In Praise of Doing Nothing

This dude would be a way better GM than Pierre Maguire

In the season of the trade deadline, the fancies of hockey fans invariably turn to thoughts of general management. Not that general management is ever very far from our thoughts (we are an anxious folk), but for much of the season we are far more occupied with discussions of players- their achievements, their failures, their comical Youtube videos- than we are with the doings of front office personnel. It is only on the three High Holidays of General Management that we give sustained, obsessive attention to GMs, and of those, only the trade deadline falls within the season proper.

So now we are all busily engaged in speculating about what this or that GM might or might not do, and what he should or should not do, and what he’s done in the past, and in and amongst all of this there is a lot of discussion of the skills of general management. Among these are commonly listed trading, cap management, contract negotiation, player evaluation, and prospect development; all precious and important gifts of the modern hockey manager. But there is one essential skill of general management that is tragically, sadly, embarrassingly underappreciated: the ability to do nothing.

In order to understand the importance of doing nothing, consider the case of Pierre Gauthier. At the beginning of the present season, Gauthier was considered a reasonably competent GM. True, he had not been in the position long, but as the heir apparent to the well-respected Gainey regime and the coincidental overlord during the miraculous 2010 playoff run, he had plenty of goodwill to draw on. Moreover, his single biggest move, the Halak-Eller trade with St. Louis, was a textbook piece of quality GMing, a buy-low-sell-high, take-a-chance, damn-the-haters action that panned out exactly as planned. Price rose, Halak fell, Eller matured, and Gauthier looked like a genius. Beyond that, his record was quiet and unremarkable, the standard swaps of low-round picks, low-ceiling prospects, and career AHLers that all GMs make a dozen times a year. His biggest failing was shipping off Sergei Kostitsyn to Nashville for bargaining rights and considerations that amounted to nothing, a clear loss for the Habs but one mitigated by the public perception that the younger Kostitsyn was large of ego and bad of attitude.

So it’s fair to say that going into the 2011-2012 season, Gauthier was considered a good enough GM; certainly a job-secure GM. But then the Habs came out slow, struggled on the power play, and Gauthier started doing things. First he fired Perry Pearn, an assistant coach, right before a game. Next, he traded Jaro Spacek for Tomas Kaberle, despite the latter’s vastly larger contract and negligibly better performance. Then he fired Jacques Martin, gave the job to Randy Cunneyworth, set off a tremendous socio-linguistic firestorm in Montreal, and apologized, presumably in order to simultaneously undermine Cunneyworth and deflect blame. And, for his final act, the crowning jewel in his ever-growing tiara of crazy, he traded Mike Cammalleri from the dressing room in the middle of a game, for Rene Bourque. When asked about this maneuver, he claimed that the Habs needed Bourque because he knows how to score from ‘the hard parts of the ice.’

That phrase, right there, is the sound of a GM hitting rock bottom.

And what exactly has Gauthier achieved with all of these things he’s done? Have the Canadiens, having shed their coaching staff and gained Kaberle and Bourque, turned things around? Before Kaberle, the Habs power play was 29th in the League; after Kaberle, it’s still 29th. Under Martin, the Habs record was 13-12-7; under Cunneyworth, it’s 6-11-2. No, I think we can safely say that Gauthier’s actions this season might go down in history as the silliest sequence of moves ever made by a GM in hockey. The team was struggling, Gauthier was determined to ‘do something’ about it, and every single thing he’s done has been at best ineffectual and at worst destructive.

But the point I wish to make here is not merely that the moves were terrible. Everyone knows that these moves were terrible. What is not as often noted is that the badness of the moves comes from the badness of the motivation. The second Gauthier looked at a rocky twenty games and decided he had to do something to fix it, he lost. Any personnel decision driven by haste and desperation is a bad decision. Any trade motivated by a panicked sense of that the team has to be fixed INSTANTLY is going to bring a weak return; any firing driven by the impulse to scapegoat is almost by definition a pointless gesture. The problem with Pierre Gauthier is not so much the specific things he’s done as his certainty that he had to do something.

It would have been better for us all- better for the team, better for the fans, better for Gauthier himself, better for everyone except the bubble teams whose playoff hopes are kept dimly alive by the Canadiens constant failures- if the GM had taken a little time to read Laozi. Laozi, as some of you may know, lived some two and a half thousand years ago and is considered to be the author of the famed Tao Te Ching. Now, the trend of applying old Eastern philosophical texts to modern Western business practices is obnoxious, no doubt, and I’m well aware that I’m participating in a reductionist and culturally essentializing phenomenon by resorting to Laozi as an authority on the correct management of hockey teams, but fact is that Western philosophy is not nearly as sophisticated as the Chinese version when it comes to the study of doing nothing.

The Tao Te Ching has a specific phrase for doing nothing- wu wei- which can be more literally translated as ‘not-action’, and comes up in contexts like this:

“Understanding and being open to all things, are you able to do nothing?”

“The truly good man does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done.”

“Less and less is done until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

By not-action, the sages didn’t mean literally not doing anything, sitting perfectly still forever (although, to be fair, the Taoists sages did love them some sitting perfectly still). Rather, they meant to get to the point where their actions were devoid of ego or impulse, and at the highest level, perhaps even devoid of conscious intention. Wei wu wei- action that is not action- is the ultimate aim, where the gesture arises as naturally from the currents of the Tao as the current of water arises naturally from the earth and air around it.

Now, I am not suggesting that I want an actual Taoist sage for a GM. The sages were generally rather anti-competition and anti-violence and anti-hoarding things and, despite what certain martial arts films might have you believe, were not much for kicking ass. Also, they had a lot to say about the Queen Mother of the West and peaches and immortality which, although very interesting in its own right, wouldn’t really fit well in hockey culture.

No, a GM doesn’t need the Tao, but a GM needs a plan, an abiding sense of the nature of his team and what it needs. That plan is the principle, the model, the conceptual force behind the organization, and the GM should treat his plan the way the sages treat the Tao: he should freaking follow it, hell or high water, good season or bad. He should be a slave to the plan- no, wait, more than that, he should be an impersonal expression of the plan. He should be a veritable automaton of the plan. He should be the conduit through which the plan realizes itself in the world. Wei wu wei, baby- the GM doesn’t do anything; the plan does things through the GM.

Laozi would tell you that the Tao is subject to manifold changes and fluctuations, throwing up ten thousand things good and bad and strange. Hockey is like that too. It’s fundamentally a game of streaks and skids, and over short spans of time- and even one season is a comparatively short span of time when the margins of controllable advantage are so slim- it is subject to at least ten thousand types of irregular, uncontrollable, unpredictable events. Even the greatest GM cannot control these things, and it is not his job to try, and when he allows his attempts to control short-term fluctuations to interfere with the operations of the plan, he’s almost invariably hurting his team. Players and teams only show their true quality in the fullness of time, when the streaks have had time to average out. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, the name that can be named is not the true name, and a GM who cannot have faith in the underlying talent of the team he has built in the face of a slump is not a true GM.

Give me a general manager with his eyes firmly set on next season, and the season after that, and the season beyond. Give me a general manager who plans carefully, researches thoroughly, and decides deliberately. Give me a GM who is passive during the season, trading only when he finds an opportunity he already wanted thrown up by the desperation of others. Give me a GM who does most of his work in the summertime and seldom provides fodder for a TSN panel debate.

Give me a GM who, when faced with twenty or thirty or forty games of bad percentages and the fans screaming and the media snarking and the players worrying, has the enormous brass balls to shrug his shoulders, make a cup of tea, curl up with the Tao Te Ching and do nothing.