Tom Renney is a hockey man, not a businessman. He once ran a clothing store in Trail, B.C., along with his wife but since then his life has been immersed in coaching.
So when Hockey Canada was searching for a new president and CEO and Renney emerged as serious candidate, the 59-year-old didn’t put on a masquerade.
“(Business is) not where his passion lies,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said. “And it’s not where his expertise lies. One thing about Tom: He knows what he is and he knows what he’s not.”
Renney above all else is a respected hockey man, and his decades of experience at the amateur, international and professional levels ultimately made him Hockey Canada’s choice to replace Bob Nicholson.
What separated Renney from other candidates, board of directors chairman Jim Hornell said, was his values base, connections throughout the sport and passion to grow the game.
“He’s a people person, he connects well, he communicates well with people and certainly he’s recognized not only in Canada but throughout the hockey world, and that’s important,” Hornell said on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s important that we have someone who is knowledgeable in hockey but who is also recognized in hockey and can bring a team together.”
Around the NHL, where Renney has worked in various coaching and player personnel jobs for the Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Detroit Red Wings, the Cranbook, B.C., native is lauded for his ability to bridge gaps and build a consensus.
“He’s as well-connected as anybody in hockey, for starters, which really helps,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said in a phone interview. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the hockey business who would have a bad thing to say about Tom.”
Renney most recently worked as an associate coach on Babcock’s staff in Detroit. Red Wings GM Ken Holland said that hire was a “no-brainer” and felt the same about his hiring by Hockey Canada because of his wealth of experience.
Babcock, who has led Team Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals, said Hockey Canada “absolutely hit it out of the park” by hiring Renney.
“Tom Renney treats people right, a hundred per cent integrity. When he’s wrong, he owns his own garbage,” Babcock said in a phone interview. “I was happy for Canadian hockey, because to me they got themselves a real good man who’s been through all the steps, can speak to people and knows what’s important in the game. He’s going to help grow our game again, and I think that’s so important.”
The Hockey Canada that Renney inherits in 2014 is one that Hornell emphasized is “on a very solid foundation” thanks to work done since 1998 by Nicholson, who resigned in April. Among Renney’s new challenges is to make hockey a more affordable sport for Canadian children and to maintain interest in it beyond the youth level.
“I want to pay particular attention to development, I want to pay particular attention to grassroots hockey,” Renney said at a news conference in Calgary. “I want people to participate in the game for the right reasons, and that means doing the right thing. Little people have to want to play this game, older people have to want to continue to play it, and when you get to that great old age of whatever it is, you want to play it as a lifetime sport.”
Hockey has been a lifetime endeavour for Renney, who began coaching in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League before moving on to win two WHL titles and a Memorial Cup with the Kamloops Blazers in the early 1990s. He was the coach of Canada’s national team for two years after that, including at the 1994 Olympics.
He served as vice-president of hockey operations with Hockey Canada from 1997-99, also coaching Canada to a silver medal at the 1999 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Renney’s NHL experience included being head coach of the Canucks, Rangers and Oilers. While with New York, he also served as director of player personnel and vice-president of player development. If there was any doubt Renney was just a coach, he quashed it.
“He’s one of the most analytical guys that I know and well-organized, persistent,” Sather said. “I’ve always looked to hire somebody that’s smarter than me. He was one of those guys that I was quite sure that he was.”
In the decade since, Renney went from associate coach of the Oilers to head coach to an associate for the past two seasons with the Red Wings. Even though he never led a team beyond the conference final, his strengths kept him as a hot commodity in the game.
“He’s coached our Olympic team, he started in grassroots hockey, he played college hockey,” Babcock said. “He’s just flat-out done it all, and he doesn’t get tired. All he thinks about is hockey. He’s 24/7 hockey, that’s what he loves.”
On the international stage, Renney was vice-president of hockey operations for Hockey Canada from 1997 to 1999 and on three occasions was on the coaching staff at world championships. Holland recalled presentations Renney made to international coaches, too, as even more evidence of experience and his stature within hockey circles.
“He’s going to respect people, he’s going to respect the game and in return he gets that respect back,” Holland said in a phone interview. “He knows everybody in the game, and if he doesn’t know them, as soon as he introduces himself because of what he’s accomplished and because of his experiences, because he’s a classy, first-class person, he’s very comfortable in talking to people.”
Renney is not arrogant but confident about his business background, even if it’s restricted to a clothing shop in Trail with his wife, Glenda, where he dealt with the ebb and flow of pricing and learned how to balance budgets and maintain relationships with customers.
“There isn’t a lot that can get done in this day and age without a good business plan, so I very much have my head around that,” Renney said. “I know that I come into a situation that has enormous capital in terms of its people potential here and the work that’s been done in the past. I’m thankful for that quite honestly because as you can appreciate as more of an operations/coach background, this is really important to me to be surrounded by terrific people, which I am, to help push forward our business plan, if you will, and enhance it.”
Renney, who will get help from chief operation officer Scott Smith, isn’t as business savvy as Nicholson, who last month became vice-chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group. Through an Oilers spokesman, Nicholson deferred comment until later in the week so as not to interfere with Renney’s big day.
The expectations on Renney are much different.
“We’ve done great work in the past and Tom’s job is to take us into a new era,” Hornell said. “His passion for the game came through through the entire process and we’re just looking for him now to hit the ground running and will take Hockey Canada to the next level.”