Wild GM Wants to Win, But Doesn’t Sacrifice Relationships
In March 2009, the New York Islanders traded Bill Guerin to the Pittsburgh Penguins, which became a pivotal transaction for the future U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer. On June 12, 2009, Guerin was celebrating a Stanley Cup championship with his new teammates.
Guerin scored seven goals and contributed eight assists during 24 postseason games for the Penguins. The young goalie who carried the Penguins to that 2009 Stanley Cup championship was Marc-Andre Fleury.
On March 21, Guerin and Fleury reunited in St. Paul.
Now Guerin, the Minnesota Wild’s general manager, and Fleury, 37, are gearing up for the Wild’s playoff season. Guerin captured the attention of NHL insiders in the U.S. and Canada when he successfully pulled off a deal for Fleury by the 2022 trade deadline. Fleury has won three Stanley Cups and last season won the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s best goalie.
The Fleury acquisition is a stark example of Guerin’s intense drive to build a championship hockey team. “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,” Guerin said in a TCB interview earlier this season.
“I think everybody knows that we’re going to try to make a [playoff] run here, and it’s exciting,” Fleury said during a Wild news conference in late March. “We obviously added some big guys that can skate but also finish checks.”
Fleury, who left the Chicago Blackhawks, is one of four players Guerin secured to elevate the Minnesota Wild’s talent to compete for the Stanley Cup this year. Tyson Jost, a center and left wing, joined the Wild from the Colorado Avalanche. Guerin also traded for two brawny guys with big personalities—Nic Deslauriers of the Anaheim Ducks and Jake Middleton of the San Jose Sharks.
The quartet of newcomers quickly bonded with the Wild’s team, which closed out a nine-game home stand Thursday night with a 7-1-1 record. For the season, the Wild’s record is 41-20-5.
Tom Reid, who has been broadcasting Wild games since the team’s inaugural season in 2000-01, has characterized the current team as the “most entertaining” in franchise history. Reid and many others in the hockey community give Guerin considerable credit for creating a team-first, winning culture and for assembling a talented team that can beat anybody in the league.
Known within hockey circles as Billy or Billy G., Guerin’s bold trade moves and his overall success as general manager have raised playoff hopes of Wild fans. The team enters the final month of the regular season on Saturday with a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Guerin’s family, previous coaches, and early life in New England shaped the type of leader he has become.
During a TCB interview earlier this season, Guerin talked about those influences and why he went into NHL management instead of coaching a hockey team.
Coach or general manager
Guerin played in 18 NHL seasons and announced his retirement in 2010 after scoring 429 goals and earning 427 assists in 1,263 games.
“There is a natural draw to coaching for former players because you are closer to the game,” Guerin said. “You are on the bench. You are in with the players. On a daily basis, you are dealing with them. So I think that’s the closest thing to playing.”
Wild coach Dean Evason is a former player. “[Management] was what really intrigued me,” Guerin said. “I fell in love with it.”
Before joining the Wild, he was in management with the Pittsburgh Penguins for eight years, the last five as assistant general manager.
“I do more listening around here than anything,” Guerin said from his Wild office in downtown St. Paul. While he needs to make the final call on major decisions, he emphasized that there are excellent staff engaged in amateur scouting, professional scouting, development, salary cap analysis, and other Wild activities.
“I don’t pretend myself to be perfect or always have good days,” Guerin said. “And I don’t expect anybody who works for me to be like that. And I don’t expect our players to be like that. That’s impossible. What I expect is consistency in effort and professionalism. Having good people, we want a good culture. We want good people around good teammates. That’s really important.”
Evason, Wild owner Craig Leipold, and Guerin “are all on the same page” regarding the organization’s goals, Guerin said. “We have a good flow of communication. Dean and I speak every day. Craig and I speak a number of times per week.”
Boyhood hockey obsession
Guerin grew up in Wilbraham in western Massachusetts. After his mother put skates on him at age 3, he loved the ice and his passion for hockey quickly took hold in grade school and beyond. He became a loyal Boston Bruins fan.
“One of my best friends lived right down the street and he was a sports junkie,” Guerin said. “He would come over and we’d play street hockey. We’d shoot pucks. We’d skate on the rink that my dad built for us.”
Hockey was not just a winter sport for Guerin. “I had a piece of old kitchen floor that I would spray with some lubricant or some silicone,” he recalled. “I had a net that my parents got me for Christmas one year. It was in the garage and I would shoot pucks.”
When he was in junior and senior high, he said, “Some of my buddies would be driving by and doing this and doing that, and I’d be shooting pucks.”
For grades 7 through 12, he was a day student at the private Wilbraham & Monson Academy, which was about three miles from his home. By his freshman year, he was on a junior hockey team that had to share ice rink times with multiple high schools.
“Our practices were at 11 or 11:30 at night,” Guerin said. “I would come home from school, get my schoolwork done, and then I’d sleep for a couple of hours, and then get up and go to practice, and then come back [home], and then get up for school again.”
That was Guerin’s high school schedule for three years, until the junior team transferred to an ice rink in Connecticut. Guerin was an average student. “I probably didn’t apply myself as much as I should have,” he said. “But I was focused on my hockey. That was on my brain all the time.”
Guerin’s father, also named William, and his mother met each other far from where they grew up. After Guerin’s father graduated in 1963 from Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, he served in the Catholic Extension Volunteers for U.S. Home Missions at the University of Mississippi Newman Center.
“We’re an Irish Catholic family” from Massachusetts, Guerin said. During the civil rights period, he said, his father went to Mississippi to help inner-city residents get access to voting.
Guerin’s mother, Ligia Delgadillo, who grew up in Nicaragua, was a college student at Ole Miss. “My mom was in school and one of my dad’s buddies was dating my mom’s sister,” Guerin said. “That’s where they met.”
The couple married and raised their three children in Massachusetts. Guerin’s father, who died in 2007, was in the investment business. His mother led the Spanish department at Springfield College for several years.
While Guerin was focused on hockey, his parents and extended family were heavily involved in the Catholic Church and supporting excellence in higher education.
Guerin’s father sat on the board of trustees of Saint Anselm College and he served on the investments committee of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield. His aunt, Ellen Guerin, was a Catholic nun, a member of the Sisters of Mercy order. His uncle, the Rev. Peter Guerin, was a Benedictine Catholic priest, theology professor, and dean of Saint Anselm College for 25 years.
“On holidays and every once in a while, we would have Mass just in my grandparents living room,” Guerin said.
When it was time for Guerin to attend college, he went to Boston College, another Catholic school. “To this day, I love it and it’s a fascinating place,” Guerin said. “I knew they had a good hockey program.” But he initially became enthralled with Boston College when its quarterback Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in 1984.
Guerin was a communications major at Boston College. He’s in the college’s Varsity Club Hall of Fame. He scored 40 goals over two seasons, and then went on to play a year for the U.S. National Team before joining the NHL.
‘A very close family’
Guerin and his wife, Kara, have been married for 25 years. They have four young adult children, including three daughters who all have played college lacrosse. Their son, Liam, will become a student at Hamline University, and he will play hockey for the Division III school in St. Paul.
“We’re a very close family,” Guerin said, and in recent years he and his wife have focused on visiting their children in school or spending time at a home they have on the New Jersey shore.
Like many hockey families, the Guerins learned to live with constant change. In his 18-year NHL career, Guerin played for eight teams in the U.S. and Canada. Bill and Kara Guerin had four children in five years.
“I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Guerin said. “My wife and I always say we’re going to write this book and it’s going to be called ‘The Glamorous Life.’ “
Guerin, 51, made his NHL debut 30 years ago. “Being a player in the NHL, it was a dream come true every day,” he said. “There are stretches where it’s really tough.”
But Guerin said NHL players recognize they are fortunate. “Every player that is playing in this league now is living a dream,” he said. “I think that’s what I miss the most. I don’t miss the camaraderie. I have that here [with the Wild players and coaches], camaraderie and all that stuff. I miss playing the game. If I could have one more thing, it would be just another game day.”
While he’s wistful about being off the ice, Guerin also is having the time of his life as general manager.
“You can ask my wife,” he said. “I am so happy in this job and I have been since Day 1. I have great people around me every single day.”
Yet some days are tough. And Guerin doesn’t hesitate to make the difficult decisions. Over three seasons with the Wild, he said, “the hardest one was not bringing Mikko Koivu back.”
As he was building for the future, Guerin didn’t see a role for the veteran Wild player from Finland. “I respect Mikko and I like him, and he was the franchise player here,” Guerin said. “So that was a very, very difficult decision to make. Not one I enjoyed.”
Koivu and Guerin have maintained a good relationship, and earlier this season the Minnesota Wild honored Koivu by retiring his number.
Relationships and winning
In the private sector, some leaders are transactional and don’t pay close attention to relationships.
Guerin is simultaneously focused on winning a Stanley Cup and building and maintaining good relationships with people. In his youth, his parents and other relatives emphasized the importance of humility, serving others, and treating people with respect and dignity.
Two Wild players were on the receiving end of those values around the March 21 trade deadline.
As Guerin was pursuing a deal with the Blackhawks for goalie Fleury, he also was talking to Wild goalie Cam Talbot to apprise him of what he was doing. While Guerin surprised many hockey fans by executing the deal for Fleury, Talbot wasn’t blindsided by the deal. Since the Fleury trade occurred March 21, both Talbot and Fleury have been successful in net for the Wild.
Fleury also said at a news conference that he appreciated the fact that Guerin recognized the late season trade would affect Fleury’s wife and children in Chicago. Guerin pledged that the Wild would take steps to support the family and make sure Fleury was able to see them regularly. Fleury told reporters that Guerin is “a guy you can always count on and rely on.”
While Guerin didn’t strive to be an A-student in the classroom, he has learned in real life from some of the best people in hockey.
In 1995, Guerin was a young player for the New Jersey Devils when the team won a Stanley Cup under the leadership of coach Jacques Lemaire. As a player, Lemaire was on eight Stanley Cup championship teams with the Montreal Canadiens.
“With all due respect to any coach that I ever had, Jacques Lemaire was the best coach I ever had,” Guerin said. Lemaire later was the Wild’s first coach in 2000-01 and he led the Minnesota team for eight seasons.
“With Lou Lamoriello [longtime Devils GM], they just built this team culture and it didn’t matter who you were,” Guerin said. “Jacques had the respect of every player because of what he did as a player. It was all about the team and all about winning.”
The lessons he was absorbing in New Jersey are being applied in St. Paul. “A lot of the things that I do today are because of what I learned from Jacques Lemaire and Lou Lamoriello at a young age,” he said. “What’s No. 1? Honestly, that it’s just about winning.”
Guerin, who readily makes quips and doesn’t take himself too seriously, acknowledges that he had some bad nights with the New Jersey Devils.
“Jacques probably benched me more than any other coach I ever had,” Guerin said. “I think he liked me. But maybe I wasn’t playing that well that night or did something stupid.”
Guerin’s admiration for Lemaire has endured. “He always did what he felt was right to win that game,” Guerin said. “He wasn’t trying to make friends. He wasn’t trying to make anybody happy. He was just trying to win every night.”