When Scott Arniel was made to walk the Blue Jackets’ plank Monday, some felt it was unfair GM Scott Howson didn’t join his now-former coach wearing the latest in sandwich board couture on the unemployment lines. After all, Howson has been running the show in Columbus since June of 2007 and to this day has delivered a thoroughly underwhelming 152-163-55 record along with four playoff games, all of them losses. If Arniel was held to account for a team buried at the bottom of the Western Conference with zero chance of making the post-season, why did the accountability stop there?
It stopped because, as your father quietly sighed to you as a kid as he wiped your seven-year-old snotty nose while simultaneously trying to get your younger sister to stop hugging the dog to death, life isn’t fair. Securing a GM job and holding on to it isn’t always a meritorious process. It’s why coaches intent on job security often fall upward into the highest echelon of hockey management (e.g. Pat Quinn in Toronto, or Darryl Sutter in Calgary). Any combination of calamities can strike you down when you answer to a hockey man above you, but when you only answer to the owner (or his business representative in the front office), you’ve got one fewer individual to keep convincing of your worth.
Of course, the most blatant current example of this is the czar-dom of Glen Sather in New York City. With the Rangers strutting on top of the Eastern Conference, it isn’t the most opportune time to convince you this is a man who has survived on the largesse of his past glories and connection to ownership, but that has indeed been the case in Manhattan since Sather became the Blueshirts’ GM in 2000.
After assuring himself of a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame as Oilers coach and GM in the Wayne Gretzky Dynasty Era – and subsequently bitching about the advantages large-market teams had over small markets like Edmonton in fielding a competitive roster – Sather spent money like a teenage girl on the loose with her father’s platinum credit card, yet failed to get the Rangers to the playoffs during his first four seasons at the helm. His teams were good enough to make the playoffs in five of the next six seasons, but on three of those occasions they were bounced in the first round and on the other two, they won a combined three games in the conference semifinal.
How long do you suppose Sather would’ve lasted in Montreal with that type of performance? He could look like Audrey Tautou and speak French like Charles Aznavour and Canadiens fans still would’ve been burning him in effigy after three straight years of missing the playoffs. OK, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe two straight years.
Sather’s apparent blood-brothers-for-life pact with Rangers owner James Dolan is the only reason he’s lasted as long as he has. Sather is enjoying more success this season than at any other time in his New York career, but that is as much about his longevity – and the people underneath him in the organization – as anything he’s done.
A GM’s relationship with his owner is of paramount importance. It’s one of the reasons John Ferguson Jr. was ejected from his job as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs after less than four full seasons in the position. Internecine squabbling within the upper echelons of the organization hampered Ferguson’s power – and let’s face it, when your owner is a faceless money-sucking monolith like Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, there’s not much opportunity for a Jerry Maguire moment to triumph over doubt and save your professional skin.
Howson works for a Blue Jackets team losing tens of millions of dollars, which may be one of the only reasons he’s still Columbus’ GM. As is the case for Pierre Gauthier and the increasingly out-of-the-playoff race Canadiens, Howson’s superior may simply be waiting for the season to play out before jettisoning him and giving someone else the reins. But who knows? He (or Gauthier) may be convincing enough to get himself one more season despite a frustrated fan base.
It happens all the time. Last season, Senators fans wanted GM Bryan Murray chloroformed and disappeared because of the team’s shambolic showing. He had enough support from owner Eugene Melnyk, survived the shift storm that pushed Cory Clouston out as coach, and this year the team and Murray’s future have been resuscitated. In Anaheim, Bob Murray’s plans haven’t exactly panned out well, but coach Randy Carlyle was the one who took the fall for it. Meanwhile, it looks as if owners Henry and Susan Samueli have full confidence in Murray and are giving him the right to possibly break up their young and talented core.
The shelf life of any particular GM is unique. How long will Steve Tambellini or Garth Snow last in Edmonton and Long Island if both the Oilers and Islanders languish at the bottom rungs of hockey’s best league? Impossible to say. Isles owner Charles Wang once hired and fired former Rangers GM Neil Smith in less time than it takes to get your driver’s licence renewed in many states and provinces, but appears to have forged a strong bond with Snow despite the team not having made a playoff appearance in the past four (and probably five after this spring) seasons. The patience and personality of Daryl Katz, meanwhile, is so far unknown early in his stint as an NHL owner. With a new building for the Oilers on the horizon, who knows what kind of pressures he feels to get that franchise back on the winning side of the ledger?
That’s the point: Only one guy on each team knows and that guy writes the checks. His is the only opinion that ultimately matters. In professional sports, fairness is in the eye of the team’s holder.
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