Hayley Wickenheiser and the search for the NHL’s first female GM

in Other News

 

August 24, 2018

by Greg Wyshynski, ESPN

Breaking the template is easier for some franchises than others.

The Arizona Coyotes hired John Chayka at 26 years old as their general manager, and the reaction was akin to “well, what else are they going to do?” The San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon in August 2014 as the first woman to serve as a full-time salaried assistant coach in the NBA because they were coming off a championship — and because Gregg Popovich could be like, “This season, we’re wearing Crocs” and then LaMarcus Aldridge becomes the first player to win MVP in Crocs. (And then people are waiting two hours in line outside of the Nike Store to buy Crocs.)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are an Original Six team, and in that sense, are expected to do things in an Original Six manner. Like hiring a parade of managers of similar cultural and demographic backgrounds, promising success within five years and then being replaced by a clone upon their firing. But they also haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the year The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which means some level of invention was understandable.

It started at the top when Brendan Shanahan, whose only managerial experience was as the NHL’s first Department of Player Safety sheriff, was named team president in 2014.

Three months later, he hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as an assistant general manager, a move that was as noteworthy for the young executive’s commitment to analytics as it was for his experience.

Four years later, Dubas ascended to become the team’s general manager, completing the track Shanahan had placed him on. Criticisms of his age, experience, or ability to work with the egos of successful coaches and players were summarily ignored; Shanahan hired what he considered to be the best person for the job.

And that’s exactly what Dubas did in hiring Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser as the team’s assistant director of player development this week.

Yes, she’s a woman. No, she has never played in the NHL or AHL, although she has played with and against men in international leagues, should that qualification actually matter.

But Dubas put it succinctly: We’re doing things differently here because it’s idiotic not to.

“The way that Hayley thinks about hockey and life could be a massive benefit to our player development program, and our program in general. It’s not about trying to find another diverse hire. It’s about trying to find the best person, no matter what their background might be,” he said Thursday.

“We have women who play a large role in our organization already. The more diverse you can make your organization … and that’s not just a male or female thing. We’ve got a fairly diverse group of people on our sports science side and other areas. Research shows that the more diverse your organization is, the better your decision-making and your operation in general. If you’re only hiring white males, and I’m saying that as a white male, you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of how your organization can develop.”

With that, a franchise that began playing in the NHL roughly one year before women’s suffrage swept through Canada became one of the most progressive in hockey when it comes to hiring women on its hockey operations staff.

“I don’t think we’ve gone out and said we want to hire females only, males only, anything like that,” Dubas said. “We want to hire the best candidates, and not pushing anyone aside. I think sports in general are moving in that direction. I know basketball has been by far the best at it, and baseball, as well. It’s just going to make sports better in how we operate.”

The NBA has been a trailblazer here, with women working as coaches and scouts. Women such as Jenny Boucek, now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, after having been a player development coach with the Sacramento Kings in the previous season.

Boucek’s résumé: former NCAA and professional player, including international competition; former head coach for two professional teams and an assistant coach for three more during a 20-year span after retirement, winning two championships while on staff.

 

That’s an impressive biography regardless of gender. Which makes the other woman hired by the Leafs on Thursday perhaps even more intriguing than Wickenheiser.

Noelle Needham was brought on by the Leafs as an amateur scout in the midwestern United States. Her résumé is exceptional: Six years at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school, which you might have heard spill from Pierre McGuire’s mouth whenever Sidney Crosby‘s on the ice; NCAA experience as a player; co-founder of a Tier 1 hockey club and someone who ran the Legend Hockey development program for nine years in South Dakota. Again, that’s an impressive biography regardless of gender.

So when it came time to evaluate the skills of their amateur scout candidates, Dubas said the Leafs disregarded gender. “We went through an anonymized reporting process where the candidates all completed scouting reports. So we didn’t know who was who, at all,” he said. “And we just thought, unanimously, that Noelle showed excellent potential as a scout and came highly recommended. We just moved ahead with the hire. Nothing different than hiring anyone else.”

Scouting is a foot in the door. Dubas would know, having scouted for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds while attending university, before eventually becoming their general manager at 25 years old.

Could a woman follow a similar path? Are we nearing a point in the NHL when someone with Wickenheiser’s gravitas and Needham’s player personnel acumen could become an assistant general manager, potentially leading to the big job?

Brant Feldman, an agent who has represented dozens of women’s hockey stars, believes we’re getting closer, as the Leafs’ hires would indicate.

“I think that even though they are a ‘woman’ that the hallmarks of what they do are identical to a man but their perspective on intangibles are different, and might be more approachable at times by players because of their gender,” he told ESPN. “Today’s Leafs hiring will spark some more hires, and everyone will start to try and assess where things are at. Not everyone is cut out for it, because they are going to need to be more than just what their job title is; they will be under the glare also as a team ambassador and need to have a thick skin to when deals or development don’t go well. I think that all of the women above can rise above that.”

Beyond the necessary experience and skill set — scouting, recruiting, drafting — Feldman believes there’s an essential element to a woman breaking through that ceiling into upper management, and that’s trust. Not just with the organization but with the organization’s players.

“The first women need to be approachable and be able to have a professional relationship with all of the players on their rosters in the AHL, and make appearances with their ECHL prospects so that they can start to understand them and see their strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “These women understand a locker room environment and language already. Certainly there will be some athletes who look at them as an object and not as their boss, but that will change.”

That trust is built through a consistent presence, lending to a sense of normalcy.

“A woman needs to be visible not only on game day but get to practice, be approachable with the players after practice and if it means grabbing a coffee or lunch with them to try and relate what is going on both on and off the ice, they will have a different perspective that might help that player along,” Feldman said. “The woman is ultimately your boss, but you will learn from that boss if they have great people and communication skills — things that maybe you have not thought of before. A bonus would be if they had any sports psychology background from university. All of these women who might be in the running for a job will have college degrees from some of the finest institutions in North America.”

There are several women who should be on every team’s radar as potential managerial candidates. Leading that group is former Canadian Olympian Jayna Hefford, who has coached in the college ranks and is interim commissioner of the CWHL; Julie Chu, who has worked for multiple college programs and has been a respected coach and player mentor; Katie King Crowley, longtime Boston College coach and an Olympic gold medalist; Erin Whitten Hamlen, who played in the ECHL and has worked for multiple college programs; and Angela Ruggiero, who has the name recognition like Wickenheiser, is a managing partner of Sports Innovation Lab and has worked with the IOC on a committee and in trying to land the Olympics in Los Angeles.

Again, taken as a stack of résumés, they’re in the conversation for any open job in pro hockey. With the Leafs’ hires this week, we’re inching toward a time when that’s how their candidacies will be seen first, with the advantages and intangibles that their demographics and experiences bring being an ancillary benefit.

“I think the biggest reason why I was intrigued about this role is that Kyle was interested in me not to hire a woman but to hire someone that could do the job,” Wickenheiser said.

Wickenheiser has the job. Needham has the job. Hammon and Boucek have the jobs, just like AJ Mleczko had the job on NBCSN last season calling Stanley Cup playoff games. They represent what’s now attainable to legions of women in sports. They represent what’s potentially going to be attained in the years to come.