with them at training camp?
BG: “Fight for your guys, and don’t be a yes man. I told my group, ‘I want your opinion. If we happen to agree, great. But I don’t want you to just reiterate my opinion to me. You’re not going anywhere, so give me your honest opinion. The final decision lies with me, but … everyone has a voice.’
SN: Tonight the Wild play Edmonton, where the GM is Ken Holland. There’s a little disparity in tenure there…
BG: “My first game (as GM) was in Nashville. David Poile was starting his 37th year, and I was starting my first. I saved the game notes from that night.
“I’ll make sure I run into Kenny tonight, and pick his brain. I’ve talked to him many times before, but the more I can be around a guy like him the better. If I can do half of what Ken Holland has done, it will be a great career.”