NHL teams should take a lesson from one KHL team’s recent hire

NHL News

There’s this perception about the hockey media: that we’re all bitterly jealous of the players we cover, because we secretly want their careers. Nothing could be further from the truth: Most of us are bitterly jealous of the executives who sign those players, because secretly we want their careers.

We create trades. We grade drafts. We advocate for the firing of coaches. We analyze GMs’ decision-making, while suggesting what we would have done instead — and without our jobs depending on being right. Heck, the press box itself is a lot closer to a general manager’s vantage point than a view from the bench.

Winning the Stanley Cup as a player? That’s a child’s dream.

Building a championship team as a suit? That’s a hockey writer’s dream.

Igor Eronko is now living the dream.

Eronko was hired as an assistant general manager by Omsk Avangard of the Kontinental Hockey League this week. He had been a hockey writer for Russia’s Sport-Express and a sideline reporter on KHL telecasts. Now, he’s on track to one day run a pro hockey team.

“Sure, I had a dream like this. When you work and see what managers do you always think what would you do differently. Of course, the goal is to become a GM one day. I just need to get that experience that I don’t have at the moment,” he told me this week. “It could seem like a small step from the position I’m in now, but in reality it will be a giant leap. It all depends on me, and the work I will do.”

Making the leap from hockey media know-it-all to hockey front office know-it-all is a rare and impressive feat. Chris Snow famously transitioned from being a beat writer covering the Minnesota Wild and then the Boston Red Sox to working as the Wild’s director of hockey operations and then director of hockey analysis for the Calgary Flames.

“The hardest part was when you’re a journalist, you have a very concrete, real product. It is kind of out there for everyone to see, so there is a fulfillment there,” Snow told The Daily Orange in 2017. “There are a lot of details that go into a hockey season that are pretty mundane that no one ever sees. So it was a big adjustment for me there; how I measured my days and how I was doing.”

Eronko’s days will be filled with streamlining the team’s prospect pipeline. “We have one of the best academies in Russia, with a plan to make it the best out there; we would have a straight road to the KHL team through MHL [junior hockey league] and VHL [second-tier pro league] teams. We need as many quality young players as it’s possible to choose from. They’re cheap, and they’re not counted against the hard salary cap recently implemented until they’re 21 years old,” he said.

By now you might be asking how exactly Eronko pulled this off, because I was wondering the same.

He didn’t have any previous hockey managerial experience. He was never a coach, nor had he played amateur hockey — only on frozen ponds. Eronko said he did attend hockey school for about a week, until his father got tired of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to drive him there.

“So there wasn’t any hockey education. But I tried to educate myself since I became a journalist. And spent hours and hours on that learning systems, strategies, methodologies. Learning all the stuff that could help me one day. Spent hours for a research for my articles. Tried to learn as much as possible talking hockey to coaches,” he said. “That led me to this: One former KHL GM once told me that I know more about players and systems than some actual GMs.”

Eronko was first approached for a job when he won an award as the KHL’s top journalist in 2018, but he wasn’t ready to uproot his journalistic life quite yet. This offer was too good to pass up. He asked Alexander Krylov, CEO of Omsk Avangard, for a week to mull it over after he left his office. But he already knew he wanted the gig.

“It was his idea to invite me. He’s the guy who likes to find solutions leaving usual routes. To be innovative and progressive. And he usually is successful in that. Big thanks to him, because the hockey world is a closed world and he opens it for me. It gives me a true unique experience,” Eronko said.

This is, to me, the important takeaway from Eronko’s story. No, not the “hire a cranky sportswriter to run your hockey operations” part. (But seriously, Steve Yzerman: Call me.) The part about the hockey world being closed off to people who aren’t part of club. Who haven’t taken the familiar path. Who aren’t shoved to the front of the line by a gust of nepotism or acquaintance.

Hiring outside the box is how you break up the homogeny of front offices. How you diversify your voices, How one signals a changing of the guard for the gatekeepers. Then, once these trails are blazed, others will follow.

Eronko said he was given a piece of advice by a colleague, regarding how much different it is on the inside of pro hockey than the outside: “Don’t let yourself be absorbed and gobbled up.”

In other words, stay as true to yourself as you can. Even if, as a hockey writer, Eronko is now a wolf in the henhouse. Or whatever the Russian equivalent is.

“I think I will be reminded of my past every once in a while. And you can change it only with some doings, some acts. If I prove I belong to hockey operations then no one would remind me,” he said.

If this doesn’t work out, could he jump back to the other side of the interview room?

“I feel I crossed over to the dark side,” he said. “Sure, there is a possibility I fail. I don’t believe in that, but you never know. Then I could be back, but back with a unique experience that will only help me. So I don’t lose anything. But I don’t think about that at all. The goal is to help GM so Avangard would win the [Gagarin] Cup. And to become a GM one day.”

That’s the dream, right there.

Jersey Fouls

From the Toronto Raptors:

According to Jersey Foul bylaws, if a jersey with your name on the back is given you by the actual team, that is a Transference of Official Status and hence not a Foul. Plus, how awesome does Vince Carter look in a Maple Leafs sweater? (Hint: As uncool as Mats Sundin looks as a Raptor.)


The three bad polling results for the NHL

1. There was a 538-Ipsos Sports Poll released this week about pro sports and COVID-19 that’s not exactly what you’d call “good news” for the NHL on any front. The results were based on a nationally representative probability sample of 1,109 general population adults age 18 or older.

Bad result No. 1: The respondents were asked, “How much of a fan, if at all, are you of the following sports?” Around 71% of them said they don’t follow hockey at all. There was even a “wiggle room” option of “follow a little.” That garnered 16% of the respondents, compared to 4% who said they were “major fans.” Only golf (76%) and NASCAR (77%) had a higher percentage of respondents saying they literally do not care about the sport.

2. The poll asked “Before the coronavirus outbreak, how often did you attend games or events in person?” Around 86% of respondents said they never attended hockey games or events in person. Which is a tough look for a league that’s gate-driven and that relies on the live experience to create new fans. But it should be noted that hockey did better than golf (93%), soccer (88%) and NASCAR (93%) here.

3. The crux of the poll was about when fans would feel comfortable to return to watch games in person. If government restrictions were lifted right now, 76% said there were not likely to return to a sporting event. They presented several different scenarios — declining cases for two weeks (36%), having all fans wear masks (38%), temperature checks (35%), social distancing (35%), traffic flow in the concourses (30%) — and in each case the support for “would help a lot/some” was well below “would help a little/not help.” That is, save for one category: 63% of respondents said it would help them a lot or some to feel comfortable with attending a sporting event in person if there were a COVID-19 vaccine.

The NHL believes it can play 82 games in 2020-21. It’s confident that fans will return to arenas next season. The results of this poll should at least have them asking “How many fans?” if there’s not a vaccine.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I begin with breaking news: The new NWHL franchise in Toronto will be called the “Six.” Emily is not impressed. Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet joined us to talk about being in playoff limbo and the future of Taylor Hall. One of my favorite goalies in the world, Noora Raty of Finland, talks about playing in China and taking part in a very weird reality show. Plus, the latest on an NHL restart and the playoff format! Listen, review and subscribe here!


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Carey Price

It could be argued, quite successfully, that “a well-rested Carey Price” is the biggest star in the NHL at the moment. In nearly every conversation about the NHL’s potential playoff formats this summer, the specter of the Pittsburgh Penguins entering a three-game series against “a well-rested Carey Price” has been raised, to the point where the concept of a “a well-rested Carey Price” is actually being used to affect policy decisions.

Since this is a goalie who’s 20th in goals saved above average over the past three seasons (minimum of 4,000 minutes at 5-on-5), we can assume this consternation is about how any goalie could, in theory, get hot and win a three-game series on his own. But it’s “a well-rested Carey Price” on the marquee. He honestly hasn’t gotten this level of adoration since that time one of the best hockey teams ever assembled carried him to a gold medal.

Loser: Sensible playoffs

You’d figure there would be more hand-wringing over a .500 hockey team being accommodated by an expanded playoff format than about its apparently unbeatable goaltender, but it appears 24 teams is the format they’re settling on. Which is a shame, because as analyst and Fortnite enthusiast Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic notes, 20 teams is the “Goldilocks Zone” of season restart formats: “It should be obvious that a 20-team playoff is the best answer for the NHL. It includes the electric excitement that a play-in series can deliver while being fair to the teams that proved their worth over the first 70 games. Teams are significantly closer to their pre-stoppage odds.” Then again … who cares? It’s all made up at this point anyway.

Winner: The Toronto Six logo

Yes, it does oddly resemble the NHL’s 75th anniversary logo smooshed together. But say this wasn’t a new team. Say this emblem was for a team nearing its 50th anniversary. I guarantee it would be held up as a mark of excellence or a marvel of design. Especially on the front of a sweater.

Loser: The Toronto Six

So, that name … look, there’s no shame in a franchise trying to set a thirst trap so Drake will notice you. The team says “The Six” is also a reference to the number of players on the ice; no word if they’ll rename the team during every penalty kill.

Winner: Akim Aliu

Aliu absolutely crushed it in his essay on The Players’ Tribune, discussing racism in hockey and his own experiences with it. He called out bigots by name. He spoke from the heart. He offered solutions, including a Rooney Rule for hockey because representation matters. “We should be showing off the diversity our game is capable of having. This has an immediate impact on youth involvement. Because I know there are kids like me out there who have a hard time seeing themselves in the NHL. Or there’s a little black boy or girl who wants to be an NHL coach, but he or she doesn’t see anyone in the league who looks like them,” he said. Aliu said his work with the NHL is “ongoing.” They’d be wise to listen.

Loser: Having his back

As of Wednesday night, the ratio of NHL players who probably read his essay to players that have supported him in public is rather stark. The latter number was four: Dallas defenseman Stephen Johns; Vegas goalie Robin Lehner, who tweeted support for Aliu in clarifying remarks made on Twitter that many felt were a passive-aggressive response to that essay; Sharks forward Evander Kane, who has been at the forefront of these discussions during his career; and Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller, who’s been one of the most candid voices in the league on social issues. “I hope that we can all listen and be active participants in the change that is needed,” said Miller. More active, less listening, please. That’s how things get done.

Winner: NHL vs. Fortnite

The NHLPA Open Fortnite competition was exactly what we hoped it would be: Fun, loose, geeky and entertaining. The 70 NHL players who took part raised $200,000 for local charities. The St. Louis Blues team — Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Vince Dunn — took first place. Now that hockey has proven itself as a Fortnite power … how about some NHL skins in the game, huh?

Loser: The early draft

It’s looking bleaker and bleaker for that preseason restart draft the NHL has been lobbying for over the last few weeks. The Ottawa Sun reports that the latest scenario has the NHL draft lottery happening next month, and the NHL draft happening sometime after the season. Obviously all of this is contingent on which playoff format they end up choosing, because you can’t have Montreal winning the lottery and then easily capturing the Stanley Cup with “a well-rested Carey Price.”


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