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Assessing 'The State of Hockey' with Risebrough

by John McGourty /
Doug Risebrough is the only general manager the Minnesota Wild have known, making him the logical choice to talk about what's Wild in the State of Hockey.

He recently took time to sit down with and talk about the Wild's core values and how the team's success has been achieved. Describe your satisfaction in being the reigning Northwest Division champions and being off to a good start this

Risebrough: The best experience, and it is still ongoing here, is that when you are an expansion GM, you get a chance to do it your way right from scratch. You don't have any baggage, it's all you. More importantly, I was able to attract a lot of good people and a lot of people who work as a team.

My tickle comes from, whether it's in scouting or coaching or players, giving people an opportunity. Usually, when you give  people an opportunity, you're not disappointed. You're the only general manager in Wild history. Why the longevity?

Risebrough: (Former owner) Bob's (Naegele Jr.) plan was to offer the ultimate leadership. When you are the owner, you make the decisions of the culture of the company and set the disciplinary functions of the company. He said, 'You make the decisions that you think are going to produce a winner.' My mandate, which I thought was pretty interesting, was 'build a winning tradition.' To have a winning tradition, you have to have a lot of winning.

Bob was a guy who said that as long as you do it within the financial parameters, do what you want. He's a hockey guy, so he 
understood pretty instinctively what I was trying to do. How important has scouting and player development been in the Wild's success?

Risebrough: It's hard to single out one group of guys. What gets lost in why we have been so successful is that everyone has bought in with the idea that even though we are in a situation where we are trying to win, we still have to develop people and we have to develop, specifically, the younger players that we've drafted or recruited here.

The coaches have as much to do with that as the drafting people and the player personnel people. You have to start with something but, clearly, the coaches have been able to give players a chance, in very young situations, to not let them lose their confidence, let them build their confidence, pushing them to understand where the bar is. It's been a really good fit.

I think when you get that kind of teamwork, it allows the scouts to take a few more chances on people that maybe get overlooked, on people that might have a few 'wrinkles,' and ultimately maybe some of that benefit is there.

The classic example of that is Patrick O'Sullivan. We picked Patrick, he'd slipped far (2nd round, No. 56 in the 2003 Entry Draft) and was probably a better player than that. Our coaches worked with him and he was good player for us. Talk about the roles played by the three coaches who have coached the (AHL) Houston Aeros and their mandate to coordinate their coaching styles to that of the Wild, if there is such a mandate.

We don't really ask them to do exactly what we are doing up here. The same basic principles are there. We need them to work hard. We need them to be instructed in how the fundamentals of the game work, positional play defensively, or understanding a role and how a role can make a contribution. They've done a great job with that. I think that Kevin Constantine and the staff are hard workers who are going beyond just preparing the players for (one) game as they are preparing them for a career.

One thing I think you have to do is give them the latitude of how they want to play because, ultimately, players have to have success. It's (about) graduating personnel.

It might not be completely the same. Our defense down there might not be as good as our defense up here, so you can't ask them to do the same things. It's been a bit of a misnomer about teams, that you want duplicates of how you play up here. I think it's basic fundamentals and implementing hard work and rewards. San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan coached the Aeros for four years and won the 2003 Calder Cup. He said he had long conversations with you that made him a better coach.

Risebrough: Todd was a good student. He had a unique ability that is very rare in coaching, he's not very defensive. He listened a lot. It was a shared idea. He was a very accomplished before he came to us. He had been a (general) manager-coach
in the western junior league (WHL), had coached at the World Junior level. It was a good relationship. I really liked working with Todd. Getting a chance to go and see how the Detroit Red Wings do it was a real plus for him. I'm glad he's getting a chance to do it on his own. He's a good coach. He'll do really well.
"My tickle comes from, whether it's in scouting or coaching or players, giving people an opportunity. Usually, when you give people an opportunity, you're not disappointed." -- Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough Winning the Calder Cup must have been a real joy for the organization at the time. Do you look back at it now and see it as a predictor of the current Wild success?

Risebrough: Well, two things. We were just in the process of taking over the franchise and it clearly cemented our relationship with the previous owner, Chuck Watson, who stayed with us for a while. We were really happy with Chuck because he was basically the guy who built the franchise. Giving him a chance to have another winner before he left was really a good thing.

Some of those players graduated to us, but the important thing was that they had a chance to win. Players want to win and you have to keep that as a focus. It's not just about development. Part of the development is winning. We made a deal to get a goalie, Johan Holmqvist, at the end, and I think he gave us the best chance to win. We gave up a good defenseman (Lawrence Nycholat), and ultimately that component allowed us to go on. And there were some great, great efforts by some heart-and-soul players and some of them are now here. Is it correct to think this is the third generation of the Wild? The first being the expansion players available to you, the second being the integration of those players who remained and the first wave of players you developed, some of whom are still here, and third, this being a team of your creation through scouting and development and free-agent signings?

Risebrough: The difference is you have to remember there was a work stoppage in between. The work stoppage was producing a new system that we all had to adjust to. We had a great base with our franchise with the players that we selected in the expansion draft and the early free agents. All they did was work hard and they established a really solid foundation of effort. That somewhat carried us.

We've augmented it since then with younger players -- (Brett) Burns, (Pierre-Marc) Bouchard, (Mikko) Koivu. In this era, where you can't keep all your players, you have to find other players to replace players, and that's specifically the veteran component. We feel fortunate that we do have people out there who are spending a lot of time trying to identify these guys that are going to fit our parameters, whether it's financial or the positioning. How do you "recruit" players in this day and age?

Risebrough: This is an attractive place. People are curious about coming here. They know we're well-coached. They know the team can afford good players. They know that it has a solid base of history, plus an opportunity. It is three-pronged in some ways. 

We know the way to winning is developing our own and they become the pillars. The other guys -- whether it's young guys that are younger than the group that are added, or veterans that are added in terms of free agency --they become a way of accentuating the young core's strengths. Do you agree that the play in the Northwest Division is the most rugged in all the NHL? Darryl Sutter said that was his goal when he took the Calgary GM job. Would you have constructed your team differently had you been in another division?

Well, it's pretty physical, yeah. I don't get to see the other (divisions) enough. I think it's pretty spread out a little bit. I do believe here, if you look at the total points of all the teams in our division in the last three years, there's not more than 10 points separating us. It shows you that it's maybe the most competitive. Every year, one gets out and one gets in (to the Stanley Cup Playoffs). We were in again. They are good games and they go right down to the end and our fans are the benefactors of watching that level of hockey, right from the start. Earlier this year, former Nashville Predators owner Craig Leopold bought Bob Naegele Jr.'s majority stake in the team. What's your relationship with Craig?

Risebrough: I give Bob a lot of credit. He was patient to find the right guy and, clearly, Craig is the right guy. I enjoy working with him. What I found is a real positive -- on both sides of being the president and being the general manager -- is here is a man who loves the game, has a passion about the game and has another opportunity.

Things have worked for him and I love hearing from him what works. He's curious about why things are done this way. Not very often do you get an opportunity to have two pretty successful organizations. I think Nashville has been very successful in their player development, of being able to produce. I'm getting a sense of how they did it and how Craig did it there. Now, we are trying to make it better here. 

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