Shannon on NHL: Role of the GM diminishing

The NHL general managers meet on Wednesday in Toronto and the biggest question to be asked is: Why?

Not why is scoring down? Not why do we have shootouts? Not, why does the standard of officiating appear to be moving? Just, why?

The reason for the question is simple and begs another more pointed question. Has the effectiveness of general managers in the game changed?

There was a time when this group of leaders set the tone for the league.  They were involved in the business of the game as well as the rules.  They were the like the Cardinals in the Catholic Church, or the Knights of the Round Table.  They were the mandarins of the game, anticipating trends, influencing change or more importantly, keeping the game on the same simple track it has been on for decades.

In the mid-1980s, this group was viewed as the most powerful, influential group in the NHL.  Names like Torrey, Nanne, Sinden, Pulford, Fletcher, Sather, Quinn and others commanded respect and reverence.  Team owners, league management and the NHL Players’ Association all bowed to this group.  They were truly the “Keepers of the Keys” in the NHL.

But things have been altered in the last 20 years. For one, Gary Bettman’s view of a more central government has cut back on the managers’ role.  Secondly, a more powerful NHLPA has been put in place to protect the players to a much higher level. Thirdly, a new kind of owner has appeared, one who wants to be involved in the business of the game, how it is played and how much money has to be spent.  Finally, the position of team president has evolved to have much more influence within the business of hockey. The once iconic domain of the general managers has become very crowded.  Some would argue for the better, others to the game’s detriment.

Quite, frankly, the sand box is getting very crowded. So, why do they have these meetings?

The influence of the group of 30 GMs is certainly not what it was. NHL executive Colin Campbell has always been very respectful of the managers. He is in constant communication with them, asking for guidance or input. Every once in a while, he will poll small groups of the GMs on certain issues, trying to ensure the game is being protected in the best interest of the 30 teams. But between the NHLPA and the owners, both groups who are much more active in the game now, the shift in power has been noticeable.

And while some people will disagree with that charge, that would be the classic “head in the sand.” Just look at the recent CBA negotiations. Once the lockout started, that small group of managers who were involved in committee meetings all summer were shutout of the talks. Their role from September to January was much more of a spectator rather than peddler of opinion and influence. Also look at the realignment plan that was approved recently. Owner driven, player approved. The managers, again, on the outside.

The simple fact is this group of qualified hockey people have had a change in their job description. No longer do they have to be concerned with league issues, they should be focussed only on their own teams, plain and simple.

Live with it. Evolve or die.

And yet, every once in a while, this annual meeting does influence how the game is played. Look at last year’s session which followed quickly after Milan Lucic collided with Ryan Miller.  Protecting goalies at all cost became a priority for the officials, to the point where some felt they were being overprotected.

That being said, the agenda for the one-day meeting is always thorough and long. In talking to a few who will be in the meeting, consider the following list to be key issues:

— CBA Interpretation and Issues

— Coaches’ Challenge on controversial goals

— What is the Officiating Standard?

— Defining boarding and hitting from behind

— Shoot-out rules and their effectiveness.

— Size of Goalie equipment

So what might the best part of the Wednesday meeting? Just the fact that the 30 teams will be in one room with the trade deadline 14 days away. General managers actually focussed on improving their own teams. And the discussions at the buffet table will be as important at the one at the board table.

Quite a novel thought.

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