clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Babcock, Jim Lites, and Motivation

New, comments

Guest appearance from Alec Baldwin.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Minnesota Wild David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

There is a very well-loved movie from 1992, that stars half the big name white male actors who were working at the time, called Glengarry Glen Ross. The movie is a hell of a study of desperation among salesmen, but it is most remembered for a spectacularly obscene, really offensive motivational speech that Alec Baldwin gives early in the film.

If you can’t watch that, here’s a quote. You’ll get the idea.

Always be closing! A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention -- do I have your attention? Interest -- are you interested? I know you are, ‘cause it’s fuck or walk. You close, or you hit the bricks! Decision -- have you made your decision for Christ?! And action. A-I-D-A. Get out there! You got the prospects coming in; you think they came in to get outta the rain? A guy don’t walk on the lot lest he wants to buy. They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money! Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?

Hold that thought.

On Friday afternoon, Sean Shapiro of the Athletic reported a truly spectacular rant from the CEO of the Dallas Stars, Jim Lites. You can read the whole thing here, and it’s worth it. But the thrust of it was that Lites and team owner Tom Gaglardi were frustrated to madness with their franchise centrepiece players, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Again, choice quotes:

“They are fucking horse-shit, I don’t know how else to put it,” Lites said. “The team was ok. But (Tyler) Seguin and (Jamie) Benn were terrible....We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done. It’s embarrassing, and no one writes it. Write it!

The Stars, at the time of writing, were in the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference and had actually come off a win against Nashville. But Gaglardi was not impressed with the work of his two team-leading scorers, whose play, compete level and production Lites absolutely savaged in a profane rant.

It’s worth noting something off the top: this was obviously deliberate. Lites told reporters the conversation was on the record at the beginning, and unless he has a professional death wish, no CEO is going to blast his core in print without approval from above. The Stars’ ownership decided that the way to get the best out of their best players was to have them read online that they’re fucking horseshit.

How Things Work

Lites and Gaglardi are businessmen with long experience. I can’t speak to the management style of either up close, and I don’t want to caricature them. But the style of the interview—loud, denigrating and obscene—is awfully reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s character above. Plenty of people who have worked in high-pressure jobs will recognize the style (I know I do.) And even though the movie isn’t endorsing him (watch it and see what happens to the salesmen) there are a hell of a lot of executives or wannabes who revere it. They’d say that this is the way business in the real world works. When you’re disappointed with your employees, you let them know who’s boss, and you let them know in no uncertain fucking terms that you want more for them or you’ll give them their walking papers. It feels empowering for the boss and sometimes it does get results.

And more than a few Dallas fans, frustrated with a team that appears to be stagnantly mediocre, were onside with some of what Lites said, whether or not they liked how he chose to say it. This is the way a business works, right?

Except, well, that isn’t the way this real world works.

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are both signed for at least six years after this one, with some trade protection and guaranteed contracts. The fact is that Gaglardi, Lites, or GM Jim Nill can’t fire them, they can only trade them. And the Stars (who are a top-heavy team at best) really need those guys, as Lites acknowledged—his best players have to be his best players. There’s also the glaring fact that by just about any way we can measure things, Seguin and Benn are playing quite well, actually.

It’s worth recognizing why the hardass motivation technique (sometimes) works. It’s because it’s backed by threats. Throughout his whole speech up there, Baldwin is reminding the salesmen if they don’t deliver, they’re fired. It’s fuck or walk. Seguin and Benn don’t have to choose, and Lites can’t make them. Without that leverage, the Lites rant doesn’t show power; it shows powerlessness, and the fact he’s misapprehending the cause of his team’s problems only makes it worse. It looks less like the work of an elite leading executive and more like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. It’s not any more mature just because it got somebody elected president.

Babcock and Nylander

Leafs winger William Nylander, as you probably heard, had a very long contract negotiation. He held out until literally the last hour before signing a very nice deal that will pay him more in two months than most people make in a lifetime. Since coming back, Nylander has two points in ten games.

A lot of people, a lot of coaches, might flip on Nylander and try to bag skate him in into the ground until he straightened up and started producing. Show him who’s fucking boss. He wants to get paid like a star, tell him he’d better score like a star or he’ll be doing suicide sprints every practice until he shapes up.

Here’s what Mike Babcock did:

When I talk to Willy, we never talk about production. You never, ever talk to players about production. You talk to players about the process and working hard and competing and doing the little things in the game that allow you to be successful. When I met with Willy today, and I did meet with Willy, all I showed him was all of the battles he won last game. I thought that was his best effort and it’s important to understand that it was a good effort for him. We want him to just continue to work hard and compete. When he gets his feel back, the rest of it will come.

Which quote—Babcock’s or Lites’—do you think makes a player play better? Which makes them want to stay in your organization, or feel glad to have signed there? If you were a free agent, what would you rather your team’s people say to the press?

The thing here is that Mike Babcock has criticized William Nylander publicly, and at times it’s been effective. When he’s needed more from William, he said so. He’s used ice time as a prod and has been willing to emphasize when he needed more effort. He doesn’t just walk around telling Nylander how great he is.

The difference is it’s measured, and it’s done with an eye on the relationship. And it doesn’t entail openly blasting Bill Nye as “fucking horseshit”.

I have a bias, obviously, as one of those softies who thinks treating people like garbage in public is bad. But in the Stars’ case, it’s worse than mean, it’s stupid. Mike Babcock knows William Nylander is going to be in his organization for a long time and he values that relationship. He can, has, and will use more forceful methods to get more out of players, but he’s not burning bridges he knows he’s going to have to cross time and again. That’s a recognition of leverage as much as it is common courtesy on his part.

Running A Hockey Team

When things aren’t going well, frustration is natural. Executives and fans both get mad and demand change, or at least that the players be punished for daring to lose.

But the truth is, running a team like the Stars seem to be doing is self-indulgent. It’s a willingness to vent your spleen because it feels good to express your anger. Some people will see Lites’ choice to swear out loud to a news outlet as a bold drive to demand better.

What it really is is short-sighted. Maybe Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn will go into fuck-you mode and light up their next opponent. Will they never have another slump for six seasons? If they do, will Lites keep giving interviews calling them horseshit and embarrassing them publicly? Even in the best-case scenario it’s hard to see this as a reliable measure to motivate.

If the Leafs, Stars or any other team want to win, it’ll take more than repeated use of the F-word at the best players on the team. It’ll take brains, better drafting, better depth. And it’ll take self-control not to do what you feel like because slamming your players makes you feel empowered in the face of a sport that is often going to go against you.

And if you can’t keep a cool head and handle people, well, hit the bricks, pal, cause you’re going out.