Ready or Not Here Comes Briere? Examining the Path From Player to GM

As the season continues to crawl at a snail’s pace, the old adage of ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ rings true for fans of the Philadelphia Flyers.  With significant changes expected by fans after yet another disastrous season where the Flyers are on track to miss the playoffs by a wide margin yet again for the fourth time in the last five years, GM Chuck Fletcher’s job security and the team’s direction is being questioned more than ever.

The complete and utter failure of the offseason to adhere to a course of action that was committed to with months to prepare can only be described as a complete disaster.  The promises of adding to the roster in order to make it competitive was not achieved, nor was the addition of star power that was sorely lacking.  The Flyers did draft forward Cutter Gauthier with the 5th overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft, but that selection will not allow the Flyers to compete for a playoff spot this season which was the mandate given by both ownership and management during the infamous January press conference last season. 

Injuries have also played a major role in the floundering of the team this season, but as it was leaned on as a reason for the failings of the team last season, many fans are more apt to describe the injuries as an excuse for a roster that needed more changes to truly be more competitive this season. 

As the Flyers look to be a bottom-six team this season with another injury filled campaign, the failures of Chuck Fletcher are on full display.  Rumors are flying that Fletcher will not be kept on as GM as soon as mid-January.  But it begs the question; who replaces him as the steward of this organization with a plan that can turn things around?

Enter Danny Briere 

The odds-on favorite at this point appears to be Danny Briere; the current Special Assistant to the GM who was a player for the Flyers for six seasons from 2007-08 to 2012-13. 

After retiring as a player at the end of the 2014-15 season, Briere began his ascent into management by returning to the Flyers organization in 2017 to run the Maine Mariners (an ECHL team formerly known as the Alaska Aces that was purchased by Comcast-Spectacor).  The team was relocated to Portland Maine and began play in the fall of 2018 with Briere running the day-to-day operations of the club and working with Paul Holmgren who was the team’s Governor at the time (as well as President of the Flyers).  The team failed to make the playoffs in its inaugural season and had the following season cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Mariners were forced to suspend operations for the 2020-21 season and opted out of playing the season, but returned the following season to make the playoffs for the first time in a first-round exit.  He has also served as General Manager and President of the club.

No doubt, the learning curve for Briere was steeped with curveballs in his first experience in a front office; but he became immersed in the Comcast-Spectacor organization and familiarized himself with the structure, culture, and personnel of the company making him a valued member of the organization.  So much so, that the Montreal Canadiens asked for permission to interview Briere for their vacant GM position following the dismissal of Marc Bergevin in November of 2021.  While being bilingual was a significant factor in his selection as a candidate, it is unclear how close Briere actually came to nabbing one of the most prestigious jobs in the NHL.  The Canadiens were clearly interested in a vast search for a new General Manager, and also sought permission to speak to former players Roberto Luongo and Mathieu Darshe; ultimately selecting former player agent Kent Hughes for the job.

Still, attention from other teams does indicate that Briere has been impressive in his roles (although limited) thus far.  That is why the Flyers decided to give Briere the title of Special Assistant to the General Manager in the middle of last season, prompting speculation that he is being groomed to take over as General Manager one day in the future.

The future may be coming sooner rather than later as rumors swirl about the future of Chuck Fletcher in the Flyers front office.

Is he really the best choice and qualified enough to take the reigns of an NHL club, or is nostalgia and familiarity muddying the waters because anything other than Fletcher would be appealing?  Can we get any insight into the possible selection of Briere by looking into his history as an executive and attempt to compare his experience with other former players that have transitioned to becoming the General Manager for their respective teams?

Let us take a look at some other former players that have become General Managers to see how Briere compares in terms of experience to see if there are indications that he is likely to be selected and successful in a potential new role.      

Rob Blake (Los Angeles Kings)

Rob Blake retired in 2010 after a long career in the NHL as a defenseman for the Los Angeles Kings, the Colorado Avalanche, and the San Jose Sharks.  The majority of his playing career was spent with the Kings and his first job as a hockey executive was at the NHL as Hockey Operations Manager working with Brendan Shanahan in disciplining players in what would be known as the Department of Player Safety.  He parlayed that experience into joining the Los Angeles Kings as an Assistant General Manager just prior to the 2013-14 season.  As part of his duties, he was General Manager for the Kings AHL affiliates the Manchester Monarchs and then the Ontario Reign.  The Kings won their second Stanley Cup in club history during his first year with the front office.  He gained some international managerial experience by being selected to manage Canada’s 2014 IIHF World Championship roster with the tournament taking place in Minsk, Belarus.  Canada did not medal in the tournament and lost to Finland 3-2 in the Quarter-Final round.  Rob Blake became Vice President and General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings in spring of 2017.

Bill Guerin (Minnesota Wild)

Bill Guerin had a long career as a winger in the NHL that began with the New Jersey Devils, and took him to many other teams including the Edmonton Oilers, the Boston Bruins, the Dallas Stars, the St. Louis Blues, the San Jose Sharks, the New York Islanders, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.  After calling it a career in December of 2010 with the Penguins, Guerin took a job with Pittsburgh as a Player Development Coach in 2011.  Three years to the day after his initial hiring, the Penguins promoted Guerin to the position of Assistant General Manager in 2014.  Hired by General Manager Jim Rutherford (who was hired as GM the same day), Guerin was part of the management team as Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in both 2016 and 2017 (adding to the two championships he won as a player).  It is interesting to note that Guerin himself interviewed for the vacant GM position that was eventually filled by Rutherford.  As part of his duties as Assistant General Manager, Guerin was put in charge of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (AHL) as its General Manager after previous GM Jason Botterill left the Penguins to become GM of the Buffalo Sabres in 2017.  Wilkes-Barre exited the playoffs in the first round for two consecutive seasons before missing the playoffs the following season.  After Paul Fenton was fired after only one season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, the Wild hired Bill Guerin as their new General Manager in August of 2019.  

Tom Fitzgerald (New Jersey Devils)

Tom Fitzgerald’s playing career started in 1988-89 with parts of his first three seasons split between the New York Islanders and the AHL.  His career also had stints with six other clubs and Fitzgerald retired after 17 seasons prior to the start of the NHL season in 2006.  After his playing career ended, Fitzgerald took a position with NESN to be an analyst on Boston Bruins broadcasts.  He left NESN in 2007 and was hired as Director of Player Development for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Fitzgerald was promoted to Assistant General Manager of the Penguins in 2009 after serving as an Assistant Coach during the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup triumph.  His duties as Assistant General Manager included overseeing the Penguins prospects in both Europe and North America, advisor to Penguins General Manager Ray Shero, and he played a role with prospect development in the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Scranton.  After Ray Shero left the Penguins to become General Manager of the New Jersey Devils in 2015, Fitzgerald followed him to the organization and was announced as Devils Assistant GM just a few months later.  With Shero fired after 5-years at the helm, Fitzgerald was named Interim General Manager in January of 2020.  After overseeing the trade deadline which saw the Devils make five trades (the most noteworthy are the trades of Sami Vatanen and Wayne Simmonds), Fitzgerald was part of the organizations search for a new Head Coach.  In July of 2020, Fitzgerald was named the General Manager of the Devils with Lindy Ruff becoming the next Head Coach.       

Steve Yzerman (Detroit Red Wings)

After a stellar playing career that spanned 22 seasons, 1514 games, and 1755 points; Steve Yzerman called it a career in 2005-06 after spending the entirety of it with the Detroit Red Wings.  With his playing days behind him, the long-time former captain was named Vice President and Alternate Governor of the Red Wings in 2006. During his time in the front office of Detroit, Yzerman had a great relationship with Hockey Canada and was given prominent roles in assembling teams for international competitions.  In 2007, Yzerman was named General Manager for the IIHF World Championships.  The team he selected met with success as they went undefeated and brought home the gold medal beating Finland 4-2 in the Final.  Yzerman was then tasked to be part of the Executive Committee for the 2010 Men’s Canadian Olympic team.  With Vancouver hosting the games, Canada won gold on home ice with Sidney Crosby’s iconic overtime golden goal.  With all the success on the international stage, Yzerman was considered a lock for an NHL General Manager job.  The Red Wings attempted to keep Yzerman by trying to promote then GM Ken Holland to make Yzerman the new General Manager but Holland declined the position and wanted to stay GM.  Yzerman was hired as Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in May of 2010 after reportedly turning down a similar role with the Minnesota Wild.  Despite initially having the Lightning get to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, Tampa Bay would miss the playoffs the following two seasons but Yzerman would be assembling many of the key players that have been cornerstones of the Lightning’s recent successes and Stanley Cup successes in the post-Yzerman era.  Yzerman stepped away from his GM duties in September of 2018 and stayed on as a Senior Advisor allowing Assistant GM Julien BriseBois to assume the role.  Yzerman did not re-sign with the Lightning and became General Manager of the Detroit Red Wings on April 19, 2019.            

Pat Verbeek (Anaheim Ducks)

Pat Verbeek was a 3rd Round pick who began his 21-year NHL career with the New Jersey Devils in 1982-83 and included seasons with the Hartford Whalers, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and the Dallas Stars.  With over 1,062 points and 1,424 NHL games to his credit, Verbeek retired as an NHL player in 2001-02 as a member of the Dallas Stars.  After his playing career ended, Verbeek took a position as a Color Analyst for the Detroit Red Wings television broadcasts.  He became a scout for the Red Wings organization in 2006, where he stayed until Steve Yzerman recruited him to be an Assistant General Manager for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010.  The two forged a great working relationship over nine years, so much so that Verbeek would leave the Lightning to become an Assistant General Manager for the Detroit Red Wings under (guess who) General Manager Steve Yzerman with a focus on Player Personnel in 2019.  Assisting with the rebuilding Red Wings and learning from Steve Yzerman, the Anaheim Ducks hired Verbeek to be the team’s new General Manager in February of 2022.         

Kevyn Adams (Buffalo Sabres)

Kevyn Adams was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1993, but would not play a game for the organization.  After a collegiate career with Miami University of Ohio, Adams played 58 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs over his first three seasons beginning in 1997-98 and also played for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes, and the Chicago Blackhawks.  A Stanley Cup winner with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, Adams retired in 2007-08.  In 2009, Adams joined former college teammates with the 02K Worldwide Management Group (Player Agent company) as a partner specializing in Athlete Development.  The agency had numerous NHL clients including Kevin Weekes, T.J. Oshie, and Tyler Ennis among others.  In 2011, Adams went into coaching and accepted a position as an Assistant Coach with the Buffalo Sabres.  He was let go from his coaching duties in 2013, but ended up joining the project management team of the LECOM Harborcenter facility led by Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula to revitalize an area of Buffalo and create a hockey training ground.  In 2019, he was named Senior Vice President of Business Administration and was selected by Sabres ownership to be the team’s General Manager in 2020 after the firing of previous GM Jason Botterill.

Ron Hextall (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The former Flyers goaltender was known for his fiery spirit and competitiveness in a professional career that spanned from 1986-87 to 1998-99.  Primarily with the Philadelphia Flyers, Hextall spent two years away from the organization with both the New York Islanders and the Quebec Nordiques.  Although he had no Stanley Cup championships won as a player, Hextall endeared himself to the fans of Philadelphia with his memorable Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the 1987 playoffs in Philadelphia’s loss to the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers in the final.  Upon retiring in 1999, Hextall remained with the Flyers organization as a scout.  He took on the title of Director of Player Personnel in 2002.  In 2006, Hextall left the Flyers to join the Los Angeles Kings as Vice President and Assistant General Manager.  Hextall won that elusive Stanley Cup championship as an executive with the Kings in 2013.  Hextall returned to Philadelphia as the Assistant General Manager and Director of Hockey Operations of the Flyers.  Shortly after, Hextall was named the General Manager in 2014 with former GM Paul Holmgren promoted to President of the club.  After leading the club in a patient semi-rebuild that emphasized building through the draft, Hextall was fired in 2018.  After another stint with the Kings in the Hockey Operations department, Hextall was named the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2021.   

Ron Francis (Seattle Kraken)

Ron Francis enjoyed tremendous success as a player with 1798 points in 1731 games.  Beginning in 1981-82, his career lasted until 2003-04 with the Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, and a solitary season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  A back-to-back Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins as a player, Francis retired during the 2005-06 season and took a position running a minor hockey organization in Raleigh and was involved in Player Development with the Hurricanes.  In 2007, Francis retained his position as Director of Player Development and was promoted to Assistant General Manager.  In 2011, the Hurricanes named Francis as the Director of Hockey Operations.  In 2014, Francis was promoted by ownership to Executive Vice President and General Manager (replacing Jim Rutherford who remained with the club in an advisory capacity).  In 2018, he was named President of Hockey Operations by new owner Tom Dundon only to have his contract terminated less than two months later.  Francis was then hired to run the expansion Seattle Kraken franchise in July of 2019 where he currently remains.

How Does Briere Compare? 

To state the obvious, the candidates examined above all have one thing in common: vast experience in a variety of front office positions.  Almost every General Manager that transitioned from the ice to the front office has spent years within various roles inside an organization.  Those roles usually follow a pathway through scouting and player development, which makes sense as being able to evaluate on-ice talent would be an obvious strength for former players.  The only exception would be Kevyn Adams, who began his post playing career working with an agency that represented hockey players.  He still worked within the player development sphere though, and obviously used that experience to get his first gig in the NHL as an Assistant Coach with a Buffalo Sabres team that was in the midst of rebuilding and trying to develop young talent.

Briere has been with the Flyers organization since 2017 (over 5-years) where the bulk of his work has been overseeing the Maine Mariners branch of the Comcast-Spectacor umbrella.  Being in charge of the ECHL team has allowed him to gain much needed experience in marketing, player development, hockey operations, and the business side of running a hockey team.  In terms of time, Briere has most certainly learned and grown over the course of his time with Comcast-Spectacor.  However, it has been primarily not at the NHL level.  Briere was named as Special Assistant to the General Manager in February of 2022.  Since then, he has been part of the decision-making apparatus of the front office as an advisor on the Hockey Operations side with scouting and player development as part of his responsibilities.

Admittedly, the scouting and player development portion of Briere’s portfolio should be the easiest for him to adapt to.  As a former player, Briere should have a good eye and the instincts required to spot talent and help push players to hit the next level of their development.  It is the business area of running a hockey club that is usually the most difficult for former players to pick up.  The good news is that Briere has been exposed to the business side of running a hockey club with his Maine Mariners experience.  At the ECHL level revenue is tremendously important to the survival of a franchise, which means that ticket sales, marketing, community partnerships, and community outreach is a vital part of sustaining a healthy franchise.  On the downside, while that experience is important it isn’t at the NHL or even AHL level.  There are many more factors at both the local, league, and national level that require attention and make it a more complicated endeavour.  No doubt, Valerie Camillo (President of Business Operations and the Wells Fargo Center) would be leaned on to help guide and work with Briere on this facet of the position should it take place and by all accounts the two have a very good working relationship.

Speaking of mentors, another thing that former players turned executives have in common is a mentorship to allow for learning and growth to take place within the front office.  Pat Verbeek learned by working under and with Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay, who in turn learned from working with Ken Holland in Detroit.  Tom Fitzgerald worked with Ray Shero in Pittsburgh and followed Shero to New Jersey.  Bill Guerin was hired by and worked under Jim Rutherford in Pittsburgh.  Rob Blake worked with Shanahan at the Department of Player Safety.  Danny Briere was working under Paul Holmgren for a time when he was with the Maine Mariners, and now at the NHL level he is a Special Assistant to Chuck Fletcher.

There is mentorship in Danny Briere’s body of work in Comcast-Spectacor.  There is less learning time with the Philadelphia Flyers at the NHL level.  The big question is if the Flyers would be best served by a new General Manager who has been learning (albeit in a short time frame) from Chuck Fletcher who has worn out his welcome with the vast majority of the fanbase.  Is it ideal to hand the reigns to someone as revered as Briere, if the person that has been mentoring him has constructed a flawed and disjointed hockey team?  This is even more of an issue if Chuck Fletcher is simply removed as GM but retains his title as President of Hockey Operations.  How much will Fletcher allow Briere to make decisions and moves and how much input and influence will he maintain?  We don’t have answers to those questions or even if that scenario will even play out.  At this point the lack of clarity regarding a direction with the organization requires more certainty and less ambiguity.

Speaking of clarity, another factor to consider based on the examples examined above is the role of Assistant General Manager.  Of the examples looked at only Kevyn Adams and Steve Yzerman did not hold that position within their respective organizations.  The two have very different experiences in management prior to ascending to the position of General Manager.  Adams worked in management on a special project for the Pegula’s related to the Sabres, while Yzerman was selecting teams for Hockey Canada to compete in international competitions.  Briere was in charge of all hockey operations for the Maine Mariners of the ECHL which gives him a different and unique set of experiences to draw upon as well.

The other General Managers that have been examined above have all had the title of Assistant General Manager.  Within that title, all of the above have been given the specific responsibility of managing the AHL affiliate for their respective clubs.  This not only familiarizes the executive with the players in the farm system for development, but also gives valuable insight and information to the club if potential trades are on the horizon.  Rob Blake and Ron Hextall were in charge of the Manchester Monarchs/Ontario Reign, Fitzgerald and Guerin were in charge of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins during their respective tenures, and Pat Verbeek oversaw the Grand Rapids Griffins.

While Briere has gone on scouting assignments and was at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Halifax and Moncton, he has not been put in charge of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.  Currently, Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr is in charge of scouting, prospects, and player development.  He is not listed on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms directory on their official website.  Can Briere be named General Manager of the Phantoms, or is the position held de-facto by Flahr who is in charge of all the prospects in the Flyers organization?  Would such a promotion diminish the position of Flahr, or would it allow him to focus a greater amount of time and energy on the upcoming 2023 NHL Draft which will be very important to the future of the franchise?  In many ways the futures of Flahr and Briere are very much linked with any decision on one having a major impact on the other.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is very unclear whether or not Briere may ready to assume the role as General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers.  In comparison to other players that have made the transition to the General Manager position, most have spent significant time in their organizations in multiple roles, had mentors guide and assist in their development, and were put in charge of the club’s AHL affiliate.  There are also questions on if Chuck Fletcher will still be involved with the organization in some capacity and whether or not Briere will be handcuffed in his potential new role based on the errors made by his predecessor which will impact the team for years to come.

Now, that is not to say that Briere can’t be successful in the role if he is indeed named the next General Manager of the Flyers.  He does have some relevant experiences and has been mentored which will undoubtedly assist him going forward.  He has links to the Flyers as a player and has continued to expand them with his roles inside Comcast-Spectacor and by proxy the Flyers.  But it isn’t the typical or traditional pathway that Briere would be following or that the organization would be pursuing.  Briere is a fan favorite; and everyone knows that Briere will be a positive presence and a new voice which the organization will need to repair relations with a disillusioned and long-suffering fanbase.  Any change would be welcomed as fans have run out of patience with Chuck Fletcher, his litany of excuses, and lack of on-ice success.

Briere would be a welcome change because it is change, but will it be different?  How different can Briere be when he has been taught by Fletcher?  What is it that fans can truly expect if this change does come to fruition?  The truth is that the answer is far from concrete; one way or the other.  Fans will give Briere the opportunity but will also have to live with the fact that as a new General Manager, Briere will not be perfect.  He will have to grow in the position and has to be given the opportunity to do so if it happens.  Just as the Flyers undergo a change in management, Flyers fans will likely have to manage their expectations of Briere in a new role.  It will be a colossal task to right the ship and get the Philadelphia Flyers back on the right track.  It won’t be done overnight and it will take time.

Some Flyers fans are expecting Briere to be Steve Yzerman in his potential new role, but they should be happy and content if he provides a Kevyn Adams level of stability to the team as it works its way back to respectability and relevance.                  

***

Do you agree with the article?  Do you disagree?

Feel free to leave any comments or feedback via twitter or at www.brotherlypuck.com.  .

Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,

I remain,

Manny Benevides

@mannybenevides

photo credit: nhl.com

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