When the NHL general managers met during the most recent Stanley Cup final, there was an empty chair at the table.
Bryan Murray of the Ottawa Senators played hooky. He went AWOL, in a manner of speaking, although Murray did inform the NHL’s senior VP of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, that he wouldn’t be there. The NHL’s change of meeting date conflicted with Murray’s date — with a certain woman named Geri.
“I went with my wife, instead of Coli,” Murray says.
Another good call by the Senators’ general manager.
“Long term, I think it is,” Murray says. “We never do that (miss meetings). This is the thing in this business … she said to me a couple of years ago, ‘I’ve never even been to Perth with you.’ So, I drove her down to Perth one Saturday.”
The truth is, Geri wonders when Bryan will finally leave a business that has been in his blood for more than 30 years. Though still clearly on top of his game, and widely lauded for the success of his young, rebuilding team in 2011-12, the silver-haired GM turns 70 in December. His contract runs through to 2013-14, at which point, he says that might be enough.
However, that plays out, Murray felt he owed Geri a special trip after all these years, and so, months ago she made plans for a getaway to Quebec City, an extended weekend trip that ultimately conflicted with the GM meetings in New York.
Murray made the choice that GMs tend to make only in special circumstances — skipping a hockey event for a family one.
“We went to Quebec City, we went on the train, spent five days at the Chateau (Frontenac), ate too much — it was great,” Murray says. “It was a good break.”
How do workaholic NHL general managers balance the demands of hockey and family life? With all the dexterity of Nik Wallenda walking across Niagara Falls on a cable, that’s how. Especially taxed are the GMs with children from two marriages (Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs declined an interview request for this story).
They could use a break, but modern hockey, with its extended season and shrinking summer does not provide one. While players and coaches more or less have free time in the off-season to spend with their loved ones, GMs don’t have that luxury. Before the Stanley Cup playoffs are finished they are already having to sign pending free agents, prepare for the entry draft and then the free agent period.
“The off-season was a lot more fun as a player, I can tell you that,” says Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, a superstar forward with the Detroit Red Wings until 2006. “As a player, the season ends, you have your commitment to your workouts, but you’re free to spend time with your family and whatnot.
“June and early July might be the busiest time of the year for the managers.”
With that in mind, we spoke to six general managers — three in the Eastern Conference, three from the West — about their daily struggle to keep the fires burning at home and at the rink. All agreed on three factors:
One, they love the game so much they consider their 24/7 occupation to be a passion, not “work.”
Two, the most important element of a successful hockey marriage is having an understanding and supportive spouse. Several would like to nominate their wives for sainthood.
Three, the compensation and perks of the job for GMs and their families are undeniably good.
For Murray, a former school teacher and local junior coach, the hockey journey began when left home for Regina and an opportunity to coach the WHL Pats.
“We were living in Shawville, and I said to Geri, I just want to try it for one year — 33 years later, she is still putting up with it.”
Murray left his wife and two daughters, Heidi and Brittany, at home while he coached the 1979-80 Pats to a championship season that launched his professional career as a head coach and GM. In total, he has spent seven seasons living in a different city from his family, including two of his six-plus years in Florida (his younger daughter, Brittany, was going into junior high) and four years in Anaheim.
THE CHALLENGE: “Try to give as much time as you can to your family, but it’s never enough,” Murray says.
His daughters are older, now, out on their own. The pull, at the moment, is from a spouse home alone. Murray has to figure out an exit strategy, a daunting task when Murray still loves the game, and is in good health.
“I feel like I did 20 years ago, almost,” Murray says.
THE STRATEGY: Leave the game at the rink.
“I try as best I can to be involved when I come home, not to talk about hockey as much or think about hockey as much, but you can’t help yourself,” Murray says. “I mean, there are phone calls at night, there are things you have to plan for the next day, or days leading up to a trade or whatever it may be.”
“You’re always on call. Maybe you don’t have that daily intensity (of a coach), also as an older GM, you reach a point where you let others do their jobs and you’re not quite as involved. But a GM job is 12 months a year now and there are really no days off.
“When you do take a day off you feel guilty because there are four or five phone calls you’ve missed. You try to get back to them as soon as possible … but maybe it’s an agent you had a chance to do something with or a GM to make a trade.”
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
These past few days were big ones in the Yzerman household. Isabella, the oldest daughter of Steve and his wife, Lisa, graduated from high school last week. Yzerman’s family from Ottawa, including his parents, made the trip to Michigan for the event.
Yzerman, just as Murray did when his kids were younger, resides in a different city than his wife and three daughters during the hockey season.
THE CHALLENGE: Yzerman lives and works in Tampa while his wife and three teenage daughters live in a suburb of Detroit.
“We’re going a year at a time right now,” Yzerman says. “It just depends on my daughters’ schedule. With our oldest one, we just decided we weren’t going to move her in the middle of high school and it went well for the year so we said, let’s stick with it for another year. Two years have gone by, and that’s our plan, for now.”
THE STRATEGY: When the Lightning play at home, Yzerman is there to watch and work. His wife and daughters visit when they can, on weekends or school breaks. With the club on the road, he flies back to Detroit, where he can scout and work while staying close to his family.
“One part about Detroit that is good, you can see a lot of hockey here, whether it be NHL, the AHL, major junior, college, USHL or the under-18 program,” Yzerman says. “They’re all within a three-hour drive of Detroit.”
Some hockey people believe it helps to marry to a woman who grew up in a sports household. That was certainly the case for Chiarelli, an Ottawa native who married the daughter of George Brancato, head coach of the CFL Ottawa Rough Riders from 1974-1983.
“My wife (Alicia) grew up in professional sports, and recognizes the time commitments and lifestyle,” Chiarelli says Chiarelli, the father of Cameron, 15 and Talia, 17.
A former assistant GM of the Senators, Chiarelli says his best intentions for quality family time are routinely sidetracked.
“You keep waiting for your summer to start, and with development camps, development drafts, free agency, arbitration, sometimes it doesn’t really start until the end of July,” Chiarelli says. “We’ve tried to plan vacations in the summer and we never go on them, because there is always something that comes up.”
Daughter Talia is a competitive gymnast, so her summers are spent training and competing.
GMs and coaches, especially those based in Canada, usually have a personal hideaway that brings at least some peace and quiet. For Chiarelli, it’s a work in progress.
“If the year is jammed into 10 months, those two months you’ve got to find a place to get away,” Chiarelli says. “Away from the office, away from the city. In the city, it’s always hockey.
“A couple of guys said to me, get a cottage. You can do work out of a cottage.
“I think that might be the end game for me. I haven’t done that yet, but … cell coverage is just OK (in cottage country), which is a good thing.”
Chiarelli estimates he spends three to four hours per day on the phone.
THE CHALLENGE: Find more family time.
THE STRATEGY: Chiarelli used to spend entire game days at his arena office, but has recently started going home — or to see his children’s’ sport activities — on the afternoon of games in Boston. On Sundays, when the team often has a day off, Peter and son Cameron often skate with the coaches and their children. Cameron occasionally travels with the Bruins.
“My family is very patient. We’ll be going out somewhere, and I have to take a call, and usually a call is at the very least a half an hour.
“You get used to it, and your family gets used to it. But I have to do a better job of finding time with my family away from the work.”
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Awards night in Las Vegas this week will be a family affair for the Armstrongs. Nominated for general manager of the year (Dale Tallon and David Poile were the other nominees), Doug Armstrong is not only bringing his immediate family to Vegas, but also his parents. Armstrong’s father, Neil, was a Hall of Fame NHL linesman.
“I grew up in a hockey family,” Armstrong says. “My father was an official, so when he was away, he was away for extended periods of time. It’s all I’ve known, having a father — and trying to be a father — that makes the most of the time he has, and makes all the family time he has, quality time.”
Given the nature of his profession, Armstrong says his wife, Kelly, has raised two children with “half a father.” But having lived the other half of that existence, the son of a hockey man, he also knows its advantages.
When Doug was eight years old, his dad took him on a road trip, flying commercially with the Red Wings to Boston, where he met Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the Bruins dressing room. Nearly 40 years later, the memory inspires him. Armstrong says he would be thrilled if his own, son, Blake, a student at Tufts University, followed him into the business.
Today, Armstrong deals with Orr the player agent and often seeks advice from Esposito, a former GM. The circle of hockey goes round and round.
“When I got my first job coming out of college, Bob Clarke (then running the Minnesota North Stars) said to me, ‘I’m hiring you because I know your father, and he’s part of the fraternity, part of the family. But that’s as far as that is going to get you. You’re in the door because of your father, now you’re going to have to make it on your own. That’s something that 20, 25 years later sticks with me.”
THE CHALLENGE: Make family time count.
THE STRATEGY: Like Chiarelli, Armstrong involves his family in team activities as much as possible. When Armstrong was GM of the Dallas Stars, son Blake worked one of the players benches at the bench at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game in Dallas.
“It’s a very competitive business, and in some ways a cutthroat business,” Armstrong says, “but it is a compassionate business, and a business that respects its heritage.”
DETROIT RED WINGS
Though he is younger than Murray, Holland empathizes with the Ottawa GM’s decision over when to retire. Holland, 56, has been the architect of four championship seasons in Detroit and, with Yzerman, Armstrong and Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers, was part of Canada’s hockey management team that delivered gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Still, Holland is driven by a passion for the game and the latest hockey challenge — restoring Detroit’s glory years after the loss of numerous key veterans, mostly recently legendary defenceman Nick Lidstrom. Managers face their own day of reckoning.
“It’s probably the same decision a player goes through, just at a different stage of their life,” Holland says. “It’s not at 42, it’s later on in your life.
“When you’ve been on a job a long time, and you still have the opportunity to stay on the job, when’s the right time to walk away?”
Holland, a husband and father of four — two boys, two girls — doesn’t deny hockey has kept him from some key moments of his children’s’ lives.
“If you’re going to be in this business a lot of years you’re going to have to miss things with your family because there’s hockey games going on out there every night, and if you’re not out there working, you’re probably losing ground to your competitor,” Holland says. “You get to that point in your life where there are different priorities.”
THE CHALLENGE: Making up for lost time.
“As we grow older we have grandchildren,” Holland says. “You realize you’ve missed part of your kids life, you don’t want to miss some of your grandchildren’s life.”
THE STRATEGY: Delegate
Like Murray, Holland has faith in a strong staff around him. Murray lets assistant GM Tim Murray handle some of the contracts and much of the scouting work. In Holland’s case, Jim Nill eases the burden.
“You have more energy when you’re 30 and 40 than when you’re 50 or 60, but when you’re 50 or 60, you’ve got experience and knowledge,” Holland says. “You hire a staff and they might pick up in some areas where you don’t have the energy you once did.”
SAN JOSE SHARKS
When he was with the OHL Ottawa 67’s and then NHL Chicago Blackhawks, Doug Wilson was a slick defenceman with big hair and a big shot.
What you may not know about Wilson is that he “over-married” (his term) when he set up house with Kathy, the mother of his four children. Wilson credits Kathy and the family-oriented Sharks organization with making his life less complicated.
“I’m very fortunate,” Wilson says. “I work for an organization that understands how important family is.
Kathy’s father was a high school basketball coach into he U.S. so she “gets” the emotional and time demands of sport, and the Sharks understand the importance of family time.
Two years ago, one of Wilson’s four daughters, Lacey, was Miss Massachusetts, competing in the Miss USA pageant. The competition conflicted with a Sharks playoff game, but Sharks management insisted Wilson be with his daughter at her once-in-a-lifetime event.
“They basically told me, ‘we’re going to have to replace you if you don’t go.”
THE CHALLENGE: With older children, Wilson often needs to travel to see his children. Doug Wilson Jr. is a defenceman with the Melbourne Ice in Australia. This summer, Doug Sr. plans will go Down Under to see his son play.
THE STRATEGY: Make family time count.
“I think it’s very healthy to have a great family life, because it’s the only time you really turn your brain off.
“A younger family needs quantity time, now it’s quality time.”