Year after year, as Los Angeles Dodgers GM, Ned Colletti guided his team to the playoffs. And year after year, he used the same viewing setup for those games: on the field below him, postseason baseball, and on a TV inside his ballpark suite, regular-season hockey.
“I saw [Dodgers president Stan Kasten] at Dodger Stadium yesterday,” says Colletti, a newly minted scout for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. “He said, ‘I’m not surprised. I always wondered if your first love was baseball or hockey.’” Colletti laughs. “It’s probably a dead heat.”
Colletti spent 30 years in baseball, nine at the top of the profession. These days he serves as a special assistant to Kasten and as a baseball analyst on SportsNet LA. He wrote a book, The Big Chair. He taught sports administration at Pepperdine University’s London campus. And now, at 65, he will earn money for something he’s been doing for free since he was five: watch hundreds of hockey games a year.
Colletti grew up a Blackhawks fan in Chicago. He spent a year as the Flyers beat writer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Journal. He played in adult hockey leagues throughout his 20s. When he became an assistant GM for the Giants, he decorated his office with two signed photos: one of Willie Mays, and one of Canadiens center Jean Beliveau. After Christmas each year with the Dodgers, Colletti dragged the members of his inner circle on a hockey trip, usually in some far-flung locale. The first time they went to the IIHF world junior championships, he arranged for them to go ice fishing two hours north of Saskatoon, Canada. He, Bill Mueller, Vance Lovelace, Rick Ragazzo and De Jon Watson spent half a day frozen. It was not worth it. “Billy Mueller caught the only fish,” says Colletti. “It might have been two inches.”
His Dodgers were the most successful team in baseball while he was there. No team won more games during his tenure, from 2005 through ’14, and L.A. made the playoffs seven times and the NLCS three. But despite large payrolls, the team failed to make the World Series. So after another NLDS loss in ’14, ownership brought in Andrew Friedman from the Rays and moved Colletti to his assistant role.
But as Colletti had ascended the baseball ladder, he made friends with executives across the sports world. (He was once interviewed on “Hockey Night in Canada;” for years afterward, other officials would greet him, “Hey, you’re the baseball guy who loves hockey!”) Among those friends was Doug Wilson, GM of the Sharks—and father of Colletti’s new boss, director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr., whom Colletti calls Dougie.
A year ago, Colletti casually mentioned to the younger Wilson that he missed the rush of a day-to-day role in an organization. He was fascinated by the question of culture. How do you sustain greatness? How do the New England Patriots? Why did the L.A. Lakers fall off? He wanted to help build something. Keep me in mind, he added. Last summer, they hammered out a plan: Colletti would spend that season scouting the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, mostly on video, to see if he was a fit. He was.
“I understand what you look for,” he says. “Skating, hands, scoring touch, hockey IQ, ability to battle in a small area, intensity. There’s a different surface, a different flow to the game. But when I was in baseball, I wasn’t perfect at it, but I always looked for the person inside the uniform. That to me is the key in any sport. At some point their financial situation will become life-changing. Will that change them? I look for a willingness to sacrifice, to be relentless in the pursuit of excellence.”
He’ll be back in the Metropolitan this season, in his official capacity, filing reports like the ones he used to read. Along with the video work, he’ll find himself on the road from time to time, staying in Marriotts and trudging through the sleet to arenas. And after a few years of this? Should we expect to see him with the Rams or the Warriors?
Colletti laughs. He evades. He does not say no.