The Carolina Hurricanes are going to do things a bit differently under Tom Dundon’s ownership. That much we’re sure of. An owner conducting the exit interviews? Hiring a head coach and general manager independently of each other? Moving everyone downstairs and not worrying about the price paid to get in the door? Yeah, it’s a new day.
Plenty of what’s gone on so far is anathema to Hockey People who are very set in their knowledge that things in the NHL are to be done the Right Way. But while Dundon thumbs his nose at the establishment, intent on doing things his own way, in some ways he’s actually following a different blueprint: that of the most popular sport on the planet.
If you’ve never paid attention to soccer in Europe, you might not realize how much different the organizational structures are there than they are in professional sports in the United States, with a couple of exceptions (Gregg Popovich with the Spurs and Bill Belichick with the Patriots come to mind). It’s a very - pardon the phrase - foreign concept to American sports fans, but it’s not too far removed from the setups at most American businesses, and it’s highly successful in European soccer.
Soccer teams, specifically those in England, typically have a manager, a hybrid of the American coach and general manager positions, who is the main person in control of all aspects of a club. (In continental Europe, and especially Germany, this position is called a head coach, but it is functionally equivalent to an English manager rather than an American-style coach.) The manager picks the lineup, controls practice routines, negotiates contracts, oversees scouting, and does a million other things. The manager reports directly to the owner (or, more specifically, to a board of directors), not to an intermediary.
At some clubs, there also exists a somewhat nebulous position of “director of football” or “sporting director,” which basically does whatever a club wants it to do. If a manager wants to focus on gameday preparation, perhaps he will pass responsibilities for scouting and contract negotiation to the director of football. This position also reports to the board, and it has no real control over the manager’s job status; in fact, often the director of football serves at the pleasure of the manager.
In soccer, the opportunity to change a team is much more limited than it is in the major American sports. Only twice per season - once in the offseason, and for one month during the season - are players allowed to change teams, most often by way of a player purchase. Straight trades do happen, but they are significantly rare; the vast majority of transactions are buying or selling players for cash. For this reason, a team’s identity is usually solidly defined and can’t be easily changed without splashing some serious cash. Managers might be able to tinker around the edges, but for the most part they are limited to working with what they have, or what their team can afford.
As a result, who the manager is at any given time is some level of arbitrary, and only the ones with extremely long tenures - Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, for example, or Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United - actually get to form a squad in their own image. The average manager in England doesn’t make a year and a half on the job before moving on.
Taking it to the extreme is Watford Football Club, a smallish operation based in a town on the outskirts of London, once owned by Sir Elton John. (Yes, really, and one of the stands at their stadium is named in his honor. English football is weird, man.) You might think that, say, John Tortorella is a flame that burns out quickly, but he has nothing on Watford, which has seen nine managers in the six years since the Pozzo family purchased the club in 2012 - and that turnover is by design.
Watford is obviously the outlier, but the median point of world soccer is much closer to them than it is to the relative stability of American sports. Even superclubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, which win European championships with regularity, change managers all the time.
Which brings us to the Hurricanes, and the setup that Dundon is apparently seeking to implement. Part of the reason that Dundon is (arguably) starting low with salary offers for potential general managers is that, in this system, they are going to be relatively disposable. Like in soccer, when a GM loses their effectiveness, they’ll be replaced by another GM who will seek to essentially implement the same charge.
The same goes for whatever head coach the Canes hire, and this is why Mike Vellucci and Rod Brind’Amour are leading candidates for the job. Dundon and Bill Peters parted ways in large part because Peters, in the owner’s view, had lost his effectiveness with his players, but the players themselves weren’t necessarily the issue. So Peters moves to Calgary, Dundon (eventually) hires a coach who is versed in the general idea of how the Hurricanes want to play but might tinker a bit to improve the efficacy, and everyone moves along.
Dundon comes from the business world, where C-suite decisions are based not necessarily around what a company does but how it does it. Ford and Chevy are always going to make cars, but how they do it might change from time to time. Harris Teeter is always going to sell groceries, but might change their pricing strategy. That’s the approach that Dundon wants to use with the Hurricanes: they’ll always play in a certain way, but might use different methods to reach that goal.
The identity of Dundon’s Hurricanes is still in question, and we may not know what it is until training camp, if not opening night. But once it’s established, it will be the guiding principle throughout his ownership, and GMs and coaches will come and go depending on how effectively they are able to implement that identity. Don’t expect an Al Arbour or a Lou Lamoriello to take charge for the Hurricanes going forward.
It’s not the way things have traditionally been done in the NHL, but Dundon’s brave new world will largely be a petri dish to see if a style that makes billions of dollars overseas will be replicable in the NHL. One thing’s for sure: anyone who takes a coaching or management job with the Hurricanes should rent, not buy.