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Hockey Ops: Relationships and deal-making

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild
By Doug Risebrough

President and General Manager
Our pro scouts and I were sitting in the hockey operations war room Wednesday at about noon, discussing players and teams, when my phone rang. One ring, and executive assistant Laura Kinzel answered.
"Doug," Laura shouted. "It's Glen."
News: Wild acquires Fritsche
PONDcast: Intro to Dan Fritsche
Video: Fritsche's Highlight File
Glen is Glen Sather. Glen and I played together in Montreal during my rookie year of 1974-75. We worked together between 1996 and 1999 in Edmonton, where Glen was President/GM and I was VP of Hockey Operations. Today, Glen being the President/GM of the Rangers, and me being in my job, we talk about once a month.

An hour earlier, we had put center/winger Krys Kolanos on waivers (a 24-hour process) and Rangers center/winger Dan Fritsche had cleared waivers. Glen had an idea.
"My guy is on waivers, your guy was on waivers," he said. "Will you trade me Kolanos for Fritsche?"
"I'll consider that," I said. "But, I need to see if my guy clears."
I went back to our scouts and asked them to discuss Fritsche over lunch and tell me, when they returned, if they wanted the player. Later, they said they did.
Thursday morning at 10 a.m., an hour before Kolanos would clear waivers or be claimed (he ultimately cleared), I called Glen back.
"I have a defense problem," I said. "If Kurtis Foster is healthy, I have too many defensemen. And, I want to see what my defensemen in the minors can do. I'm likely to lose Erik Reitz. Are you interested?"
About 15 minutes later, while in the car with pro scout Jamie Hislop headed to the plane for our trip to Edmonton, Glen called.
"OK," he said. "I'll do the deal."
The three conversations were open:
"Here's my problem. Here's an idea."
"Here's my problem. Here's my idea."
"Yeah, that makes sense."
When the deal was done, the next thing was, "What's your guy like?" I gave Glen a realistic picture of Reitz. He gave me a realistic picture of Fritsche. That adds value for the acquiring team, and it adds value for the player because it addresses the player's fear that he won't meet expectations. And I told Reitz this. I said, "I have a good relationship with Glen. I told him exactly what I thought you are, so there won't be any unpleasant surprises."
The whole process, beginning with Glen's initial call and ending with me informing Reitz of the move, occurred in less than 23 hours. Most deals today die at the idea stage. Why not this one?
To begin with, when Glen contacted me, it was a call, not an e-mail. The years I've worked in hockey tell me that trust is valuable. I seek it with the general managers I have relationships with, and I seek it in relationships with newer general managers. I want to develop a trusting relationship because ultimately it will lead to more things getting done and done quicker.
Older relationships tend to produce more, though, because we as general managers don't talk as much as we used to. The communication now is a question, usually in an e-mail sent by one GM to the whole group: "X player is available. Call if you're interested."
That's a question, not a relationship builder. I don't mind e-mail. I receive and send countless e-mails each day. In this context, e-mail can present problems ("X player is available") and present solutions ("Call if you're interested") but it doesn't produce as many conversations and relationships.
I understand why we e-mail; we're all short on time. This tells me the importance of creating time. For me, as a 55-year-old GM, with so many younger guys in the business, it's important to continue developing relationships with guys I don't really know. Some take time, learning who you can trust. That's one of the biggest challenges of my position.
How does a relationship begin? I never lie to a guy. There is a strategy about information. Sometimes, I hope the guy doesn't ask a certain question because I don't want to lie to him. In those cases, I might not answer the question. But I don't lie. If you lie you're lost.
I asked Glen his take on relationships and how they affect the trade process, and I told him I'd use his response in this blog.
"I've had a long, good relationship with you," he said. "I know when you tell me something it's the truth. And I know that what you tell me about a player's abilities is accurate. We usually think the same about players. When a GM tells me his opinion, I have to believe in his opinion or it won't be useful to me. With you, that's valuable information. Not all organizations see players in the same light."
I'd say the same thing about Glen. We've worked together for a number of years. There's clarity to the information we share. We communicate. I ask about a player, and he gives me the straight goods. That doesn't usually go on. Usually, it's buyer beware. That's the ultimate challenge in making deals.

Previous editions ...

Jan. 29, 2009: Why Fritsche fits
Jan. 26, 2009: The Outliers: Three teams win at historic rate
Jan. 21, 2009: Thoughts about our team at the All-Star break
Jan. 2, 2009: On ... Marian Gaborik's surgery

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