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Hockey insights from the man who wrote the book on winning GMs

By Dave Feschuk

Jan. 24, 2012

It’s a question plenty of hockey fans would love to mull: If you had, say, two years and a sufficient stash of cash, how would you pursue your passion for the game to the fullest?

You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better plan than Jason Farris, author of the book Behind the Moves: NHL GMs Tell How Winners Are Built. The coffee-table tome comes exactly as billed: Its 200-plus pages capture the philosophies, memories and raw indelicacies of many of hockey’s most important deal-makers in their own words.

Author Jason Farris says GM Brian Burke's "imprint is on every part of the Leafs. . . . He’s got his stamp on every door and window in the ACC.”

How Farris came to interview so many GMs, and so thoroughly, is its own story. A few years ago he was CEO of a bank that was purchased by a bigger bank; the deal gave him the time and resources to expand on a canon that already included a trio of other hockey books. Not long after, Farris made a call to Leafs GM Brian Burke.

“I said to him, ‘Look, I want to do something that really charts what it takes to build a winning organization in the NHL.’ (Burke) liked the concept,” Farris said.

The ensuing months saw the author spend considerable time with every living NHL GM to have built a Stanley Cup champion or finalist — every one save for Mike Keenan, who declined to participate.

“It was really two years, start to finish, and it was a full-time effort. I lived on the road that first year. I did 60,000 miles-plus in travel,” said Farris, a Vancouverite. “But I took the approach that I was going to build trusted relationships with these guys. I’m not part of the media. I didn’t go through any PR sources or any of the team handlers. I went directly to the GMs and got to know them. . . . They started to understand it wasn’t going to be me coming up with my list of the best GMs. It was going to be me allowing them to tell their stories.”

The book amounts to a beautifully displayed collection of choice quotations from some of hockey’s most interesting minds, not to mention profiles of not-to-be-overlooked pioneers and legends.

“I think the rawness of sports is a beautiful thing,” Farris said. “So the leadership lessons, the experiences these guys have, in their own words, in their raw language — profanity and all — I think is really fascinating.”

Behind the Moves, along with offering rare insight and a foreword by Burke in which the Leafs GM likens the gig to “a combination of being a general, a priest, a teacher and so much more,” served another purpose: It helped Farris re-enter the working world. Though the book is only available online and is premium priced — $99.95 for the basic edition and $139.95 for team-specific limited editions autographed by the GM — Farris acknowledges his publishing business model is “uneconomic.” “It’s not putting shoes on my kids’ feet,” said the father of two.

“I think (writing the book) didn’t hurt (getting the Dallas job),” Farris said. “There’s other reasons I got it — obviously my other background and the relationships I have with the Dallas ownership (he is a former schoolmate of owner Tom Gaglardi). But I think knowing a lot of people in the league, and having worked with the team presidents and a lot of people around the league, is certainly going to make coming up to speed here a little easier, having that network.”

Farris and Burke will appear in conversation on Wednesday night at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. 

Said Farris of Burke: “(Fans of the Leafs) probably can’t believe it, because it’s such vast organization, but his imprint is on every part of the Leafs. I think that feeling of putting personality, and a stamp on a team across the board, is what separates winners and losers. Lou Lamoriello has done that, rightly or wrongly, in New Jersey. Pierre Lacroix has done that (in Colorado). And that’s what Burke has done. He’s not a superficial guy. He’s got his stamp on every door and window in the ACC.”

Pulled from the text of Behind the Moves:

Brian Burke on his firing as Vancouver Canucks GM: “I called my wife and told her I was headed to work to get canned. She said, ‘What will you do after that?’ I said, ‘Head to the liquor store.’ Why? ‘For the wake.’ . . . A wonderful hockey tradition — when you get turfed, your staff shows up at your house and sends you off in style. Dave Nonis, Steve Tambellini, Marc Crawford and all the coaches, front-office people and scouts in town — they all showed up at my house, and stayed into the wee hours. It was a fun night to end a sad day.”

Pat Quinn on salary disclosure: “I can remember when Tim Horton and I were roommates. We were in Boston and (Mike) Pelyk and (Pierre) Pilote were in the room next to us. It was an old hotel. . . . We could hear them talking . . . and (Pelyk) was inquiring to Pilote about what kind of money he was making. I could hear, and Pilote said, ‘Fifty thousand dollars.’ As soon as that happened, Horton was up out of bed, put his pants on — didn’t even bother with a shirt — went out looking for (Leafs GM) Punch (Imlach), was pounding on Punch’s door, going to beat it down because Punch had told him he was the top-paid guy on the team, and he was the best defenceman in the game at the time. . . . I think they were paying him $29,500 or something like that, so Horton was just livid, and that was the end of Punch and Tim.”

Glen Sather on the elements of success: “Circumstances have a lot to do with dictating what happens (for a GM). If we hadn’t got Gretzky out of the WHA when we did, you wouldn’t be wasting your day sitting here bulls----ing with me. How do you really know . . . whether a guy is qualified to be a GM in this league for a number of years, or why did he lose his job after two years? It is a lot deeper question than people have answers for.”

Bryan Murray on culture change: “Back in (the 1980s), the GMs had more fun. . . . They went for beers more often. They sat around the night before a GM meeting and had dinner together. . . . It seems today — and I’m talking like an old guy now — that we have people coming in at the last minute. We go to the meeting, and before the meeting is over, (GMs) have got their luggage and they’re heading out the door because they have an early flight to get out of there.”

Burke, on a 1993 GM meeting: “(Bob) Gainey (then the Minnesota GM) started giving it to Serge (Savard, then the GM of the Canadiens). . . . I remember Gary Bettman saying, ‘It looks like they’re going to fight. What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘We’re going to watch.’ I was actually looking forward to it. . . . (Gainey) felt Savard had overpaid one of his own players and (screwed) up the salary structure. To this day, I’m amazed they didn’t fight.”

Former Red Wings GM Jim Devellano on Keenan: “He’s a bad man, he downgrades people, he treats people like sh--. And that’s why he’s coached eight f---ing teams and managed four. Plain and f---ing simple. . . . He’s a jerk, Mike Keenan.”

Burke, on being a GM: “Is there a more important job on the team than the guy who puts the team together?”