So it’s fitting that on Friday morning, Guerin was at his Sewickley home preparing to take his family to local amusement park Kennywood, an outing he was sure to enjoy just as much as his kids, when his cell phone rang and he learned the news.
Just three years after being named the Penguins’ player development coach, Guerin’s first front-office job following his retirement in 2010, he was being promoted to assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Needless to say, Guerin’s plans changed immediately from roller coasters and cotton candy to all business. He changed out of his T-shirt and shorts into a suit and tie and drove down to CONSOL Energy Center to attend the news conference held that afternoon by president/CEO David Morehouse and new general manager Jim Rutherford, where the promotion Guerin had learned about just that morning was officially announced to the public.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Guerin said.
It most certainly has.
But while his specific duties have yet to be hammered out, Rutherford was clear on what Guerin’s main responsibility will be: serving as the liason between the players and management. A role Guerin is perfectly suited for.
“It wasn’t long ago since Billy was a player, so he understands what makes these players tick,” Rutherford said. “And he’s going to be my day-to-day guy that really communicates with the players. (He’s going to be) around the players a lot more in the room to understand if we have an issue at a certain time or if everything is going fine because when there’s issues, I like to get on top of it and deal directly with it myself.”
And while Guerin was the first to say he still has a lot to learn when it comes to the hockey operations side, being a locker-room presence is something that’s certainly familiar to him – especially with the Penguins.
When the Penguins first acquired Guerin at the trade deadline back in 2009, he earned the respect of his teammates partly because of his illustrious career (which at the time of his acquisition included a Stanley Cup, three Olympic appearances, 403 goals and 799 points in 1,168 career NHL games over 17 seasons) and partly because of his on-ice contributions.
Though he was 38 years old at the time and in the twilight of his career, the grizzled Guerin slotted right in on Sidney Crosby’s wing and played a big role in the Penguins capturing their third Stanley Cup in franchise history. As Chris Kunitz said at the time, “he’s out there fighting for guys, blocking shots, scoring goals. He does whatever it takes.”
But Guerin’s biggest contribution during that championship run was his commanding locker-room presence – which was a perfect blend of humor and seriousness.
It started his first day with the team, when he immediately cracked a joke at the expense of the young captain. Guerin is the kind of guy who holds court with his hilarious sense of humor, ripping off one-liners and having good-natured fun at the expense of his teammates.
But it wasn’t all fun and games with Guerin. He understood the other nuances of being a leader in the dressing room as well, which he’d learned as his career progressed. Guerin knew when it was time to speak up and say what needed to be said, and his teammates listened. It paid off handsomely.
"He's a huge reason why we all stayed so composed," Kunitz said when that run was finished. "He's a guy that is a talker in the room, keeps everybody's spirits light. He's a great teammate. He tells players like it is when something needs to be done.”
Now, the Penguins will be counting on Guerin to be that locker-room presence again – this time, as a member of team management. And it will start with the bonds he formed with guys five years ago.
Those bonds formed between teammates that go through a Stanley Cup championship run and share that experience together are forever. Guerin has that with a number of guys in that room, most notably Crosby – who handed the Cup to Guerin first after accepting the trophy from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, though he’d been with the team for just a couple of months. And Guerin’s got the respect and trust from everyone else, which is why he’s so perfect for his current role.
“I know these players and there are character players in there,” Guerin said. “But sometimes you need character and sometimes you need characters, too. And we’ll figure it out.”
While having an assistant GM based primarily in the locker room may seem like a unique setup, it’s familiar to Rutherford as well.
Ron Francis – who won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and ’92 and spent seven total seasons with the franchise before being finishing his Hall of Fame career in Carolina – served in that same capacity under Rutherford with the Hurricanes before taking over as general manager six weeks ago.
And according to Rutherford, it was invaluable having someone there who had a relationship with the players that they felt comfortable talking with and confiding in about anything and everything.
“A lot of times, the communication with the players, it wasn't me going directly to a player. It would be ‘Ronnie,’” Rutherford explained. “They had a trust level with him. It's the same with Bill. Not long ago he was a player. I would suspect here that the players like him. It becomes a trust level.
“If you're going to deal with issues, not that the players are going to make decisions or run the team, but they have to speak up. They may have a personal problem going on, they may not be feeling good. There's so many things that happen that we all forget about when we watch a player play for a month and say 'What's wrong with this guy?' Well, there's usually a reason. Having a guy around the players a little bit more that's not the boss I think makes it easier for the players to communicate.”
Especially when it’s a guy like Guerin. Not just because of his prolific career and his sense of humor. It’s also because at the end of the day, he’s just a great guy, plain and simple.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik put it best when he said, “Everyone seems to gravitate toward him. He just garners that respect right away, but more importantly, he's a really, really good human being and that’s what everyone respects most about him.”
Bill Guerin, assistant GM. It’s certainly a big promotion just a few years into his post-playing career, but one that’s suited for him and well-deserved for the fine work he did mentoring the organization’s prospects. It’s something he’s always been interested in, and he’s grateful to the Penguins for both this chance and the initial opportunity to work in hockey ops.
“I’m looking forward to everything (about my new challenge),” Guerin said. “I’m still learning. I’ve worked very closely with Jason (Botterill) and very closely with Tommy (Fitzgerald) and learned a lot from them over the last couple years and will continue to do so. We’re going to work together to get back to our winning ways.”