Diamond to ice: Colletti goes from MLB GM to NHL scout

The San Jose Sharks turned heads when they hired a former baseball GM as a scout. But Ned Colletti knows hockey – and he knows how to build a winner.
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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By Kevin Kurz

When Ned Colletti began his career in baseball with the Chicago Cubs in media relations and publications in time for the 1982 season, Doug Wilson was in the prime of his career, one of the NHL’s best defensemen with the Chicago Blackhawks. In Wilson’s Norris Trophy-winning 1981-82 season, he posted 85 points in 76 games, second in the league among defensemen behind only Paul Coffey.

Colletti didn’t know Wilson all that well back then other than some casual encounters, but he was certainly aware of Wilson’s accomplishments. In fact, Colletti’s first job in sports came in hockey as a beat reporter for The Philadelphia Journal, where he covered the Flyers for two seasons before relocating back to his hometown of Chicago, partly to care for his father who was dying of lung cancer. While in Philadelphia, Colletti figured covering the Flyers was “maybe the best job I’d ever have.”

Instead, Colletti’s path has taken him in all kinds of different directions, including serving as the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2006 to 2014, where his teams made the playoffs in five of nine seasons. Prior to that, he was the San Francisco Giants’ director of baseball operations and assistant GM from 1994 to 2005.

But even when he was with the Giants and Dodgers, he never strayed too far from the other sport he was passionate about. Colletti is fortunate that the baseball and hockey seasons don’t overlap, allowing him plenty of time to devote to each. “I watch so many hockey games,” said Colletti, 65. “I start at 4:00 and I’ll watch a Metro (Division) game, and then I’ll tape another Metro game, and then I’ll watch a 7:00 game, and then at 10:00 I’ll go back and watch the Metro game that I taped.

“I watch people. I’m an observer of people and how people perform, how people think, how people sacrifice, how people are selfish sometimes. Building teams is something that I’ve done for a long time and something that I’m passionate about and curious about.”

When Wilson hired Colletti as a professional scout for the Sharks in September, it seemed like an odd hire. But most people weren’t aware of Colletti’s passion for the sport or how many hockey people he knows – including Wilson, whom he reconnected with while both were in the Bay Area, Wilson as a Sharks defenseman and then a front-office mainstay after he retired. Other NHL friends include longtime executives such as Brian Burke, Ron Hextall and Ray Shero. After the Sharks made the announcement, Colletti figured he got about 400 messages, most of which were from hockey people. “He loves the game of hockey,” Wilson said. “Several times in the last decade or so I looked at adding him with his wisdom, his experience, his love for the game, his knowledge and a certain skill set that he’ll bring to us. But he was kind of busy in his other jobs.

“He’s got a brilliant mind. You don’t become a general manager on a Major League Baseball team without having a great mind. I like the fact that he’s always had passion for our game, he has questions, and we try to be very open-minded to hear those types of questions. He makes our group better, our group enjoys being around him, and he’s been a big supporter of this team for a long, long time.”

Colletti’s primary responsibility is scouting the Metropolitan Division, but Wilson will rely on him for more than just his player evaluations. Surely, when the Sharks fired coach Pete DeBoer in December, Wilson and Colletti discussed the situation.

Burke, the former GM of the Anaheim Ducks, got to know Colletti well when both were in Southern California. They’d frequently meet at the crack of dawn in Manhattan Beach to bounce ideas off of one another. “I placed great faith and great value in Ned’s judgement,” Burke said. “I would ask him for advice. Sometimes he would ask me for advice.”

Said Colletti: “There’s differences in the sports, but a lot of the challenges are the same. I can’t tell you how many NHL GMs and coaches I’ve sat with, and the conversations all come back to the same topics of player motivation, contract situations, what to do and when, how.

“Decision-making is obviously a key role, but when do you make them? (There are) different philosophies about leadership. I’ve talked to Doug at length, and other GMs in the league, but Doug more than anybody. We’ve always been there to bounce things off of each other.”

Now, Wilson has exclusive access to Colletti’s mind, experiences and ideas, which have been shaped by two professional leagues over the course of the past four decades. “We respect his opinion,” Wilson said, “and he’s not afraid to voice it, too.”