How to combat the NHL’s groupthink problem on head coach hirings


As a season of high turnover for NHL coaches heads down the final stretch — seven head coaches have been fired thus far, and one resigned — one person who has a front seat to the hiring process is calling for reform in how NHL teams go about their searches.

Neil Glasberg, the founder of PBI Sports, is one of the NHL’s most prominent coaching agents. He has more than 50 clients across the AHL, NHL and European leagues, including Mike Sullivan, Gerard Gallant, Geoff Ward and Phil Housley.

And frankly, Glasberg is frustrated by antiquated hiring practices.

“The easiest way to frame it is an unwillingness to consider — let alone listen — to anybody who isn’t widely known by the hiring manager, whether it’s the GM, the AGM, owner, or whoever is running the search,” Glasberg said. “Which I think is selling themselves short. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to as many qualified people as possible? Instead, most NHL teams have this ‘hire-a-friend’ mentality. I hear this from my guys all the time: ‘It’s not the best candidate that gets hired. It’s the candidate with the best network or who is the best known.’ That’s not how you build success. No company would ever be successful if they were just hiring people they knew.”

Since 2005, NHL teams have made 162 head coaching hires; the number is 152 for NBA, 126 for NFL and 121 for MLB. And the NHL leads the other leagues in retreads. Of NHL coaching hires in the past 15 years, 60% have previous head-coaching experience. That’s three out of every five hires.

Of NBA coaching hires, 58% have previous head coaching experience, while the number is 36% in the NFL and 45% in MLB.

“I know it’s not a problem that’s unique to hockey; all pro leagues work that way,” Glasberg said. “But that doesn’t make it right. There is a preferred candidate in most of these searches, and it’s very hard to push the preferred candidate out. I’m just hoping teams wake up and consider a different process, that’s not a waste of time. I look at it from a learning perspective: Why not open yourself up to hearing different points of view? It makes everyone better.”

One potential stream Glasberg would like NHL teams to consider: European coaches. The NHL is more international than ever. More than 50% of the 2019-20 rookie class is European-born, and 30% of the league’s players overall are European. There were 79 Swedish players on opening-night rosters this season, and many of them have been coached by former Swedish team national coach Rikard Gronborg, a Glasberg client.

“Gronberg has coached almost every big-time Swedish player in the league right now, and he has some big-time supporters,” Glasberg says. “Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson. The Sedins. They’re all Gronborg supporters.”

When Gronborg’s contract with the Swedish national team was expiring last year, Glasberg brought Gronborg over to North America and introduced him to GMs or assistant GMs of 16 NHL teams. “It was just, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who has had a lot of success that you might want to consider going forward,'” Glasberg said of the meetings. Gronborg had seven formal head-coaching interviews, though Glasberg became frustrated when it felt as if they were more of a courtesy sit-down. The feedback on Gronborg was positive, Glasberg said, though most teams critiqued him for never coaching a full season of pro hockey; his Swedish national teams were essentially All-Star rosters.

“I felt like that was just an excuse,” Glasberg said. “It really came down to risk. No team wanted to risk doing something different. I think a lot of people in the NHL aren’t secure in their own skin. There’s so much pressure in the game today. In fairness, it’s now a $120 million, $130 million asset for an owner, and the stakes are higher because the salaries have never been this high.”

Gronborg was willing to become an associate head coach in the right situation, but no NHL teams were interested in that either. So the 51-year-old Gronborg took a head-coaching job in the Swiss National League this season with Zurich. His team finished the regular season in first place.

Another issue Glasberg has in the hiring process is how NHL teams fill out coaching staffs. While head coaches are often allowed to build their own staffs with assistants they feel comfortable working with, the process promotes groupthink, which Glasberg says he believes can be counterproductive. “In most cases, a GM won’t even interfere,” Glasberg said. “A GM will defer to his head coach and say, ‘You can hire your assistants.’ They’re just going to hire people that they are comfortable with — and they are going to hire people that are subservient. They are just going to be ‘yes’ people. How does that make your organization high-performing? And then they just cycle through the same people again and again. The paradigm needs to be broken.”

Glasberg said he wanted to speak out in the hopes this could be a wake-up call to teams.

“The whole process is just frustrating, and it goes beyond just Gronborg and considering European coaches,” Glasberg said. “It’s an unwillingness to seriously consider other names, whether they are my clients or not. Someone will read this and say, ‘That’s not true, I interviewed five or six guys.’ I’m not suggesting that doesn’t happen. But to me, the retreads that are being hired don’t have any competition.”

Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn’t like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

Emptying the notebook

If you’re a hockey fan, you’ve probably heard of BioSteel, a Canadian-based company of nutrition and recovery products. Connor McDavid and Tyler Seguin are among its endorsers. BioSteel announced it was entering the U.S. market with a new CBD product line available at The Vitamin Shoppe. It’s a significant move for the company, but I wanted to highlight it because it’s a terrific post-playing success story for a recently retired NHL forward.

Many associate BioSteel with Matt Nichol, the former strength and conditioning coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, Michael Cammalleri, a 15-year NHL veteran, is actually one of the founders — and Cammalleri did it while he was still in the league. “I was the first endorser, alongside some other guys, but I didn’t want anybody to know my specific involvement with the company that we had founded,” Cammalleri said last week.”So it was important to us, strategically, that Matt was going to be the face, and we did so at that time. And now it’s obviously come out organically.”

Cammalleri, who retired in 2018, had always been passionate about training and nutrition. At 11 years old, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, meaning he was highly sensitive to inflammation. He poured a ton of resources and effort into what he put into his body, but always heard a common refrain: “Be careful of the products on the market.” In 2004, as he began to break in with the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL put stricter drug testing protocols in place. That made it harder to purchase items online. And a lot of the companies Cammalleri was using couldn’t provide proper drug testing documentation. “I got really frustrated with that,” he said.

And so, along with a childhood buddy, John Celenza, Cammalleri decided to start his own company that he knew could guarantee safe and effective products for athletes. Cammalleri always had an interest in business. When he attended the University of Michigan, his scholarship was endowed by Tom Kinnear, who was the dean of enterprise studies. At age 17, Cammalleri was tagging along with Kinnear to meetings with venture capitalists in Ann Arbor.

In 2009 — by then an established NHL player, with the Canadiens — Cammalleri spent his summer at his condo in Toronto drawing up business plans. He and Celenza drove all over Canada meeting with manufacturers and buying raw products. Cammalleri then began training with Nichol (who left the Leafs in 2009 when Brian Burke was hired as GM and cleaned house). Nichol had the same desires as Cammalleri, and had come out with a product specifically for the Leafs but didn’t have commercial intent. Cammalleri and Nichol decided to join forces, and BioSteel was born. “It just took off like wildfire,” Cammalleri said.

In 2019, Canopy Growth Corporation purchased a majority stake in BioSteel, and they began to work on a CBD line. Cammalleri was first introduced to CBD by one of his NHL team doctors. “I started using CBD, and experimenting with it, and honestly, one of my biggest regrets is not discovering it earlier in my career,” Cammalleri said. “It had huge anti-inflammatory benefits, but also anxiety, recovery and rest benefits. I’ve been a daily user ever since.”

Cammalleri had eyed entering the U.S. market for a while, and he’s hoping success there can further expansion. “We have such an authentic, pure brand story,” Cammalleri said. “So it’s all about telling that story and finding an effective route to market that matches it.”

What we liked this week

  • There’s no rule book on how to deal with viral fame, but I love how David Ayres is leaning in and embracing his 15 minutes with humor and humility. I also think we should give credit to the Hurricanes, who have ushered him through this every step of the way. This, in particular, is really neat:

  • I went on a reporting trip to Seattle last winter, and a big takeaway was how obsessive the soon-to-be franchise was about being fan-centric. “I’ve always said when you listen to your fans, you can’t go wrong,” CEO Tod Leiweke said. “The fans are going to be involved in every decision.” It has been cool to see the franchise follow through with it. This week, the franchise announced it would offer free public transit to fans attending games. Seattle’s NHL team will be the third pro franchise in the U.S. to offer this, joining the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.

  • Speaking of fans, this moment between Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers and a fan is extremely sweet:

  • Robin Lehner continues to be one of the most open players in the NHL today. His comments after getting traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Vegas Golden Knights were blunt but appreciated by anyone who wants a peek into what goes through a pro athlete’s mind. Here’s what he told Vegas media: “I went to Chicago to help them out and got promises of getting a fair chance to play. I came there with a good mindset to fit into the team. I mean, I didn’t play much in the beginning or the middle-beginning of the season, even if I played really well and had a good camp. Eventually I took over, and I think I won like nine out of 10, 12 out of 15, and we walked up one point behind a playoff spot. Then all of a sudden, I found myself on the bench for no reason. That was tough. Plus, negotiations had totally died out. At the end of the day, we’re players playing for our lives and playing for contracts. I felt for two years I’ve played really well and I still can’t get something done, and I’m playing well and I can’t play. It hits your motivation part a little bit, and I’ve got to do a better job of letting that kind of go away. I thought there was a future there and I did everything to get a future there, and I still couldn’t get a future there. In the end, the last couple weeks were tough, mentally, to kind of find a motivation needed.”

What we didn’t like this week

  • It has been a while since New York Rangers fans felt their team could realistically make the playoffs, but optimism was high after Monday’s trade deadline, as the Rangers decided to not trade Chris Kreider, but instead re-sign him to a seven-year deal. New York — after already setting a record with 11 wins in February — entered the weekend two points behind Columbus for the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot. The Rangers were also riding a nine-game road winning streak. According to Money Puck, the Rangers’ chances to make the playoffs increased from 9% at the All-Star break to 41% entering action Friday. And then it came crashing to a halt. Kreider fractured his foot in the first period of Friday night’s game against the Flyers while blocking a shot. His timeline to return is unclear, but it’s a huge loss considering he was third on the Rangers with 24 goals and had been a crucial player in this critical stretch. New York then got shellacked in back-to-back games against the rival Flyers, losing by a combined score of 10-5. The Blueshirts still have a chance at the playoffs, of course, but it’s wild how quickly things can turn.

  • It has been hard to watch Red Wings games this season, as they’ve clearly written off 2019-20 as a brutal but necessary step in the rebuild. Mercifully, it will be over soon. How historically bad is Detroit? The Red Wings are the first team to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before the trade deadline since the 2003-04 Penguins.

  • Tough news for Lightning center Steven Stamkos. He had been managing an injury over the last month, but a setback led him to undergo core muscle surgery. He’s now out for the rest of the regular season, and the earliest timetable for return is the first round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay is a deep team and should be able to keep it rolling without its captain, but it won’t be easy. According to Evolving Hockey, Stamkos had the second-highest points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of any player since the All-Star break, at 4.48. Only Carolina’s Sebastian Aho was better at 5.36.

  • The Penguins are in decent shape for the playoffs, but it has been a rough stretch. They’ve lost six straight games, all in regulation. That’s tied for the second most consecutive regulation losses for the Penguins in the Sidney Crosby era. They lost 10 straight games in regulation in Crosby’s rookie season.

Three Stars of the Week

There might not have been a better story in the NHL this week. Ryan missed three months while getting treatment for alcohol addiction. In his first game back, he scored a hat trick. Oh, and it happened on his 100th day of sobriety.

Remember earlier this season when Fiala was a healthy scratch? It’s hard to fathom with the way he has been playing lately. Fiala has scored goals in four straight games, and added five assists in that span.

The Preds are fighting for their playoff lives, and Granlund gets them some serious style points with his efforts in an important win over the Flames. First, Granlund tied the score with 0.1 seconds left in regulation — check out Nashville players reactions below — and then sealed it with an OT winner.

Games of the Week

The Blues have been one of the steadiest teams in the NHL this season, and the Rangers had been playing exciting hockey before back-to-back clunkers this weekend. So this is a good litmus test for New York: a win against the defending Stanley Cup champs could get them back on track.

It’s crunch time for the Panthers, who spent a ton of financial resources this summer so they could finally make the playoffs. They’re currently on the outside looking in, and could use momentum from a win over the talented Bruins.

Caps versus Pens — especially this late in the season — is appointment television until further notice. Both of these teams added reinforcements at the trade deadline, and it’s our first chance to see Patrick Marleau and Ilya Kovalchuk take part in the rivalry.

Quote of the Week

“I think the mascot is wearing it, and I didn’t want to get him a Rolex, so …” — new Oilers winger Andreas Athanasiou, on why he didn’t stick with the No. 72 he wore in Detroit following his trade to Edmonton.

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