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On the Radar: Leading by Example

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

A article came out last week highlighting the progressive way in which Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill and Head Coach Lindy Ruff look at things. It got a lot of people talking. While the article – which can be read here – focused mainly on hockey analytics, the takeaway for many was more than advanced stats. It wasn’t just about how the pair can assemble a roster or draw up systems. It was about how they think. How they act. Their overall mindset and personalities. That is what left an impression on people.

I'm not the least bit surprised.

I've spent most of the last two decades working in professional hockey. I've had the pleasure of meeting a number of wonderful people in this sport. Players, coaches, owners, broadcasters, front office executives. You name it. And yet, of these thousands of people I’ve come across, I could tell almost immediately that there was something distinct about Nill and Ruff. Right from the start they were, in a word, impressive.

Nill has been with the Stars for 15 months. Ruff has been here for 13 months. But in that short time, the two have continued to do the right thing at just about every turn. Much like the aforementioned article focused on stats, you could apply that statement specifically to the Stars roster improvements and play on the ice. But as is the case in the article, it’s about much more than just that.

I remember my first introduction to Nill. It came following an early-season practice. We talked about his children and his relationship with them. We talked about the outreach work that he and his wife do, and their incredible, positive outlook amidst personal turmoil. We talked about him running marathons in his 50s. We talked about his management philosophy and the reason he chose now and Dallas to finally leave Detroit. We didn't go over team needs, or discuss which personnel could help the power play unit. In a 30 minute conversation, we talked little about hockey. There would be plenty of time for that later. Instead, I learned about Jim Nill, the man.

Seeing Ruff on a daily basis unveiled his personality as well. Following every practice, morning skate, and game, a coach addresses the media. Right off the bat, you could see how charismatic Lindy was. He is always good for at least one joke per scrum that cracks up the crowd around him. Even if the joke is sometimes masked in his reluctance to reveal who is starting in net that night.

Make no mistake. A hockey season is long. You’re constantly surrounded by the same people, doing mostly the same things. The ability to inject levity, while also maintaining accountability, and respect from your players, is a line that not everyone can walk smoothly. Watching Ruff go through winning streaks, losing streaks, pressure-filled situations, and unimaginable scenes like Rich Peverley’s cardiac event and seeing how he balanced all of it was extraordinary.

The countless examples of both men showcasing their identity were on display throughout the season. They brought the Father’s Trip to Dallas for the first time so the players’ dads could see what life in the NHL was like for their sons. People saw the way Ruff was treated in Buffalo and Nill was received in Detroit upon their returns to their former homes. Players, coaches, staff, security guards, even concessioners spoke at length of the relationships they had and how they missed their daily contact with them. You could see how they interacted with the fans at Stars season ticket holder events.

There was Lindy asking his players to observe a moment of silence during practice at 12:30pm on November 23, during the 50th Anniversary of the JFK assassination. This is a Canadian-born man, who had been in Dallas only a few months at the time, coaching a bunch of players who weren’t born until decades after Kennedy’s death. But he understood that Dallas was now home to all of them, and this was part of the city’s fabric. So he took it as an opportunity to both pay his respects, and point out that some things are bigger than us and deserved to be recognized as such.

Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff communicate well. They think about details. They focus on character. When Jason Spezza was introduced as a member of the Stars earlier this month, Nill talked about how he was a captain and a family man, and because of that he’d fit right in. Yes, he’s a point-per-game player in his lengthy NHL career. Yes, he immediately makes the Stars power play stronger. Yes, he’s now in the conversation for the best second-line center in hockey. But Nill is just as focused on his leadership and character as any of that. The Stars are not just acquiring players. They truly are building a team… And it’s a really good one.

That’s what makes the Stars GM and Head Coach so impressive. There are people who can be good communicators, focus on values and character, showcase leadership, keep a room light, and positively impact those around them. And there are also people who can study the sport of hockey, scout players, make shrewd moves, install a system set to thrive around their team, and get results. But it’s the combination of those skill sets that that really places these two in rare company.

Going back to the article, when you think about those most likely to embrace advanced hockey statistics, and lead the NHL charge to better implement them, who do you picture to endorse that new way of thinking? Is it two men in their mid-50s, who combined for over 2,100 penalty minutes as rugged NHL players? Is it two men who ascended to the highest level of the sport long before Corsi and Fenwick were part of the vernacular, and have remained there for most of their lives without those statistics?

Probably not. But that’s the thing. These aren’t any two men. And once again, it appears that they’re ahead of the curve with how they see things. Even with their impressive track records, they want to learn how to grow and be better, just as they ask the same from their players. Everybody Ropes, Everybody Rides. Even them. The Stars have begun to build something new. It’s something that is refreshing and can’t be found everywhere. It’s something that people want to be a part of.

Along those lines, Vernon Fiddler took less money as an unrestricted free agent to come back and play in Dallas. And speaking of character, it’s worth pointing out that during his time with the Stars, the veteran forward and his wife set up the Fidd’s Kids program, which donates tickets to Stars home games to Make-A-Wish North Dallas. Joining him, last season Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Goligoski all had programs that donated tickets. They went to children with spinal cord injuries, children with multiple sclerosis, and military families.

Whether it’s giving back, thinking forward, or simply doing things the right way, all of this makes up what the Dallas Stars have become, and what they aspire to be in the future.

People around the NHL are starting to see that something special is brewing on the ice in Dallas. What they may not know, is that a big reason why is because something special is brewing off of it as well.

Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.

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