Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin’s Bid to Build a Stanley Cup Contender
photographs by nate ryan

Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin’s Bid to Build a Stanley Cup Contender

In his third season leading the Minnesota Wild, the general manager has shaken up the team’s roster and altered its culture in his quest to build a Stanley Cup contender.

Bill Guerin was a four-time Stanley Cup winner when Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold chose him to become the hockey team’s fourth general manager in August 2019. Leipold was looking for Guerin’s previous success to transfer to the Wild, who have routinely failed to advance beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs. 

As a player, Guerin won a championship with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Guerin, who scored 429 goals and got 427 assists over 18 NHL seasons, was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. Before joining the Wild, he spent eight years in management with the Penguins, the last five as assistant general manager. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. 

One of the most crucial deals that Guerin has made for the Wild was reaching a five-year, $45 million contract agreement in September with Kirill Kaprizov, a Russian phenomenon named the NHL’s rookie of the year last season. In late December, Guerin showed his confidence in Coach Dean Evason by signing him to a multiyear contract extension.

Guerin’s Wild enjoyed a spectacular start to the 2021-22 season, jumping to first place in the Western Conference Central Division with a 19-6-1 record. However, following an eight-game winning streak, the team lost five consecutive games, including the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Target Field.

The Wild’s resilience surfaced on Jan. 6 when players pulled off a gritty road win in Boston, which they followed with a shootout victory at home over the Washington Capitals. The Wild clawed their way to a win against Washington, despite the fact that nine players—including team captain Jared Spurgeon—were out of the lineup because of injuries or Covid-19. 

Guerin values players who have excellent hockey skills and conduct themselves with a mix of swagger and humility. From February through April, the players’ character and stamina will be tested. Because of Covid-related postponements early in the 82-game season, the Wild’s schedule is now jam-packed with 40 games over the season’s final 77 days. 

A three-time Olympic player, Guerin began skating when he was 3 years old, while living in his father’s home state of Massachusetts. His mother, born in Nicaragua, got him involved in skating when a friend suggested it was a good way to channel Guerin’s high energy during the winter. His love for hockey developed quickly.

“I can remember my dad coming home from work, and he’d be sitting in his chair reading the New York Times and I’d be watching the Bruins game,” Guerin recalls. He dreamed of becoming an NHL player. “From day one, there was no plan B,” he says. “Hockey, to me, was my life. It was my passion, it was my hobby, it’s been my life. And I really never planned on doing anything else.” 

From his office in the historic Minnesota Club building in downtown St. Paul, Guerin, 51, talked with Twin Cities Business about his leadership approach, developing a team-first culture, and what it takes to win in the NHL.

Bill Guerin with Stanley cup
While serving as assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bill Guerin hoisted the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won the 2016 championship series against the San Jose Sharks.

TCB: After being named the Wild’s general manager, what were your major goals for the organization?

Bill Guerin: First, I had to do an assessment and see what was going on. I want to establish a good culture and put this organization in a position where we can compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out.

TCB: How many years did you think it would take to become a team that seriously competes for the Stanley Cup?

BG: I thought maybe it would be a five-year, six-year plan. But then you really do the deep dive, and there are contract limitations. Then we ended up going through with the buyouts for [veteran players] Zach [Parise] and Ryan [Suter]. All of these things, they just constantly change the outlook. 

But then we get Kirill [Kaprizov] and he’s great. And then [Jonas] Brodin becomes an elite defenseman. [Goalie] Cam Talbot comes in and he plays fantastic for us. It constantly changes. 

TCB: How do you lead and motivate people?

BG: We had to have the courage to make some bold moves and to bring in people who don’t always have to be motivated. They are motivated themselves to win. Another thing is giving everybody a clear picture on what our goal is, how we are going to get there, and what the demands are. In this business, you need clarity. And I feel, as a leader, it is my job to hold people accountable but also empower them. You have to put good people in place and let them do their jobs—not micromanage and not hover.

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TCB: In a radio interview, you said early advice Lou Nanne gave you was to “be the boss.” 

BG: It was great advice: “Don’t be afraid to make the moves. Be the decision-maker. People are looking for your leadership, whichever way you decide to lead. Do it. Make the hard decisions.” I think I have. 

“We don’t pay the guys to play or the coaches to coach or me to be the GM. We are getting paid to win. That’s it.”

TCB: At what point did Craig Leipold give you the freedom to make major personnel moves?

BG: Right away. Right away.

TCB: Was that something that was discussed during the job interview?

BG: Yes, it was. I’m going to come to him with certain moves that might not be popular. He’s great for me because he challenges me. And it’s not because he doesn’t want it done, it’s because he just wants to challenge me to make sure that this is what we want.

So it is a great relationship that way and a great give-and-take, but he’s trusted me since day one. I always told him, too, that I would never surprise him. He’s never going to wake up one day and hear that so-and-so is traded. He’s going to know.

TCB: On big decisions, such as replacing a coach or buying out Suter and Parise, how do you proceed with Leipold? 

BG: I go to him with my ideas and with a plan. I try to explain as best I can why this is necessary and how this is all in order to bring us closer to a Stanley Cup. They have not all been easy conversations. It’s not like an immediate yes. Some things are bigger than others, right? We have to talk about this, and it’s important. It’s people’s lives. It’s their careers. It’s a lot of money. It’s the future of our team. So, they need to be discussed.

TCB: Did you know Leipold before you interviewed for the GM job?

BG: I knew him a little bit just because I was on the NHLPA [players’ union] negotiating committee for the ’04-’05 lockout, and Craig was on the NHL side. I didn’t have any contact with him after that, but going into the interviews I felt really comfortable with Craig. 

TCB: How long did it take you to evaluate the Wild’s existing personnel?

BG: It took a couple of months. Some of the things really stood out to me. I waited a couple of months because I didn’t want to make any rash decisions or knee-jerk reactions and just [make changes] to do it. And I felt everybody deserved that time, too. The guys who had been here for a long time and did some really good things, they deserved a fair shake.

TCB: Early on you replaced the head coach and your lead goalie. Did you have a master plan of what needed to be changed sequentially or did specific moves occur in response to performance issues along the way?

BG: It was a number of things. It was performance, it was culture. It was a bigger thing than just right now—how are we going to build? And culture is a big part of it.

TCB: How would you define what the culture was versus the culture you wanted to establish?

BG: I don’t love talking about the past culture, because I want to make sure that I respect everybody who was here before. But it had gotten soft, and we needed a little more focus, a little more direction, and more accountability. And we just needed some leadership.

TCB: How would you characterize what the culture is today?

BG: We have a great culture. We have a bunch of players, coaches, and hockey operations staff who are all in it together. There is no personal agenda. It’s all about winning, and it is all about winning here in Minnesota and doing it together. That being said, culture is a living and breathing thing. If you don’t keep your thumb on it every single day, it can get away from you.

Bill Guerin standing with hockey stick

Culture is a living and breathing thing. If you don’t keep your thumb on it every single day, it can get away from you.”

TCB: Who are the guardians of the culture?

BG: It’s everybody. You always have leaders. But leaders don’t always have to be the ones standing at the frickin’ pulpit, preaching to everybody. 

TCB: Everybody matters?

BG: Everybody matters. The hockey side and the business side for the Minnesota Wild have never been closer. We have tremendous leaders on the business side and tremendous leaders on the hockey side. And it’s all blending together. Yes, everybody matters.

If you are a first-line center on our first power play, you matter. If you are driving the Zamboni, you matter because you are responsible for the ice. If you are doing maintenance on our rink, you matter. Everybody in this whole thing matters, and everybody has tremendous pride and that’s important.

TCB: In September, after you announced a $45 million deal with Wild star Kirill Kaprizov, you revealed the two of you spent time together in Florida before the terms were finalized. You said it was important to understand each other. What did you learn about him?

BG: It was important for us to meet face-to-face because I learned actually how closely involved he was [in evaluating terms with his agent], and how he knows everything that is going on, and how important this was to him. He wasn’t taking it lightly.

He wanted to make sure that he was putting himself in the best position, teamwise, and that he could trust me. I think that was big. I think for me to go down [was important], for Kirill to see—because we had been at the end of the line for quite some time—that I was serious on where we were in our offer and also how much we care about him and wanted to have him back.

TCB: To be an NHL championship team, what elements need to be present beyond physically skilled hockey players? 

BG: It’s mental. We have the physical abilities to do anything. It’s how we see ourselves. How do we carry ourselves? With swagger and humility. I’ve talked to some of the players, and they’ve been so good and they get it. It’s a really good group of guys. They are figuring out that swagger part. But they are just the most humble group of guys, and friendly, that you could be around.

I really think that they believe in themselves and they believe in their team. These guys sacrifice. They sacrifice for each other and they don’t put themselves in front of the team. The team always comes first.

TCB: In your 18 years as an NHL player, what did you learn about team chemistry? How does that inform the players you bring in?

BG: It’s not always about stick handling and skating and shooting. It’s about will and who plays best as a team. If you upset that, you are taking a chance. There is always risk involved. I always say if we can make our team better, we will. But just bringing in a better player doesn’t always make a team better.

TCB: Why are you and Coach Dean Evason a good leadership pair?

BG: We are honest with each other. He has a tough job to do, and I let him do it. I support him. He knows I have a tough job to do, and he supports me. His job is for today. My job is for today and years to come. We are definitely on the same page on how we want to play, what we expect of our players, and what we feel it takes to get there.

TCB: Describe the style of hockey the Wild are playing this season.

BG: Very up-tempo. Our forwards forecheck hard. We play with quick pace. Our defensemen join in. They don’t just stand there. We go. 

TCB: According to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, you have a self-deprecating sense of humor. Is that a natural way for you to bond with  people in the hockey world?

BG: It’s just me. [Laughs.] I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just me. I think this job is hard enough, playing is hard enough, everything we do, life is tough enough. You’ve got to laugh. And you have to be able to laugh at yourself.

TCB: Many business executives have tried and failed to change cultures. Is there anything you’ve done with the Wild that could carry over to other businesses?

BG: I’m very much like my father. And my father ran the UBS [wealth management] office in Hartford, Connecticut. It wasn’t about him. It was about the people who worked with him. And I saw firsthand how he treated people, how he handled his office. 

TCB: So it’s treating everybody across the organization with respect?

BG: 100 percent.

TCB: You undoubtedly know that the four long-standing men’s pro franchises in Minnesota have not won a championship since the Twins in 1991. Are you getting pressure to win a Stanley Cup soon?

BG: I know that that’s what everybody wants. I want it as soon as we can get it. This market is desperate for a championship, and we want to be the team. This is why we are here. We don’t pay the guys to play or the coaches to coach or me to be the GM. We are getting paid to win. That’s it.

Liz Fedor is TCB’s senior editor.