Starting From Scratch: A Chat With The Man Who Wrote The Book On How To Build An NHL Expansion Team

Now that Seattle has an NHL franchise on the way, much of the attention immediately turns to tangible next steps in the process. What will the name be? What will the jerseys and logo look like? Who will be the first players on the team?

We will see those questions answered over the next 30 months or less. But those are just a sliver of the challenges facing the Seattle Hockey Partners in their quest to build a contender out of nothing more than concepts and a starting handful of employees. They just saw how impactful and rewarding that process can be when executed impeccably by the NHL team in Las Vegas.

Fortunately this is a set of tests Seattle’s leadership has some experience passing. In fact, while building the foundation in Sin City, some of the Golden Knights’ power brokers looked to the past work of some members of the Seattle group for inspiration. We only have to look at the quite literal book the Vegas brain trust read for proof.

The book itself is titled, appropriately, ‘How To Bake an NHL Franchise From Scratch: The First Era of the Minnesota Wild’ (available on Amazon and wherever books are sold). The name of the author, Tom Lynn, might not ring a bell unless you’re a diehard fan of the Wild.

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So what’s his tie to the NHL Seattle power group? Lynn is now an agent, but he worked for the Wild at the same time as Tod Leiweke. Lynn served as Assistant General Manager (AGM) while Leiweke was President (before Tod moved to Chief Operating Officer).

Before the Knights blew the doors off everyone in their rookie season, the Wild were one of the more “immediately successful” expansion teams the league has seen in recent memory. Minnesota reached the Western Conference Final in their third season, kicking off a five-year stretch that saw it make the postseason three times.

Lynn was one of the first employees with the Wild, and in his book he describes the process from Day One to nearly reaching the Stanley Cup Final as hockey’s version of Cinderella crashing the dance.

He was generous enough with his time to spend a few minutes talking with me about that, whittling down all possible players to key targets, the challenges of scouting, what the Vegas group asked him, and much more. You’ll find the transcript below.

Note: All questions and answers below have been edited for clarity. No answers were condensed in that editing process.

Question: One of the original reasons I wanted to reach out to you is your book. You were one of the first handful of employees to join the Wild from its infancy on. What prompted you to write this book, and look back and rehash some of those old stories?

Answer: It’s a really good question and it was a difficult birthing process as it were. I was not a writer. I am not a writer. I’ve written a few pieces on hockey for The Hockey News and what have you, but it’s not a profession of mine. I was hoping that Chris Snow, who was a writer that worked for us, would write a book, or someone else in the area would write a book that could encapsulate what a special time it was and what we accomplished. Less me than other gentleman like Tod Leiweke, Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire. But no one did. The years went by and I started to write a series of blogs on it because I thought “Well that would be the best way to do it,” maybe 20 or 25 blogs with stories. Once I started that process it became book length within a few months, and so then I realized this probably needed to be a book.

Q: Some of the other people who’ve read your book and admitted to it include Kelly McCrimmon, the Assistant General Manager of the Vegas Golden Knights. He’s said that he read it after getting the job, and called you to ask some questions about it. Is there something you can share with us that McCrimmon specifically asked about?

A: I would say, from my not too sharp memories of speaking with Kelly a few times on it, he was more interested in the principles — almost like the hockey theology involved with creating a culture — rather than any particular rules. That’s because the rules were different for his expansion draft, and the league had changed their degree and all that. It was more about the philosophies behind it, how to understand them and choose them and inculpate them in your group.

Q: How do you balance trying to create that winning culture from scratch while going through and selecting those first players? Obviously you want a good balance between guys who are skilled enough and give you a chance to win, but you also have to keep that theoretical culture in mind.

A: Yes and that kind of goes to what we talked about as well with both George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon in Las Vegas. Not that they necessarily took my advice, but they were aware of it, which was: in our expansion draft, and it’s different for theirs, but in our expansion draft there were not skilled players available that would make you better. The expansion drafts were so onerous for Minnesota and Columbus that you’re either going to get players without a history of offensive production. If they did have one they had serious injuries, were overpaid, or had some sort of other issue going on in their life. So my boss Doug Risebrough took a tact of getting what he called “character guys” — The Darby Hendricksons, Jimmy Dowds and Wes Walzes of the world — and just try to get players who were known for their character, their work ethic and their respect for the game hoping that would translate well in Minnesota. Our counterparts in Columbus actually took an opposite tact to a large degree. They tried to grab some veterans who had some success in prior years, and some who had exhibited some skill. They took more gambles as it were. But in Minnesota we were happy to settle for a 5-out-of-10 if we knew it was a 5, rather than take someone who could be a 2 or an 8-out-of-10 if that makes sense.

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Q: You mentioned working with Doug Risebrough. How helpful was it to have someone who had that past experience as an NHL GM when you were trying to build this team from the ground up?

A: Yeah it was super interesting. I didn’t realize — we all think we’re humble people, I think, and I had that going in. I previously was an attorney in New York who represented leagues and teams. I had worked with David Stern at the NBA, Gary Bettman at the NHL, Paul Tagliabue in the NFL, the Yankees and others. I thought I had dealt with the smartest people in the business. I probably had to some degree. But when I came here and got to know Doug, as someone who used game theory — which, without knowing what it was, he had me study game theory analytics — but he had game theory and analytics. He and Jacques Lemaire they had it down. The way they would list out on boards what the potential move of competitors would be, how they would do, what the information gap was between the two, it was amazing. At a visceral, kind of bush pilot level , those two guys — especially Doug  — could strategize with the best mathematicians.

Q: You’ve touched on this a couple of times, and it’s the case here in Seattle, but the expansion draft rules are different now than they were for you. When you’re starting from scratch and just trying to identify guys who fit with that culture you’re trying to establish, how do you go about trying to accomplish that?

A: That’s a good question and I think it was very appropriate to the most recent expansion draft, and even more-so for the Seattle one. See nowadays we have analytics on pro players that basically tell us everything they do on the ice. This was in its infancy when I was coming into the league with the expansion draft. But it still occurred to us that drafting amateur players is an art. It’s hard to compare a high schooler in Minnesota to a junior player in Alberta to a Russian player in the 2nd professional league there. But in pro hockey you have all of these different statistics and views of a player, so by the time he’s 26 you kind of know what he is on the ice for better or for worse. The scouting for pro players, hence the expansion draft, is really off the ice. And a lot of teams didn’t know this, and I think they don’t to this day, but Doug Risebrough had us focus on the “Why?” So, don’t go scout a game and tell me that ‘so-and-so is a 2nd-liner for Tampa Bay and he has 39 points and here’s where he plays.’ We know that already in the office. Tell me why. Go to the morning skates. Go to the practices. Talk to their scouts. Analyze where he was before. Talk to his college or junior coach. Why is this guy playing there? How could he be better? So, that would be the key to an expansion scouting system. It will be not just identifying the players. Almost anyone can do that nowadays. But it’ll be the “whys,” because you want to find out which players truly have upside, like Vegas did with Jonathan Marchessault, and which ones do not.

Q: One thing you did a great job in your book with was dispelling any notion that a front office job is just sitting around and fantasizing about possible trades. You made it clear that when you walked into the office each day you were already trying to put out 100 different fires, and there were 200 more waiting on your desk. What were some of your first days like as an Assistant GM?

A: This is awesome. When I came in, I came from a law firm. I had not run a team, had not been involved in running a team. Doug Risebrough who was the GM had been, but he had not been a GM for over 5 years and the league changes at a very rapid pace, as you might guess. So he’s thinking I knew more than I did, and I was thinking he knew more than he did. So our first few conversations were things like me sitting down and saying “OK, so who does the immigration? Where are they on it? What firm are we using?” and Doug looked at me and said “Immigration?” “Yes for the scouts, the players, the staff so we can cross the border.” The next thing was the charter plane for the flights and the air travel. So there were a lot of infrastructure things that needed work. But the most precious thing came, and this is in my book, before our first training camp. We kept bugging Jacques Lemaire for what kind of set-up he wanted for camp. Did he want scrimmages and practice for the first days? Just practice? Did he want to figure out the younger guys? Jacques wouldn’t respond. He said “I’ll tell you in person.” He got in late the night before the first day of training camp, and we finally sat down with him at a table. I said “Jacques, what do you want for the day?” He said “I want the scrimmages. I want these lines.” He laid them out and then said, “Who are the referees?” Then Doug Risebrough turned to me and said “Yes, who are the referees for tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.?” For the life of me I did not know that you needed referees for an NHL training camp. So I said “Uh I don’t have their names with me right now. But I have to go to the bathroom.” So I left the conference room, ran upstairs, started asking the Minnesota hockey people I knew where to find some referees, tracked some down within 15 minutes who lived within an hour, offered them a bunch of money, and then I came back downstairs and had some names for them.”

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Q: That’s a heck of a story. The other major moment that jumped out at me while reading this book was the day of the first game at the Xcel Energy Center when you said they were still bolting in some of the seats as the fans were starting to go into the building.

A: Literally. I had gone over earlier and came back to the office, because our office was over in the convention center in one complex, and when I walked back to the building just before the doors opened, I saw the architect — this is the top guy, the architect who built Coors Field and a couple of others, Ray — he was walking towards me in jeans carrying two trash bags and he said “Yup this is the last of it.” So when I walked further into the building, some work men were screwing down seats because there had been a late settlement in a handicap access lawsuit. They had to add or move 4 or 5 seats. And the drills are going, as the doors open and people are rushing in, you hear the drills going, screwing down the last seats in the building. That’s how close it was.

Q: Holy cow. Did you guys know before that day that’s how tight it was going to be?

A: You know we had a little warning, but I think the people involved didn’t want to cause any panic and they thought they could get it done. Which I fully support. You wouldn’t believe, like with the referees and so many other things, when you have a start-up business — whether it’s a hockey team or not — there are a lot of close calls and you gotta stop panicking about them and just get things done. The people who were working on the building said they would get it done so they didn’t panic anyone.

Q: Wow. The other person I wanted to specifically ask you about from that time was Tod Leiweke. When’s the last time you spoke with him?

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A: Jeez. Probably right after he left for the NFL. You kind of leave him alone for a little bit after that because the NFL can be quite the demanding job, especially as the Chief Operating Officer, and I had worked with the NFL previously as the outside counsel. But we had spoken a little bit about him jumping back into the fray from where he was in hockey. He looked forward to the job. I’m not surprised he’s back in hockey, though.

Q: I know he had some close ties to this region given his time here after he left Minnesota. But I kind of wanted to dig into what kind of person he is to work with. How closely did you work with or interact with him on a daily or weekly basis?

A: Probably would be more weekly. He was the president of the team. I was, ostensibly, the Vice President of Hockey Operations. It wasn’t my title, but there were all these departments. Communications, suite sales, sponsorship, ticketing, the building. Each department had a vice president, so I served as vice president of our department, reporting to the president on financial matters — not on hockey matters — but on the rest. We got to know each other through that because I did the budget, the invoices, human resources — anything that dealt with the regular business of hockey operations went through the central part of which Tod was president.

Q: What was it that made Tod so special to work with?

A: I still don’t know. I hate to compare him to Jack Welch, because they’re not similar in terms of management style, but their results seemed to be out of proportion to what they were doing, and I was kind of a devotee of Jack Welch as I came into the management world from the legal world. But I came in from New York, I’m not a quintessential New Yorker, but I worked for your quintessential New York law firm. I worked for people who yelled all the time. David Stern yelling at us at 3 o’clock in the morning on a conference call. People yelling, screaming, threatening — the worst that you see on TV about a typical New York law firm and its clients, I’d lived through that, and I dealt with George Steinbrenner. So I came out here, went to the first all employee meeting and Tod was running it. He wanted the employees to have fun, be encouraged and be happy. I thought to myself “Well he seems like a nice guy, but I don’t know if this is going to work.” Everything was positive, not really negative at all at least on the surface. He went through this for the first few weeks, and I went “Well it’s nice for them. The business side is not my business, I’m over here in hockey.” But then I noticed within the first month and a half or two months, the results started pouring in. You know the Wild was not a slam dunk. They said selling hockey here is like selling ice to Inuits. The building was not sold out, the naming rights weren’t sold, the suites and sponsorships weren’t sold when Tod showed up here in mid-December. The team was starting out the next year, so we had six months to get all of that sold. By mid-spring, it became apparent that we were going to be very successful off the ice on the business side. So at that point I started to look around and cock an eyebrow and kind of wonder “What the heck is this guy doing?”

Q: I know in Minnesota, the arena has a jersey from every high school hockey team in the state hanging to represent the state of hockey. I’d heard that was Tod’s idea. Is that true? Or did he just have a lot of input on it?

A: A lot of input, for sure. I couldn’t speak to who had the original ideas for those things. Like in hockey operations, the idea of having multiple rotating captain or others had multiple parents, and on the business side Matt Majka and Tod worked together to try to make the Wild a grassroots brand. As I often heard, we were not selling tickets as commodities, like “Here’s a ticket to a game.” We were selling a relationship where people would identify not only with the team, but with their state and their culture. So the 200-odd high school jerseys around the arena were part of that. We also were the first team in any sport to have a youth hockey player rush out to center ice and plant a flag, which you later saw something similar with Seattle football — Tod brought that there. He also included between-periods ceremonies and awards honoring local coaches and teachers. They just did their best to tie the Minnesota Wild’s game operations and experience to the local community so that people would want to be a part of it. Whether it’s coming to games, watching on tv, buying jerseys or just cheering for the team — they just really wanted to tie all of that together, and the high school jerseys were one part of that.

Q: Last thing I wanted to ask you about with relation to Tod. Some of his former co-workers in Vancouver and a couple of other places have said that he has a bit of a tradition before home games of walking around the concourse, stopping and talking with ushers, the people who work concessions and other staffers, just to say hi and get to know them a bit. Do you know if that’s true?

A: Huh. It’s a good question. If it is, I experienced it in a different way and I didn’t know it was a formal practice. But Tod told me early on, I think his predecessors or someone else in the Wild organization had sold off the ushering duties to a local company, because there are a lot of local companies out there that will provide ushers for events, and he said “Tom, we can’t have that. These are the touch points with our most important people, our customers, and we want them to be our employees. We train them, we talk with them, we do everything with them.” I knew he would go through the building and shake hands and touch base with all the people who touch our stakeholders. Anyone who did that, he wanted to be involved with and he really valued that. I didn’t know it was a formal thing, but I did know that before and during games, he did it often.

Q: You’ve made the leap from NHL front office and Assistant GM to being an agent. What made you want to pursue that?

A: That’s a good question because Tod is probably indirectly involved in that. So we were here for a little over nine years. I had no regrets. The average tenure for management in the NHL was five-and-a-half years at that time. So a new owner came in and he wanted his own guys. We all get it. I moved to Minnesota with two kids, and my wife was an attorney like me. More than nine years later she was now a stay at home mom with six kids. We were enmeshed in the church, the hockey and the schools here — and I mean enmeshed. We were on boards and helping people, etc. I interviewed with Florida for a General Manager and then an Assistant GM position when Dale Tallon took the GM job. I talked to Edmonton, Nashville, a few others. I told my wife “Hey maybe I can get one of these jobs, and if it goes well I can move up again in 3-4 years.” And she said “You mean we’ll move twice? With six kids playing hockey we’ll move twice in a few years around the continent?” It wasn’t that palatable and I really suffered over thinking about it for months. But Tod had always told me “Family comes first.” He really lived it. He moved from job to job, but he was always careful about where he lived. He lived close, he didn’t want to commute. He told me that family was an important part of it. He observed this over the years in sports: people move around, and if they don’t prioritize family then their careers typically suffer. If you want to preserve your family, you’ve got to pay attention to it. So after meditating on that I decided I wanted to stay in Minnesota, but there’s only one NHL team in town and I had just been fired by them. So do I become an attorney again as I had been in New York? Well it was the middle of the recession and 3,000 attorneys had just been laid off in Minnesota. So I thought “How do I use the capital that I had built up in hockey?” In talking to the players, and it was actually Dwayne Roloson and Brian Rolston — two current or former Wild players at the time — who told me “You used to be a hard ass with the Wild. You were a good contract negotiator. Guys respected you, guys feared you, guys thought a lot of you. Why don’t you just flip it around and use it for the players? You developed players and negotiated all the contracts for the Wild for 9 years. Why don’t you just use that on behalf of the players?” I didn’t want to become an agent because of the kind of brand or division of agents, and what they had to do to survive. So I went and spoke to the late Don Bailey, the dean of all hockey agents, and I asked him “Don, can you do this? Can you be an agent in hockey without getting muddy?” And he told me two things: pick your clients since they won’t pick you, and don’t be a “Stage Door Johnny” — don’t wait outside arenas and try to steal people’s clients, because you won’t be able to respect yourself and the players won’t respect you. I took those two pieces of advice and slowly built an agency, and Don was right. It can be done and it can be done on good terms.

Q: You’ve touched on this briefly, but have you been approached recently about joining an NHL front office again? Or have you left that chapter of your life behind?

A: I have been. It’s funny, when I became an agent there was a long delay to my certification because the new head of the NHL Players’ Association at the time legitimately thought I might be a plant of sorts, not a purposeful one, or I would go back to management. That’s an issue because as an agent, you’re privy to a lot of the negotiation and other things at the NHLPA. So I had to do more of a different approach in getting certified. I told them “I’m switching sides because I want to switch sides, and I want to stay in Minnesota.” And there’s no way the Wild are going to hire me on as GM, because I was just a finalist along with Chuck Fletcher and they rejected me. It’s not like anyone’s going to reverse their course like that. So I told them “Look there’s no chance that I’m going back.” Since then, I haven’t kept track, but I think five teams have reached out. Some indirectly, saying “Hey I’m losing my Assistant GM. You know anyone good?” And a couple directly. But I’ve said no. What I have now is I can’t be fired, I never have to move, and I can help people. I liked managing, but on this side you can really help people with their issues. Getting players to college, to junior, to pro, to make decisions in their life, to eventually some times go to Europe and come back. These are all challenges where you have a personal stake in the outcome, as opposed to a general stake that you have with management. So that ability to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives I didn’t have on the management side, and there was that kind of divide there. The short answer to the question is: I told Don Fehr that there are probably 5 franchises in this league I would ever want work for, because I know how all the others are run. It’s not likely that it would ever line up, or that one of those franchises would reach out with a job that was compatible in the end. So he accepted that and let me be certified.

Q: When you started looking back at your time in Minnesota while putting this book together, is there a favorite memory or moment that you have?

A: Oh wow. So many, just too many. I was very grateful for the position I had. It was odd coming to Minnesota from New York at first, but then when I lost my job and was looking at moving for another team I realized I couldn’t leave. You just can’t leave because you like it so much. But from the hockey side, I would say two moments. One was winning the 2003 Calder Cup, the championship of the American Hockey League, with the Wild’s minor league affiliate. A lot of people in my position, the number two guy in an NHL team, didn’t pay a lot of attention to their American Hockey League team. I grew up in a minor league town in Syracuse, you know the whole ‘Slap Shot’ routine that was filmed in large part in Syracuse, so to me the American Hockey League was a big deal, and winning that championship was tremendous. The second one was when we beat the Vancouver Canucks in the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Playoffs when no one gave us any chance to do it. We were taunted by the fans and the players. I remember Todd Bertuzzi telling the fans when he arrived at the arena for Game 4 “Don’t bother buying tickets, there won’t be another game.” So when we beat them and went out to dinner with the coaches with Jacques, Doug, Mario and the rest, that was probably the greatest feeling of hockey triumph there. And there were a lot of personal moments that make you feel good about being a franchise. How people looked at the Wild, how it affected the community. I moved to St. Paul when it was known as East Berlin and there was an abandoned hotel next to the arena. Now it’s some of the priciest real estate in the Twin Cities. So the team really helped turn that part of the downtown around. There are many moments, but those two in particular stand out.


A Quick Note

First and foremost: I hope you had a nice holiday season with friends, family or loved ones.

Secondly: I’m starting a very research-intensive project that I think you’ll really enjoy and find helpful in the near future. That said, it probably means these posts will be less frequent until it is finished because there simply are not enough hours in each day to do both.

If something major happens, I’ll address it. But the frequency of posts will die down at least for the time being. For the usual “Loose Pucks” news and notes found in this section, just follow along on Twitter where I routinely share, note and mention anything interesting and related to Seattle’s NHL team.

I appreciate your patience, and can’t wait to share the results of this project with you all.

Cheers.

If you have any questions or feedback: leave a comment, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).

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