Jac Sperling

Wild GM search update; Hockey’s finest hour(s)

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I’m going to Game 7 tonight!!!

Caps-Pens? Nope. I’ll be in Milwaukee to attend Aeros-Admirals. I’ll probably jump on later and give you updates, as long as in return you give me Caps-Pens updates :)  

After watching every minute of last night’s games, tonight can’t get here soon enough. Carolina-Boston, Detroit-Anaheim, and all four teams have a lot of work to do to equal the excitement of last night’s Washington win over Pittsburgh and Chicago’s elimination of Vancouver.

More on that in a second.

First we interrupt for a Wild GM search update. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I believe the Wild will complete its first interviews when owner Craig Leipold sits down with assistant GM and acting GM Tom Lynn. It makes sense. Lynn’s been in Houston. Leipold’s been in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Both will be in Milwaukee for Game 7 of the Houston-Milwaukee series, so I’m sure they’ll sit down for Lynn’s interview.

After that, according to sources, Leipold, Jac Sperling and Matt Majka will cut the list to a handful of finalists who will be brought back for second interviews and tours of the offices and arena. Those finalists will likely include at least TSN analyst Pierre McGuire, Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher and Anaheim assistant GM Dave McNab.

I am certain from talking to a gazillion people that the biggest thing that’s delayed this process is the fact that all these men are working right now. Because Pittsburgh and Anaheim are still in the playoffs, and McGuire is working almost nightly, it’s created a scheduling challenge to get them all in here, sources say.

And when it comes to second interviews, it makes sense to try to bang them out one by one by one so the interviews remain fresh in mind and a decision can be made rather than an interview, three or four days of nothing, then another interview, so on and so on.

So, long story short, it’ll still be some time before a GM is hired. Hey, maybe I’ll be back in the Continental U.S. by then — which would be nice. Of course, I leave the country again a few days later as well.

The people I know have been interviewed are McGuire, Fletcher, McNab, Pat Quinn, Nashville execs Paul Fenton and Mike Santos, and by tomorrow, Lynn. I’m still not convinced former Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster’s totally out of it, and I know there’s been conversation with Tampa Bay assistant GM Claude Loiselle.

There could be others, like I’ve said before. I’ve heard lots of names and are only writing the ones I’ve confirmed through a variety of ways. The frontrunners remain, I believe, McGuire, Fletcher and McNab.

There’s been a ton of buzz about McGuire, who has the personality to place the Wild on the map. I can tell you, I’ve gotten several calls from some of the NHL’s heaviest hitters — Hall of Famers, players, agents and execs — really pumping up McGuire. He’s got lots of friends in all different areas.

Fletcher’s been in the game his whole life, negotiates contracts and has an eye for talent. He’s immensely respected. And McNab is known as a person who will leave no stone unturned in finding players. 

I know I’ve mentioned some time-sensitive reasons to get a GM in here quickly, but in reality, there’s plenty of time. The Wild has until July 1 to exclusively negotiate with Marian Gaborik, but let’s be honest. It’s an incredible longshot that he’ll re-sign and forgo his right to free agency this close to it. If Brian Rolston didn’t do it, why would Gaborik? If the Wild can only offer him a short-term deal, well, he might as well wait. And you can bet Leipold knows that.

Also, there’s really no insane urgency to hire a coach right away. In my opinion, it’s only essential to have a coach in place by July 1 so free agents know who’s coaching. That’ll allow a long time for the new GM to interview coaches, and remember, there’s sort of an unwritten rule in the NHL not to have any big announcements during the Stanley Cup Finals. So that takes us into mid-June at least for a coach.


Fletcher, McGuire considered frontrunners on Wild GM short list (updated)

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

fletcher.jpgmcguire.jpg quinn.jpglynn.jpg 

 Fletcher                       McGuire                       Quinn                         Lynn


Happy Cinco de Mayo! I love that Seinfeld episode where Elaine shops at Putumayo and then goes to Cinco de Mayo and screams at Gladys Mayo, “Sales commission, bye-bye-O.”

Or something like that.

Here is the link for the article I wrote in Tuesday’s edition on the Wild’s short list.

The Wild’s search for a GM is heating up as the Wild — owner Craig Leipold, former CEO and current MSE board member Jac Sperling and COO Matt Majka — has trimmed the applicant list of nearly 30 down to a handful.

The frontrunners, sources say, are Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Chuck Fletcher and TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire. McGuire didn’t work for TSN Monday and isn’t working tonight, and he’ll be in Raleigh on Wednesday, so it’s not difficult to figure out that the million miler traveler will interview today. Fletcher is expected to interview later this week, and if he is offered the job, one would think he’ll be allowed to leave immediately. I doubt the Penguins allowed him to get this deep into the process only to forbid him from taking the job if the Penguins are still playing. 

Also in the running are longtime NHL coach and GM Pat Quinn, Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton (and maybe still Director of Hockey Ops Mike Santos) and Wild acting GM Tom Lynn.

I also heard Monday evening that Tampa Bay Lightning assistant GM Claude Loiselle has had conversations with Leipold, but it was unclear whether he’d get an in-person interview.

This seems like a two-horse race, although the one thing I’ve learned in these type of things is anything can change on a dime. Some people interview poorly, some people blow you away in interviews, last-minute candidates emerge.

But I’ve talked to dozens of people around the league the past month, and I’m pretty sure on the names still alive — so to speak.

I know both Fletcher and McGuire very well just from covering the league since the mid-90s.

– I covered Fletcher for seven of his nine years in Florida, and he’s as sharp as they come. I remember Bobby Clarke, the Panthers’ first GM (which not many people recall), hired him in the Airport Marriott in Toronto. And I remember Fletcher telling me once that his first duty once he got to the expansion Panthers was to figure out where to buy a washer and dryer for the practice facility at Gold Coast Ice Arena in Pompano Beach, Fla.

It was a funny story, but here’s this 25-year-old kid that could barely do his own laundry wondering, “OK, do I just go to Brandsmart or something.”

He’s come quite a long way. He’s considered the next big thing, and a lot of it is for all the reasons I’ve mentioned lately. You don’t find 41-year-old’s with 16 years of experience in management, and quite frankly, 41 years of experience when you consider he’s lived inside hockey rinks since he was born. He’s about high-tempo hockey, and after seeing the job Dan Bylsma has done on the Pittsburgh bench this season, I think he’d probably want a young coach (and remember, he originally hired former Gopher Todd Richards in Wilkes-Barre).

– I’ve known McGuire from Day One of covering this league and he’s as plugged in as they get. He knows the sports inside-out. While he hasn’t worked for a team for some time, few people have had the unfettered access to players, coaches and managers like McGuire. And I’m not just talking at the pro level. I’m talking at the amateur level. He’s done all the national tournaments for TSN. In fact, ironically, he once showed me a picture of his son — then probably five or six — racing Colton Gillies at the world championships.

He’s about high-octane offense, games played with an edge and has great relationships with team personnel and agents throughout the league. He’s a salesman, too. He’d probably be able to lure top players to this market.

I’ve talked to players over the past couple weeks, and there’s a genuine excitement about the two names seemingly leading the pack.

As I wrote today, owner Craig Leipold is grabbing what he feels are the most intriguing candidates from different categories. You have the traditional, been-in-this-sport-forever candidate in Pat Quinn. You have the hot commodity and young energy and smarts in Chuck Fletcher. You have the passion and experience of somebody who’s watched more hockey than most in Pierre McGuire. And you have the internal candidate with deep knowledge of the Wild in Tom Lynn.

I think Lynn will have a tough time just because Leipold seems intent on “new eyes,” but Lynn wasn’t always in lockstep with Doug Risebrough as people may think and maybe the only impediment of Lynn identifying problems before and changing them was the fact he wasn’t the man in charge.

Regardless, I think Lynn will be a GM in this league at some point.

Fenton I think will have it tough as well. I don’t know him. I know he’s highly respected, but I think in the end, Leipold will be a cognizant that there could be a perception – fair or not — that he took somebody from his old team, Nashville. 

Even though he might ruin my Hawaiian trip, Leipold’s going about this the right way :)


Russo Ramblings on GM search, potential changes, Masterton; Aeros take 1-0 second-round lead

Friday, May 1st, 2009

First things first, the Houston Aeros, behind goals from Krys Kolanos and a face from the past, Tomas Mojzis, and 27 saves from the revelation that is Anton Khudobin, beat the Milwaukee Admirals 2-1 in Game 1 of West Division Finals last night. Here’s the link.

Game 2 is in Milwaukee at 7 p.m. Saturday if you have a hockey yearning and want to hop on I-94 and drive east.

Kinda quiet in Wildland, eh? It’s weird covering a team without a general manager AND coach. I think Boston had that for awhile a few years ago because Peter Chiarelli hired Dave Lewis. And I was reminded, the Rangers went without a coach and GM from March to June 1, 2000, when Neil Smith and John Muckler were fired, and eventually Glen Sather hired.

I’ve been getting a few emails from fans wondering what’s taken so long. It’s been two weeks! Calm down. All I can tell you is be patient. This is a phenomenally critical decision. The GM is the most important hire in an organization. Screw this up, and the franchise is set back dramatically. So allow Craig Leipold & Gang the time to do a far and wide search (although, if you’re reading Mr. Leipold, I’m imposing a May 15 deadline because I’m leaving town the next day)  :)  

Leipold is keeping everything close to the vest, but here are some things I know from recent days:

– Leipold has formed a committee of confidants who are assisting him with the entire process. Chief among them is Jac Sperling, who is currently a board member for Minnesota Sports & Entertainment (MSE). He also currently owns and manages Grit Rock (Rodeo) Ventures based in Minneapolis. He was formerly Vice Chairman of MSE for Bob Naegele and prior to that was CEO of the Wild, while playing an instrumental role in returning the NHL to Minnesota back in 1997 and hiring Doug Risebrough. Sperling is well-respected and known throughout the hockey world.

– I was told yesterday that Sperling was on the phone recently with a long-time NHL team executive to go over the Wild’s list of 20-plus applicants. The list has been weeded down dramatically, and the interview process was supposed to really get started as early as yesterday (Thursday) and at the latest, Monday.

– Leipold has had phone conversations and email exchanges with several candidates. However, it’s tough to know the exact list Leipold’s interested in for a couple reasons. One is this: Several GM’s have contacted Leipold to recommend candidates, like assistant GM’s, letting him know he’s got permission to speak to them. I’ve found out a number of those identities this week, but I haven’t written their names because it’s so deceiving.

Yes, the Wild’s received permission to talk to these “candidates,” but that’s very different than the Wild contacting teams to talk to candidates. And I’ve since learned that the Wild, even though they’ve gotten permission to speak to some people, really aren’t considering some of the names I know but haven’t written (hope that makes sense).

– One name I keep hearing they’re really focusing on is Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. It’s a sensitive topic right now because the Penguins are in the second round and nobody wants to create distractions for them. But the Wild wants to talk to Fletcher, has received permission to do so, and GM Ray Shero — whom Leipold knows well because he used to be assistant GM in Nashville — is really pushing for Fletcher. The Harvard-educated Fletcher is immensely respected, is young at age 41, in 16 years has been to three Stanley Cup Finals (Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh) and has been around the game his whole life (Cliff Fletcher’s son).

– I keep hearing that Pierre McGuire, the longtime NHL TV personality and former Hartford Whalers coach and Pittsburgh assistant coach – is “enamored” by people inside the Wild offices. I know he’s got friends inside NHL headquarters that are pushing his name. He’s long wanted to get back into management, and he knows everybody in the league. And because of his job, he’s probably seen more NHL players and prospects close up than any manager or scout around. I do hear he’s going to get an interview, and boy, you know he’d be aggressive and a quote.

– I still think Leipold is very intrigued by Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton and Director of Hockey Ops Mike Santos. I think he plans to talk to both — if it hasn’t happened already.

– And I keep hearing that Pat Quinn, Doug MacLean and Jay Feaster are very much interested in the job, with reciprocal interest from inside the Wild. I will say this: I keep hearing Quinn mostly wants to coach again, and although he’d take the GM’s job, he just loves coaching and most consider him a better coach. But one would think the Wild would allow the new GM to hire the coach.

– And you know there are always mystery candidates that haven’t been revealed yet. I’ve heard some very, very interesting names, but since I haven’t been able to confirm, I haven’t written them. Of course, if one of them is hired, I’ll probably beat myself up over not writing it for months.

– I know a lot of you are praying this team makes a big free-agency splash. I still think the smartest thing to do, and the thing these guys probably would do instead, is make their splashes via trade rather than free-agent signings.

What else do I feel like rambling about?


Risebrough says goodbye; Backstrom to have hip surgery, out four to six months?

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

Just got back from Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub, where Doug Risebrough said farewell during a 30-minute press conference. He then talked on the side with the writers.

It was a classy goodbye where Risebrough thanked everyone from Jac Sperling and Bob Naegele for giving him this opportunity, to his staff inside the Wild, to the players, to the media to most importantly, the fans.

Brian Stensaas transcribed the presser (which I appreciate greatly), and it’s on the bottom of this post. I’ll throw a couple quotes up from his sit-down with the writers.

The coolest thing I saw? I’m standing outside the bar and a black SUV rolls up and I hear, “Mike!” It was Derek Boogaard, all drugged up and in discomfort literally after waking up from shoulder surgery. Boogaard’s fiancee drove him down there because he wanted to thank Doug for everything. He asked me if I could find him, and the two shared a few moments in the parking lot.

“You have no idea how much I owe him and Jacques for playing in the NHL,” Boogaard said. “I have so much respect for those two guys.”

Risebrough said he’s spoken and met with a number of players, even running into Marian Gaborik at the arena. He said after the initial natural discomfort Gaborik felt about talking to a GM that just got fired, the two shared some quality time together.

Risebrough also went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the defenseman after the story came out about his concussion. He still maintains that this was not an easy diagnosis. You can read more about that in the paper Wednesday.

On whether he’s learned anything from Burns playing? “I went to see burnzie about that. I said, ‘brent, you should help participate in getting us to understand how we can do this better.’ One of them might be wives involved. Even when brent thought he was fine, his fiancée saw a difference in how he was feeling – sleeping longer, not eating as much. She was at the table expressing this to me. … the thing with the concussions is really a concern for the players is it’s hard to play the game with fear. You can’t enjoy the game if you’re worried. Going to see a guy like Brent saw, that guy gave him total confidence that this is just a one-time thing, don’t get all worked up about it.

“It was a good conversation with him, and I got to see the snakes, too – all 50 of them. It was quite interesting. He’s got quite the farm out there. I was glad they’re all kind of contained, too, because I can honestly say I’m not great with snakes. And then the birds, and then the guitars. That’s what I like about him. He plays somewhat the way he is.”

Risebrough also had some awesome stories to tell about Jacques, and guys like Mikko Koivu during his presser.

He admitted that there were lots of problems he’s had with agent Ron Salcer from Day One of Salcer taking Gaborik over from agent Allan Walsh. He said he and Salcer never spoke. “I get along with everybody. I think so. I’ve had a couple calls from agents. This was just an unusual one.”

But he doesn’t believe the relationship was a factor in his getting fired.

Risebrough said every decision he made with the Wild was done for the right reasons, and he knows he didn’t make all right decisions. I asked him — and this is what I was told from well-placed sources — about Leipold’s discontent with his conservative nature and the fact that he didn’t create some financial flexibility at this year’s trade deadline to make it easier to get Backstrom and Gaborik under the same salary cap for a long time.

After a long, “ahhhhhh,” Risebrough decided to decline comment because conversations with Leipold behind the scenes were “privy conversations.”

Unlike many GM’s, Risebrough is proud that he never made moves in Minnesota — especially in the last year of his deal — to save his own job.

He said he was shocked to learn of his dismissal, and Craig “will have to live with it,” but he said he didn’t blame Craig at all. He also said he’s happy Leipold fired him the say after the Lemaire press conference because even though he talked so much about the future and that was all for naught, he so thoroughly enjoyed the press conference and the fond farewell to Jacques.

“I always feel there’s a fit and if there’s not a fit, then it’s time to move on. So I wasn’t worried about that. I might be unusual that way. … There wasn’t [a fit] with Craig. But that’s OK. I spent a year, and he tried to find out, whether there was a fit. The difference is the fit’s in his control.”

As I reported last week, on Thursday, after the news was released of his dismissal, Risebrough got on his motorcycle and drove. He went to see Tommy Thompson, who was up in Fargo scouting the world under-18s.
“I wanted to go and talk to Tom Thompson because we’ve been together so long. And he was in Fargo. I said I want to see you Tommy, and we met halfway. And I looked up, and it was a blue sky, and I said, ‘what a great day for a bike ride.’ And it was a great day for a bike ride.”

Risebrough will leave Wednesday for three weeks in Palm Springs, then will go on a two-week solo canoe trip like he often does after the season. He hopes to manage again, and he said he will take any step to get there — meaning, maybe he consults, maybe he scouts, whatever. But he certainly wants to work again.

Asked if he’s cross over to the media, he joked, “I’m a bad writer.”

Asked about TV, he said, “I enjoy being able to communicate a perspective,” so he’d consider it. But in his mind, he said, staying in hockey means working for a team.

Lastly, from a personal point of view, I enjoyed covering Risebrough. Just a great guy to talk to with outstanding stories. He was always so assessable, which I appreciated, and even though we had a couple moments, there was a mutual respect. We didn’t always agree with each other professionally, but personally, it was a solid time.

It’s funny. I first met Risebrough at a wedding in Toronto in the summertime during the lockout. I actually sat at his table with guys like Doug MacLean, John Davidson, Dino Ciccarelli, John Shannon and a couple other league and team execs. I said to him, “Boy, you’d be a great guy to cover.” Not two weeks later, I landed in Paris, checked my voicemail and it was Star Tribune sports editor Glen Crevier asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for the Wild job.

Couple other tidbits:

– Boogaard is very sore, but had successful surgery and will begin rehab ASAP.

– From Pittsburgh sources, Craig Leipold has not asked for permission to speak with assistant GM Chuck Fletcher yet, but GM Ray Shero is expecting a call and would not only give permission, he’d advocate strongly on Fletcher’s behalf. “Quite frankly, it’s crazy that Chuck’s not a GM in this league already,” the source said. Actually, he’s been an interim GM a couple times. 

Here is the Risebrough transcript: