Old-time hockey: How the NHL lags behind when it comes to hiring coaches

When the Calgary Flames hired Bill Peters as their new head coach in April 2018, he was the only candidate they interviewed for the job. And the entire process — from drawing up the (extra-short) shortlist to celebratory news conference — took less than a week.

At the time, the man who led the search, Flames' general manager Brad Treliving, told the media that the decision was largely based on his experience at the 2016 Hockey World Championship, where Canada won gold with Peters behind the bench. 

"Bill and I don't have a long relationship; we had a situation where we worked together over a small period of time," said Treliving. "But you do your homework. This is somebody I believe fully in. This is somebody I have been around enough to know, the network of people I talked to, to not formalize a thought, but solidify a thought I got."

Hiring decisions don't always work out in the NHL. But rarely do they go so wrong. 

In the course of one work week, Peters has been transformed from one of the faces of the Calgary franchise to a hockey pariah, having admitted to past racial and homophobic slurs, and facing as-of-yet-unaddressed reports he once punched and kicked his players.

And the Flames appear to have been caught flat-footed, somehow failing to uncover the coach's disturbing and not-so-hidden past with two other NHL organizations. After days of speculation, the Flames announced on Friday that Peters resigned.

Add in allegations of bullying behaviour levied at recently fired Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock and former Los Angeles Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter, and the league appears to be in the midst of a leadership crisis.

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That's all leading some to say it's time for pro-hockey — a $4.5 billion US a year business — to abandon its Original Six-era hiring practices and behave more like major corporations or political parties, which now routinely do deep dives into prospective employees' pasts.

Old ways don't jive with new risks

"I don't have any doubt that when this comes to a conclusion, it will change the process. It has to change the process," said former NHL coach and general manager Doug MacLean. "There's some soul-searching going on, I guarantee you."

The process of hiring an NHL head coach has often been informal, said MacLean, who guided the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup finals and later went on to oversee the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"The vetting was that I would talk to people who had worked with the guy I was interested in — people who had played for him, people who knew him well," he said.

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There was also a sense that even those limited inquiries needed to be kept discreet to avoid tipping off rival clubs. 

"You want to keep it fairly confidential amongst the candidates as to who's in the running," said MacLean. "And you just also want to keep it from the media. You want it to be a fairly big announcement."

But those old ways might not account for new risks, when hiring decisions can be called into question with a single post.

Over the past couple of decades, Jed Hughes, the vice-chairman of Korn Ferry, a New York-based executive recruitment firm, has helped select dozens of coaches and executives for the NFL, MLB, and NBA. He was part of the team that brought Masai Ujiri to the Toronto Raptors.

He said deep vetting is now a requirement for such jobs — not an option.

"You've got to track people's social media, go into the court records, find everything in their background that you can," said Hughes. "Make sure that your finalist is clear so that people in the media aren't ready to roast them."

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GMs often feel like it's their prerogative to select the coach all on their own, Hughes said. But he argues there's an advantage to seeking outside assistance.

"We don't ever go into a search thinking that we know the answer," said Hughes. "We put a consistent process together, looking at competencies and a person's makeup. It's a really scientific methodology."

Past fumbles

The NHL has had some spectacular vetting failures in the past.

Texas businessman John Spano bought the New York Islanders for $165 million US back in 1996, and ran the franchise for months — until the league discovered he didn't actually have any money. A decade later, William (Boots) Del Biaggio, went to jail for using fake documents to obtain $110 million in loans to buy the Nashville Predators.

But any lessons learned about background checks by the NHL's Board of Governors don't seem to have trickled down to the clubs themselves — all the more surprising given how frequently coaches and managers, who often have a higher profile than most players, get turfed.

Charles Krupa/The Associated Press

During 2018-19 season, 13 coaches and six GMs were fired. And so far this season, four GMs and nine coaches have been sent packing.

All indications suggest Bill Peters will be next. Even if the Flames don't dismiss him following their own internal investigation, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has the power to fine or fire club employees for disreputable conduct. 

Will it be a watershed moment for the league? 

Perhaps not. But it may serve as a wakeup call. Or a reminder that those who rush to build a winning team sometimes risk losing big.