Sunday, July 6, 2008

Blog Box-ing

As free agent signings have died down, and before we turn our attention back to baseball in the days ahead, I wanted to weigh in on the latest Islander drama.

Chris Botta, in his blog (, brought a lingering story to the front burner. In the rhetoric towards the end of last season, Islander coach Ted Nolan did not see eye to eye with Islander General Manager Garth Snow on player moves. The most public disagreement came in a radio interview on WFAN's "Mike and the Mad Dog" on March 6, 2008. Snow sounded surprised with Nolan's decision to start backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz over Rick DiPietro, who was just returning to the team after the death of his grandmother. Snow backed up DiPietro and has a good relationship with the franchise goaltender, but Nolan made the decision and Snow questioned him publicly. According to Botta, Nolan publicly complained to the press on a regular basis late in the season about the lack of NHL-ready players on the team after injuries ravaged the lineup and the lack of any personnel moves to improve the Islanders chances down the stretch.

Hockey, and sports in general, have some time-tested management strategies. The Islanders bucked that strategy when owner Charles Wang announced a management-by-committee approach, where the General Manager and Head Coach report directly to the owner. Player management and player use are discussed by committee. Snow and Nolan have not adapted well to this system.

Chain of command is important for several reasons in sports management. Ownership and upper management hire a coach for his expertise and ideas of changing a franchise around on an "X-and-O" or game-by-game basis. Ownership hires a GM for his expertise and ideas of changing a franchise with respect to personnel. Has Garth Snow ever coached? Has Ted Nolan ever been a GM? Yes, the owner has the final say, and the owner knows the concept of management, but what may have worked at a computer company will most likely fail in the arena of sports.

This concept is quickly going the way of the "College of Coaches", which was employed by the Chicago Cubs in 1961-62. Instead of having one manager, Cubs ownership decided to rotate eight managers throughout their organization. Players became confused. The team floundered. The concept has never been used since. The current state of the Islanders could be another reason why the "chain of command" works time and time again.

Snow makes the personnel decisions. Nolan makes the in-game decisions. If there are questions, the chain of command dictates Snow and Nolan hash it out, not in front of the owner and certainly not in front of the press or fans. Lack of communication led Nolan to publicly question Snow and Snow to sound astounded on a radio show when told who would start in goal. A large part of successful management is excellent communication. But, diplomacy is tougher to surface when the lines of communciation parallel to the top of the organization.

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