August 06, 2008
Trades. As sports fans, we're making them constantly: In fantasy leagues, on video games, over messages boards, inside the cheap seats ... hell, in our sleep.
Chris Snow used to make them in the press box, which rivals only the neighborhood pub for the nightly convergence of professional insights and insufferable know-it-all-ism. After nearly three seasons, Snow has now experienced both sides of the trade game: The sexy, unrestricted conjecture from those who watch hockey; and, as the director of hockey operations for the Minnesota Wild, the reality for those who run it.
"The cap is an issue. The prevalence of no-trade clauses -- there are probably more than 120 right now in the League, and there are only 700 players. You're taking out about a fifth of the League that can't be traded unless the player gives his permission. There have been many, many long-term deals signed in the last few years by young players, and it's difficult to trade a contract with a significant term left on it," said Snow.
"And then you get to, ‘How creative is a general manager?' When you look at the Red Sox, those were really creative people."
Snow would know, having covered the Boston Red Sox beat for the Boston Globe much like he had covered the Wild for the Star Tribune earlier in his career. That Snow made the transition from journalism to an NHL front office was noteworthy; that he was hired by Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough as a 24-year-old made national headlines.
"It was really difficult from a personal standpoint," said Snow, a Boston native whose career trajectory could have made him the next Bob Ryan. "What I was looking at, from the flip side, is that if I didn't do this, I'd always wonder what might have been."
Turning 27 on Aug. 11, Snow wonders no more. He's an established part of the Wild's hockey operations, bringing an admittedly "outsider" approach to management. He's had his own misconceptions shattered, while at the same time helping to bring about a generational shift in they way hockey teams approach everything from communication to arbitration. And much of it started back in Fenway Park.
Snow covered the Red Sox over the course of two seasons, witnessing first-hand the continued transformation of that front office through the innovative, unorthodox leadership of Theo Epstein.
At 28, Epstein was hired by the Red Sox as their general manager in Nov. 2002. He shares more than a few parts of his biography with Snow: Boston-bred, well-schooled (Yale for Epstein, Syracuse for Snow), a journalism background, and Epstein's first gig before coming to the Red Sox was as director of baseball ops for the Padres.
Management wasn't something that Snow seriously considered until Risebrough floated the notion in an "exit interview" dinner as Snow left for the Globe. "He asked me ‘What are you going to do with your life from a professional sense?'" Snow recalled to Inside Hockey. "He told me that maybe I could work for a team someday. It would take the right circumstances for a team but there are some skills that can transfer and we kept in touch here and there from that point."
What sparked his interest was being around the Red Sox on a daily basis, and witnessing how their front office worked.
"When I covered the Red Sox, I had the opportunity to observe a pretty unique group of people," recalled Snow. "They were all in the front office at the same time and they were all between the ages of 27 and 32. They had all played college baseball, but one was working in admissions at a local college before he became a Red Sox intern and became the assistant GM. They had made a leap, such as the one I later made, appear possible."
But it wasn't just their ages that served as inspiration - it was their imagination, work ethic and tenacity.
"I remember when Theo Epstein left, briefly, I talked with other general manager throughout baseball about the Red Sox front office and how it operated without him. What I kept hearing was that they were a creative group," said Snow. "When you were talking to them about making a trade, there wouldn't be a single call and then the possibility was extinguished. They would go back and forth with a number of possible deals. Their level of creativity must have made for a pretty dynamic environment."
"Creativity" and "dynamic" can sometimes be in short order within NHL brain trusts. Through his conversations with Snow over the years, Risebrough knew the young writer possessed those traits. So when Snow asked Risebrough's career advice -- faced with a trio of journalistic job options in June 2006 -- the general manager instead offered him the chance to join the Minnesota front office.
"I think he has great intuition, great drive, great curiosity," Risebrough told Esquire magazine in 2007. "I thought we could use another opinion on some things."
So Snow went Wild. And crusty journalists like Sid Hartman in Minnesota immediately started dropping lines like, "Who does he think he is -- Theo Epstein Jr.?"
Snow is entering his third season with the Wild. His responsibilities align with those of an assistant general manager: Day-to-day management, ranging from chartering transportation to ensuring practice times.
"The misconception is that the majority of our time would be spent on potentially changing the composition of the team - signing players or trading players," said Snow. "When you're inside a team, the GM and those of us around him spend the majority of the time creating and building the culture of the organization."
That organizational culture can mean something as basic as keeping players and coaches happy to more "big picture" ideals involving business models and philosophy.
That's where Snow becomes an interesting case study. Here is a former journalist working in the front office of an NHL team -- not an ex-player or former coach, not a lawyer or a corporate suit. He's cut from a different mold, much like Epstein's gang in Boston were; he's a wickedly intelligent hockey fan getting the chance to help a team evolve.
What Snow's learned in the last two years is that the sabermetric obsessions of a sports wonk need to find balance with some out-of-the-box thinking to work in hockey.
Snow has helped usher into the Minnesota front office what's become more prevalent for hockey fans online: Specific, revelatory statistics. From shift charts to terms like "goals created," a number of statisticians are trying to quantify a player's value better than ever before.
Snow said he and his peers look at these numbers, and other measures like quality of competition, trying to discern something that a flawed measure like plus/minus cannot. "You're always trying to adjust the contributions of a player for the team he plays for or the division he plays in. There's no question that there's a different style of play in the Western Conference than in the Eastern Conference," he said.
As for stats that literally measure the quality of competition on the ice from shift to shift, "that's really experimental," said Snow. "We play with those numbers, and have varying degrees of confidence in those findings."
This stats-based approach, which can be used for everything from arbitration to contract talks, brings some factual balance to the inherent "trust your gut" instincts in hockey management.
"If you look at management in baseball, there are more people with more varied backgrounds. In hockey, there are more former players," said Snow. "I think baseball's been a bit more progressive. It's run like a business. In hockey, there's a bit more intuition."
Above everything else in Snow's job, communication is paramount. Between the front office and players, coaches and other team employees. Between front office members themselves. And in particular with the Wild, between the team and its fans.
On its official Web site, Minnesota has a "Hockey Ops Blog" that pulls back the curtain on team management. Snow, Risebrough and assistant GM Tom Lynn trade bylines on blogs that explain the inner workings of the team to its fans. Sometimes it's Snow talking about why it "matters that the players are involved in selecting the food" for team meals. Other times the blog gets a bit more political, like Lynn's recent busting of the myth that "Expansion has diluted the level of talent in the NHL."
The blog gives a Wild-eyed view of hockey, and in some ways it tempers what fans are hearing from other media. For Snow, it's emblematic of having "switched teams" just under three years ago: Going from a dogged journalist seeking to extract information to a front office worker seeking to control it.
Never was this more apparent to Snow than at the trade deadline, regarding the rumors that swirl around players. "I view it very differently now," he said.
Like any team, the Wild are a target of trade rumors. Pierre-Marc Bouchard's name was whispered before he inked a new contract. Marian Gaborik, the team's leading scorer, has become a scuttlebutt obsession this summer, no matter how asinine the "rumors" are.
Snow said the chatter about these players takes its toll. "You do realize the damage that can be done to a player hearing his name in the media as far as a potential trade. Our policy would be never to talk about potential moves. It does a player no good hearing his name."
Because of his age and back story, Snow's heard his own name more than a few times since joining the Minnesota Wild. "There's more curiosity for what I've done because I was a writer, and the curiosity comes from writers," he said.
Indeed, it's like a movie about Hollywood: The critics are either going to fall for it or savage it because they're essentially writing about an extension of themselves. Snow has successfully made a transition that many fans and journalists have no doubt wondered if they could make, and he didn't have to play for 15 years or toil in a bush league front office for a decade to get there. Where it could lead is anyone's guess: "I want to grow in my role and understand the business. So if I can make a step to a next role at some point, I can do that," he said,"
Snow's living a dream for many; and he's quick to note how rare it is to achieve that dream.
"A lot of young people come to me and say, 'I want to be a general manager. How do I do that?' Well, what particular skill do you have that doesn't exist in a front office that they would want?" he said, pointing to salary cap wizards as the next wave of non-traditional hirings in hockey.
"How do you manage a team over the course of 10 years, in a system with a hard cap with guaranteed contracts, and be competitive? That's a question teams will want to have answered."
And no, having your fantasy team win three straight league championships isn't relevant experience.
"That's a tough thing to put on a resume," said Snow.