Best leaders rarely top stars

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

The naming of Steve Yzerman as executive director of Canada's men's hockey team for the 2010 Winter Olympics is a slap in the face of the history of hockey.

This has nothing to do with Yzerman himself, who was a superb player and is a fine hockey man, and everything to do with Hockey Canada again ignoring the obvious.

For reasons it can best explain, Hockey Canada remains obsessed with the big-name, high-profile, star-quality leader. In essence, the jock-sniffer's approach to running a hockey program.

So now, it is Yzerman in charge for 2010. As it was Wayne Gretzky, who still has not made the playoffs as an NHL coach and executive, in 2002 and 2006. Before that, it was Bobby Clarke in charge, a general manager who knocked on a lot of NHL doors but never banged the big one down.

There have been nine medals given out since NHL players began playing hockey at the Olympics.

Canada has won one of them.

The Czech Republic, Russia and Finland have won two each.

Not all of this is necessarily tied to the man in charge of the team -- but the history of the sport surely is worthy of consideration.

Over the past 50 years -- a wide blueprint of NHL hockey -- the most successful general managers have been Sam Pollock in Montreal (9 Cups); Glen Sather in Edmonton; (5) Punch Imlach in Toronto (4); Bill Torrey on Long Island (4); Ken Holland in Detroit (3) and Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey (3). Combined, they have won more than half of the Stanley Cups over the past 50 years.

What do most of these men have in common?

Pollock, Imlach, Torrey and Lamoriello never played an NHL game.

Holland played goal in parts of four games.

Sather played nine NHL seasons, scoring fewer goals in his career than Gretzky did in either of his best seasons, had any kind of playing career among the upper-echelon general managers.

How about other Stanley Cup winners? Brian Burke. No games played. Jay Feaster. No games played. Cliff Fletcher. No games played. Pierre Lacroix. No games played. Neil Smith. No games played. Harry Sinden, No games played. Jimmy Devellano. No games played. Tommy Ivan, No games played.

You get the point?

For every Serge Savard or Jim Rutherford, players of various levels but both championship executives, there are a dozen examples of the opposite.

Hockey Canada, though, never has looked that way.

While you or I or just about anyone could put the right 20 players together to form a Team Canada lineup for 2010, that is just a small part of what the executive director needs to do here. There is the hiring of coach and staff. There is the way in which you choose to present your team as the main attraction of the 2010 Games. There is so much more to the planning -- as Jerry Colangelo, who just finished off with gold in basketball in Beijing will attest -- beginning with a strategic plan.

That's what executives with experience can do. People always point to Gretzky's success winning gold in 2002 as a hallmark victory for Canada. It was. But upon further inspection, look at what really happened: Canada had a rather ordinary round-robin, a goaltending controversy and a loss to Sweden. The team got better as the tournament went on -- but was truly fortunate when Sweden lost to Belarus, creating a huge mismatch in Canada's semifinal. Canada played an extraordinary game to win gold -- one extraordinary game in the whole tournament.

Four years later, again with Gretzky in charge, with Todd Bertuzzi playing and Sidney Crosby not, the Canadians could not generate any meaningful offence and were out in the quarterfinal round. Canada was ousted by a Russian team that didn't win a medal itself.

So to credit Gretzky for gold in 2002, you also must understand he was the leader of the Canadian team that failed miserably in 2006.

But with a high-profile former star in charge, there normally is an unwillingness to criticize. The player, through his brilliance, earns that respect. Even if hockey history shows year after year that the best managers were never star players.

For the record, the World Series began last night: The executives in charge, Pat Gillick of Philadelphia, Andrew Friedman of Tampa Bay, never did play a big league game. Not one.


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