Bill Guerin on Hockey, Family, The Stanley Cup & Crosby
Penguins Assistant General Manager Bill Guerin and his family have adopted Pittsburgh as their home as he embarks on his second career — helping the team he once assisted in a Stanley Cup win to succeed again.
photos by Tom M Johnson
In the heady, sweaty moments of pure celebration on the ice after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup on June 12, 2009, cameras caught the face of team captain Sidney Crosby as he hugged linemate Bill Guerin. This was not a polite man-hug, but a full-on embrace. It was easy to read Crosby’s lips. “Thank you so much,” the 21-year-old center said to the elder statesman.
photo by getty images
To help understand that moment — and the meaningful one several minutes later, when Crosby’s first handoff of the giant trophy went to Guerin, who joined the team 14 weeks earlier but already was a cult hero in Pittsburgh — you could rewind a little more than two hours.
Guerin and Crosby still talk about their exchange early in that winner-take-all Game 7 in Detroit. During the first shift for the top line of left winger Chris Kunitz, center Crosby and right winger Guerin, the puck came to Guerin. He wasn’t able to corral it cleanly, and the shift died without fanfare.
“We came back to the bench. We sat down,” Guerin recalls. “He said something to me like, ‘You’ve got to move your feet there. Do something there.’ I turned to him, and I said something right back. Next thing you know, we’re barking at each other. F you, F you, F you.”
Crosby says he remembers Guerin slamming the door of the players’ bench.
“We start going at it. It’s like a movie. And then,” Crosby says, snapping his fingers, “we just stopped, and I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ All within three seconds. If you would have witnessed this, you would have not believed it. You would have thought it was a skit. But that’s exactly what we were like. We would go [at it], we were fiery, and then two seconds later we’d be laughing.”
Neither Guerin nor Crosby, who got hurt during that game, scored a point in the series-clinching 2-1 victory over the Red Wings, but Guerin’s impact on the Penguins — and especially on Crosby — ran deep. He helped to solidify, motivate, infuse and even entertain a team stocked with talent but also saturated with youth and inexperience.
Today, Guerin is still striving to help the club while also paging through a new chapter in his hockey career as the Penguins’ assistant general manager, in charge of player development and the search for college free-agent prospects. He also assists general manager Jim Rutherford and associate GM Jason Botterill, and in return is learning all he can about NHL management on a track that one day could lead to running a team in the league.
“A lot of people in this business aim to sit in the GM’s chair one day. I’m no different,” Guerin says. “But I’m a big believer in making sure that it’s the right time and that I’ve learned enough and I’m not jumping the gun. I want to do it the right way.”
He is taking his time. “I’m a young guy again,” says Guerin, 45, grinning at the thought of being early in a second hockey career after a long and highly successful run as a player — 1,263 NHL games with eight teams, 429 goals, 856 points, two Stanley Cups, three trips to the Olympics for the United States and enshrinement in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Guerin re-signed for one season with the Penguins after the Cup win. He played just 95 career games here, but the relationship stuck. He retired as a Penguin on Dec. 6, 2010 in an emotional ceremony in front of the home crowd.
A native of western Massachusetts, he returned home briefly after retiring, but he and his family came back to Pittsburgh when the Penguins created a front-office job for him — development coach — during the 2011 offseason. Guerin, his wife, Kara, and their family have settled into a home in Sewickley — with a fully outfitted, fully operational ice rink out back.
“My wife is a saint,” Guerin says. “It’s got nothing to do with the kids. It’s got everything to do with putting up with me. Listen, nobody’s going to cry for us. There are a lot of great things about being in the world of professional sports, but it is not always the glamorous life that everybody thinks it is. Our kids get sick in the middle of the night like with anybody else. Things get crazy.”
He remembers being in a mall in Edmonton, Alberta, in November 2000, having inadvertently left his cell phone in the car, and being told by a fan that he had just been traded to Boston. Kara, he says, packed the house and moved the family within 10 days while caring for a 3-year-old and a 1½-year-old — and with another baby on the way. When Guerin picked her up at the Boston airport, she was wearing one of his jerseys — covered in baby vomit.
“She just looked at me like, ‘This is what it is,’” Guerin says.
If you’re among those who recall Guerin’s brood as the young kids in the stands who got lots of face time on the video board and TV during home games through that ’09 Cup run, holding signs proclaiming, “My dad rocks,” you might be in for a jolt: They’ve grown up.
Kayla is a freshman and lacrosse player at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. The younger three attend Sewickley Academy. Grace, a junior, also plays lacrosse and plans to join her sister at Lafayette. Liam, who plays amateur hockey in the high-level Penguins Elite program, is in eighth grade. Seventh-grader Lexi also plays lacrosse, among other interests. “She’s good at being 12 — purple hair, the whole deal. She’s our youngest, so she gets away with murder,” Guerin says of Lexi.
“If you ask my kids where they’re from, they used to think it’s a trick question,” adds Guerin, who is a veteran of eight NHL teams; he spent most of his career with the New Jersey Devils, with whom he won a Cup in 1995. “Now it’s Pittsburgh. This is home for them. We all felt a connection. I think deep down we all knew that at some point in time we wanted to come back. We love living here. We love being part of the Penguins and enjoying everything that Pittsburgh has to offer.”
The feeling seems to have been mutual from shortly after the Penguins acquired Guerin from the New York Islanders in a March 2009 deal at the trade deadline. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they rescued him during a time in which he admits to having slipped into some staleness with a struggling Islanders team.
A power forward with the size and tenacity the Penguins needed, Guerin had a personality to match. Fans quickly noticed and approved. Even now, hearing his name tends to evoke a strong reaction among fans, akin to being reminded of your favorite fraternity brother.
“Honestly, it’s mind-blowing to me. I love it,” Guerin says. “I think my personality and the way our family is really resonates with the fans here, and vice versa. Deep down, I think we’re blue-collar people. And I really like that. Deep down, hey, I’m a beer drinker.”
photo by getty images
The Penguins needed Guerin, and being needed brought him back to life for the twilight of his career. The team was in danger of missing the playoffs — a horrifying development to its fans and supporters after it reached the Cup final in 2008 — and Guerin played a key part in a strong stretch run and trek to the Cup. It went beyond his five goals and 12 points in 17 regular-season games, beyond his willingness to fight and beyond capably filling out the team’s top line. Then, in 24 playoff games, he added seven goals, 15 points and one Cup.
“He really just came here and just flourished,” Crosby says. “Everything that Billy brought, on and off the ice, was important for us. We were going through a tough time, a coaching change and everything, and he comes in bringing a fresh face. It made for a good transition, and obviously the result took care of itself.
“He brought a lot of personality. Most guys take a week or two to get comfortable. Billy took about two minutes.”
He rode his new teammates hard, milking the best out of them. Other times, he was a cut-up. Always, he had their attention.
“You can probably count on one hand the guys that I really looked at who I thought had struck the right balance in so many different ways,” says Rob Scuderi, a shutdown defenseman on that team. “It’s not like I had a heart-to-heart chat with him or a Taster’s Choice moment for guys. You try to pick up anything you can that can help you in your career, and he did that for me.”
Guerin and Crosby agree that Guerin helped to take some pressure off of the young captain on a team trying to win big while still learning its identity.
“Everyone respected the veteran ability of Billy Guerin,” Kunitz says. “Once you had that respect, it really pays dividends in the locker room. He can come in and say things, and guys understand where you’re coming from. And when you’re a veteran guy and you’re brought in, you realize the window is closing on a chance to win, and maybe you’re more adept at spitting out the things that need to be said that maybe the other guys are uncomfortable saying.”
If there was an elephant in the room that other players were deftly ignoring, Guerin was the type of guy who would not only point out the beast but also would slap a funky hat and tutu on the thing and blast circus music over the locker room sound system. It was brutal honesty flecked with humor.
Crosby appreciated the leadership assist, and the two developed an instant friendship that endures. Both are keenly competitive, however, and Crosby didn’t always defer to Guerin. As with the incident in that Game 7, there were times when Crosby directed — at times, that was a polite verb for it — Guerin about what to do on the ice. Guerin would do the same, not intimidated by Crosby’s exploding stardom.
“We were funny. We were like a married couple,” Crosby says. “I was pretty demanding. I would probably be pretty tough [to please], and I was 21. At the same time, he’s pretty intense, too. In a way it was really good for us because we pushed each other.”
Despite Guerin’s veteran status, he says Crosby’s presence pushed him to improve.
“I was at a time in my career where, yeah, I had already played 17 years [and was nearing the end],” Guerin says. “You get complacent, I guess, at times. He gave me a kick in the ass that I needed. Practices were no longer just go out and practice; I had to keep up. He held me accountable. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. We laugh about it now. But I think that was important.”
Guerin still gets to yuck it up some with Crosby and other players, but his new set of “teammates” are the Penguins’ other front-office staffers: Rutherford, Botterill, vice president of operations Jason Karmanos, development coach Mark Recchi (Guerin’s old position) and a fleet of scouts.
His earliest duty after switching to management was shadowing Tom Fitzgerald, then an assistant to the general manager. Last summer, Fitzgerald followed former Penguins GM Ray Shero to New Jersey, and Guerin has taken over many of Fitzgerald’s former responsibilities.
Guerin travels a good bit as part of his job. When he is in town, he is part of meetings where the agenda includes everything from possible trades to player evaluations to prospect updates and anything else that needs attention. No, Guerin and his sense of humor aren’t disruptive, but he’s not discouraged from being himself, either.
“It’s such an important trait for him because he can relate to anybody,” says Botterill, the associate general manager. “In this industry, he’s found a balance. When things need to be fun, when things get a little heated or there’s pressure, having a little humor around is very, very important. But he’s also clearly demonstrated that he’s serious about this job and serious about this career. That really comes across in his work ethic and his work and his opinion.”
Guerin has a mind for hockey, but he says he understands that people looking in from the outside might misinterpret his candor and comedic timing.
“That throws people off, and it always has,” he says. “I’ve always had that type of personality. You might think I didn’t take the game seriously at times, but I was always ready to play. I worked hard at that because consistency was my biggest hurdle as a young player. I worked at it. It’s hard. There are a lot of bumps in the road. It’s the same now.”
Guerin got some valuable training for his second career when he served for six years on the board of the NHL Players Association and was a member of the players’ union negotiating committee during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. He calls that his version of Business 101.
As for what happens on the ice, Guerin watches lots of live hockey, from the Penguins to college to minor-league games. He looks beyond stats and flaws that can be easily rectified — he once noticed a prospect was choking up too much on his stick. After Guerin pointed out the problem, the player corrected it and improved his performance.
His best evaluation comes in studying players’ instincts and the ways in which they perceive plays and react during games.
“Every guy in the NHL wasn’t the fastest on his team. Every guy in the NHL wasn’t the best shooter or the highest scorer,” he says. “But there are things that set them apart. You can’t replace good hockey sense. I don’t care how good your hands are or your shot is. You won’t beat a guy with better hockey sense. You just won’t because you don’t think the game as well.”
He also laments what he considers to be backsliding in sportsmanship among younger players, and he takes every opportunity to try to correct it — in the way he helped to keep teammates in line as a player.
While watching drills during the Penguins’ annual development camp for prospects last summer, Guerin bolted up in his seat when a young player let go with a shot that barely missed minor-league assistant coach Jay Leach’s head as Leach skated behind the net. It bothered Guerin on a couple of levels: First, because he thought the player should have been aware enough not to shoot. Second, because the player did not immediately apologize to Leach. Guerin made a mental note not only to question that prospects’ character for the future but also to address the incident with him later — in a way that made onlookers glad they weren’t in that prospect’s skates.
Guerin had good instincts as a player. He also evolved as the NHL adopted sweeping changes over the course of his career — the addition of a salary cap, rules changes to accentuate skill and offense, and a more serious brand of players who pay attention to details.
“It’s so much of a business now, and there’s a lot on the line,” he says. “I played for so long, and a lot of things changed. When there was a case of beer on the back of the bus and it wasn’t all gone by the time we got to the airport, that was a big adjustment. I tell myself this, and I believe it’s true: Everything’s gotten better.
“You know what? There might be beers left over on the bus, but the game’s better. The product is better. The players are better conditioned, take better care of themselves. I appreciate that. I have a lot of respect for these guys.”
He’s not attaching any ego to this new gig. During a months-long lockout in 2012-13, he attended an Erie Otters junior game with a handful of others from a front office then headed by Shero. It’s cold in Erie Insurance Arena, and guess who got sent to stand in line at the snack bar to fetch coffee for everyone? Guerin did it without complaint, even joking that he had juggled that many beverages before, only it was usually beer instead of coffee.
There have been GMs in the NHL who are younger than Guerin is now. That’s not necessarily a good thing, Guerin says. Nor is he pushing anytime soon to replace Rutherford — who is 66, in his second season here and unwavering in his initial view that he didn’t take the job in mid-2014 for the long haul.
“Just like in anything, you want to make yourself better, and you always want to improve,” Guerin says.
Last summer, he negotiated his first two contracts, both American Hockey League deals for players for top farm club Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He says he was tough but fair, and looking ahead to perhaps working on NHL deals one day, he has a good sense of how contract terms should be structured so everything fits within the league’s salary cap. “Hey, I held out twice. I know what contract squabbles are all about,” he says.
The notion of being on the other side of contract talks with Guerin intrigues Crosby.
“Maybe I’m going to try to get my [agent’s] license after I’m done playing so I can do that,” Crosby says, punctuated with a smile. “I’d love to go toe-to-toe with Billy. I want to see who gives first.”
Bill Guerin has studied hockey for years. He adapted as the game changed and evolved, but he never abandoned his own strong sense of what is right and what works. Although he is relatively new to the world of hockey management, he already has developed some thoughts and theories that run counter to conventional thinking.
While kids are pushed to hone the details in their game, he says, maybe they should be encouraged to play pick-up or pond hockey as well — away from coaches. “Some kids work so much on their skills that they don’t have hockey sense,” Guerin says, noting that he is seeing the results in players old enough to be NHL prospects or potential prospects.
Parents might want to let their kids develop at a reasonable pace and scale back expectations of their prodigy being discovered as the next Sidney Crosby. “We get so much grief at the youth hockey level about the younger kids, 8 and under, playing cross-ice because the parents want them to play on the big ice, but that just turns into a bunch of skating up and down and they can’t think the game.”
He recommend changes to players’ offseason habits. “One of my biggest things — and I really do believe this — is I think the players today are on the ice too much in the summer. I think their body needs a break. I think their mind needs a break. If you’re on the ice all the time, then you’re not doing the proper training off the ice, the track and field stuff, the plyometrics stuff. These are probably dinosaur terms, but I think guys should be off the ice, taking care of their bodies, giving it a chance to recover, with all their work done in the gym and on the track. Come August, you get back on the ice and they’ve got the foundation of strength and conditioning that’s going to carry them through the season.”
He rolls his eyes when he hears players saying they need to get their timing back after the offseason or when coming back from an injury. “That’s kind of a myth. Nobody forgot how to play the game.”
Despite the preponderance of strength coaches and science-based workouts found in NHL locker rooms, he isn’t buying the concept that today’s players are more dedicated physically. “Our generation did train hard. A lot of the guys I played with in Pittsburgh won’t believe this, but I did train hard.”
Freelance writer Shelly Anderson is a longtime sports writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon. She also has written for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Hockey News, ESPN.com, wire news services and other outlets.