Tracing the unusual path of Eric Joyce, the Panthers' decorated assistant GM
- From Dorchester to Mosul, Iraq to Harvard's Kennedy School, Panthers assistant GM Eric Joyce traveled an unlikely path.
Sometime during his second year at the U.S. Military Academy, Matthew Caldwell was humping it through the woods outside West Point with his platoon. Land navigation exercises, if he recalls correctly—checking compasses, reading maps, traversing terrain, charting courses, that sort of thing. One idle night, sitting around the campfire, talk turned to baseball.
Caldwell had grown up on Staten Island rooting for the Yankees, and this being the summer of 1999—one World Series down, a three-peat to come—life as a diehard was swell. One of Caldwell’s classmates, a defenseman on Army’s hockey team and Red Sox fan from Boston, felt differently. (Imagine that.) Staying true to the rivalry, the classmate piped up with objections. “I heard him bitching and moaning about how the Yankees suck as an organization,” Caldwell says. “So we get into this huge argument, almost come to blows in the middle of field training.”
The scene’s particulars aren’t exactly novel—see: bar counters from Back Bay to the Bronx. But it’s noteworthy where the classmates find themselves today. Caldwell, who served for five years in the Army and later worked at Goldman Sachs, became president and CEO of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, heading business operations for the parent company of the Florida Panthers. After fighting in Iraq, studying at Harvard, and teaching classes on counter-terrorism, his verbal sparring partner is now Panthers assistant GM Eric Joyce, an increasingly influential voice in the NHL’s most intriguing front office.
On Nov. 30, Joyce and Caldwell were together again under equally tense circumstances. Three days prior, Florida had blown a two-goal lead against the Hurricanes in Carolina in a 3–2 loss, leaving the team with an 11–10–1 record—a slow start to a season with high expectations following a franchise-record 103 points in 2015-16—and promptly fired coach Gerard Gallant after his post-game press conference. For several optical reasons—the decision’s timing, Gallant’s status as a Jack Adams Award finalist last season, the two-year extension he signed Jan. 1, the photos of him with his bags packed and waiting for a taxi at the curb—the week had already turned into “a PR nightmare for us,” Caldwell says.
At the Westin hotel in riverside Detroit, where the Panthers would face the Red Wings the next night, Caldwell and Joyce were on hand to explain Gallant's dismissal to the team. An open forum behind closed doors. Caldwell had come on behalf of upper management, a proxy for owner Vinnie Viola; Joyce represented hockey operations, since GM Tom Rowe had been named interim coach. “The more you’re cagey and quiet, and not opening up, and not around, and giving political answers,” Caldwell says, “people see right through that s---.”
So, bluntness. Some players wondered about the philosophical gulf between Gallant and his bosses. “I don't think it really had anything to do with Gerard’s coaching record, which was absolutely stellar with us,” Joyce says. (In two-plus seasons, including an Atlantic Division title in ’15–16, Gallant went 96–65–25; through the weekend, the Panthers are 2–3–2 under Rowe.) “I think he viewed us as a very different team, and right, wrong or indifferent, we weren’t that team.”
Others asked how the front office employed analytics into its decision-making. “Scouts plus stats equal better ratings,” Joyce says. “Stats plus coaches equal better reviews of internal players, all the time.” After spelling this out to one veteran, Joyce remembers him seeming surprised. “I thought you guys just went off the computer," the veteran joked, albeit with a tinge of truth.
Ah, yes. The perception of these Florida Panthers. Stats-driven computer boys? Hard-line Army men? Breakers of hockey's old-school conventions? (Or, to paraphrase a metaphor Joyce prefers, crashers of its family barbecue?) As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. And it’s likely that none exemplify the front office’s emerging identity better than its 38-year-old, razor-sharp, Sox-loving assistant GM.
“Way too smart and way too honest, which I think makes him good at his current job. That’s what you need,” says Joe Quinn, a former classmate of Joyce’s and his co-teacher at the Combating Terrorism Center. “He’s the complete opposite of a computer guy. He’s a hockey player from Dorchester. It so happens he’s got a 50-pound brain.”
Joyce’s journey to Florida began around age two, in 1980, when he underwent “six or seven” surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital to correct issues in his left leg. As his recovery began, the doctor recommended to his mother that he start skating to strengthen his legs. “It was literally for medical purposes,” Joyce says. “And it just happened to be a very popular time for the sport.” Something about a recent Miracle on Ice.
Joyce progressed through local leagues, playing at B.C. High in his native hardscrabble Dorchester, then the private Pingree School, and eventually in juniors for the Boston Bulldogs. Along the way, he always told his mother that he’d earn a full scholarship, as thanks for introducing him to hockey. Some Ivy Leaguers showed interest, but the free ride of a service academy instead lured Joyce to West Point. Both his grandfathers had also served in World War II, and his father in Vietnam.
“I showed up with my hockey bag,” Joyce says, “then all of a sudden I have my head shaved, I’m in this line wearing socks up to my knees with black shoes on and tight shorts. And I’m like, ‘What the f--- did I get myself into?’”
A rugged blue-liner for the Black Knights, Joyce today ranks third all-time at Army in career penalty minutes (264). In one game against nationally ranked UMass Lowell, Joyce threw a particularly thundering check that both broke an opponent’s collarbone and caused Joyce’s skate blade to fly off. “It sounded like a bomb,” says Kevin Emore, his defensive partner.
Another time, against the Royal Military College of Canada in a longstanding rivalry that dates to the 1920s, Joyce dropped the gloves in defense of a teammate and wound up sparking a line brawl. “One of the generals wasn’t real pleased,” says Brian Riley, one of Joyce’s former coaches. “I haven’t seen too many guys get in trouble for what they did on the ice. He almost single handedly wrecked the whole series.”
Not that Joyce fell into the stereotypical meathead mold. When Paul Haggerty, a young assistant coach who recruited Joyce, died suddenly in April 1998, Joyce became an older brother figure for Haggerty’s two sons, coming over every weekend to shovel snow, build bottle rockets in the backyard, and sneak the boys showings of PG-13 movies like “Big Daddy.” He also finished at West Point with a 3.5 GPA in systems engineering, earning ECAC all-academic honors and a 2002 team award ostensibly for leadership.
Joyce graduated that June, nine months after the September 11 attacks. “You go from worrying about, ‘Hopefully I get this branch, this posting assignment, Europe or Kosovo, or maybe a rotation in Bosnia,’’ he says. “Then basically in a single hour you have to learn about Al Qaeda.” He deployed to Mosul, Iraq in 2004, where as an executive officer Joyce was responsible for “everything from training the army forces to training the police to helping assist those police check the water supply and set up voter registration sites,” he says. “It was governance, really. I’d have to go out, meet with town elders, go to different councils, meet with the police, the Iraqi army that was stationed in our area, then come back with recommendations to the commanders on staff.”
In some ways, this mirrors Joyce’s still-evolving gig with the Panthers. He offers suggestions on micro levels, like telling Rowe about in-game matchups that stats say could work well, and has big-picture influence too. Joyce pushed hard to trade with the Bruins for Reilly Smith, who had 25 goals last season and now tops all Panthers wingers in ice time. Caldwell says that Joyce also “really led the movement” in bypassing the bridge deal phase with their young core – Smith, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau – and instead locking them into long-term deals. He recently showed the team's five-year financial projection to Joyce, just to "let him poke holes."
The shakeup left Joyce still leading the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds as their GM, their AHL affiliate, but the domino effect of Gallant’s firing put him on the road with the big club, just to be around. “What makes him most accessible to players is he’s played hockey before and he gets the game,” Caldwell says. “He fits that hockey mold – Boston, blue-collar, chip-on-his-shoulder. You listen to him, and you’re like, ‘Oh s---, this makes a lot of sense.’ He’s not one of these guys who’s pounding his chest, telling people he went to Harvard. He doesn’t strike you like a Harvard guy.”
When Joyce returned from Iraq, he enrolled at the John F. Kennedy School of Government for two reasons. First, his mother once jokingly told him that Dorchester kids couldn’t get into Harvard, so he wanted to prove her wrong. “And two,” he says, “it was the polar opposite from West Point. At West Point you’re taught a certain way to digest information and interpret it a certain way. A plus B has to equal C. I’m not linear at all. I’m, parts of A plus parts of B could equal C under certain conditions, but what don’t we know about A and B?”
His friends would heartily agree. Before Joyce went to Cambridge he spent a year consulting in Abu Dhabi, toward the end of the Bush administration. Mostly surrounded by liberals, Joyce would often adopt the conservative viewpoint in conversations just to spark a debate.
“I think he values his ability to articulate a position, whether that position’s completely correct or not,” says Emore, who was also living in Abu Dhabi at the time. “He can make you rethink a position. It’s like method acting.”
“The king of playing devil’s advocate,” Quinn says.
In the Panthers’ front office, Caldwell notes that Joyce “does like to take the opposite view, but I don't think he’d take it to the extreme just to prove his point.” Still, contrarianism is valued. “We all have biases towards certain types of players, whether because that’s how we played as kids or we gravitate towards certain guys,” Joyce says. “But then you have to check yourself. What does the objective data say about this player? For so long we never used objective data. We just went off the eye test. And that’s great when it hits, or catastrophic when it fails. Whereas if you combine the two, you’re much closer to the truth.”
After receiving his master’s degree from Harvard, Joyce spent nine months in cyber communications at the Pentagon before returning to West Point to teach classes on counter-terrorism and homeland security. He and Quinn also traveled together, giving seminars to groups of FBI agents and local police officers. “He was able to immediately build a rapport, being a hockey player from Dorchester, being a bronze star infantryman,” Quinn says. “But once he got into the subject, it was like that perfect balance, he knew what the hell he was talking about. I think that juxtaposition, I think, really defines who he is.”
It just so happened that Viola, a 1977 West Point graduate, was a major donor at the Combating Terrorism Center. One day in 2013, he pulled Joyce aside. “How’s your life working out at CTC?” Viola asked. Joyce replied that he felt up against a glass ceiling, since without a PhD he couldn’t get hired full-time as an assistant professor. So he was thinking about the next step. Maybe back to Harvard. “Interesting you say that,” Viola said. “I also just bought a professional hockey team.”
Joyce entered the organization as Assistant to the GM under Dale Tallon, with additional responsibilities in community relations, and has since blitzed up the ladder. In Oct. 2014 he became GM of the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers’ then AHL affiliate, and added the assistant GM tag last May. So it is not without confidence that Caldwell says of Joyce, “When Vinnie brought him to the team, the intention was to train and make him a GM some day.”
To the hockey world, Joyce’s ascension reflects Florida’s broader cultural shift. Tallon still has personnel sway, particularly in amateur scouting, but the ranks are otherwise populated by relatively new faces, all considered outsiders by industry standard: Caldwell, Joyce, Virtu partner Doug Cifu (vice chairman), former lawyer Steve Werier (assistant GM/capologist), and former West Point math professor Brian MacDonald (director of analytics). Crashing the barbecue and all that. “I never felt like I had to impress anybody,” Joyce says. “ I was never afraid someone from the old school would say, ‘What the f--- do you know about hockey? You never played professionally.’ Well, I didn’t know s--- about running a village, either. And I did it.”
Really, it's not that different than around the firepit: At some point the debating stops. Then it's time to keep charting the course.