It’s tough to be a visionary when your office doesn’t have a window, but Jack Ferreira manages to persevere.
In his second season as the Mighty Duck general manager, Ferreira directs the present and plots the future from The Pond’s basement.
Down the hall, last office on the right.
From his command post, Ferreira contemplates all the great issues of the NHL in the 1990s--a new collective-bargaining agreement, trades, money, draft picks, money, scouting, money, European imports, money, making the playoffs, and, of course, money.
Like professional baseball, basketball and football, the business of hockey now seems to be all business. These days Ferreira sees money as the central issue to more and more aspects of his job.
It doesn’t please him.
He made that clear in a recent interview that touched on subjects ranging from skyrocketing salaries to the rise of street hockey in Southern California to the Ducks’ off-season signings.
“The greatest thing about this camp is that I haven’t had any calls from agents,” he said, only partly kidding.
Jack, Paul Kariya’s agent on line 1. Says he wants $6.5 million over three seasons.
Jack, Oleg Tverdovsky’s agent on line 2. Says he wants $4.2 million over three seasons.
Jack, Nikolai Tsulygin’s agent on line 3. Jack, Valeri Karpov’s agent on line 4. Wait, don’t they have the same agent?
Ferreira managed to sign all his top draft picks, before camp opened Sept. 4. By the looks of things, the Ducks are vastly improved offensively, thanks in large part to youngsters such as Kariya. Ferreira is pleased with the team’s progress, hoping it has advanced far enough to make the playoffs this season.
But during training camp, a dark cloud--a possible lockout by owners--was hanging over management, fans and players, who have been without a collective bargaining agreement since Sept. 15, 1993.
“We’ve all got to learn a lesson from baseball,” Ferreira said.
There is a keen sense that without a World Series for the first time since 1904, the time is right for hockey to cultivate new followers. This is particularly true in Orange County, where it’s tough to miss new converts. They filled The Pond last season. And they’re often clogging the middle of your streets, too.
“I came around the corner in my housing development (recently) and two different groups of kids were playing street hockey games,” Ferreira said. “There was one group with skates on and one group without. I roar laughing when I see kids playing hockey on a basketball court.
“Once you go to a game, it’s hard not to get hooked.”
On the flip side, a protracted lockout could prove ruinous.
Ferreira believes salaries, particularly for rookies, are out of control.
“The stars are always going to get paid,” he said. “It’s the middle guys who are going to get hurt. Economics becomes the determining factor. All the best players aren’t in the league. You can’t afford to keep middle of the road guys. You have to keep bringing in new guys.
“One of our problems is entry-level salaries. There is a pyramid structure of salaries. If this continues all the first- and second-year guys are going to be at the top. And I’m not sure that’s right.”
Few NHL GMs have had to wrestle with rookie salaries the way Ferreira has had to recently. The Kariya talks spanned 14 months and the money eventually paid to the Ducks’ top draft pick in 1993 was staggering.
“I never looked it as a 14-month holdout,” Ferreira said. “We encouraged him to go to the Olympics. We wanted him to go back to school for the first semester. Really, it was only the three or four months since the World Championships (which ended in early May) that we were negotiating. The first offer we made was after the Olympics. It was rejected and I wasn’t surprised.
“The frustrating times were after we made our final offer. Down deep I could not imagine him turning it down.”
This is Ferreira’s second go-round as the GM of an expansion franchise. He got the San Jose Sharks up and running before he was ousted in a front-office battle after the first season. He had left a job as the Minnesota North Stars GM to join the Sharks in 1990.
There were great lessons to be learned from the San Jose experience. Knowing the pratfalls a first-year team can suffer made the Ducks stronger--literally.
Their first season, the Sharks went 17-55-5; the Ducks were 33-46-5.
“What’s different is the size of the guys we have here,” Ferreira said. “It gave us an identity right away. It allowed us not to get pushed around. It helped us win 19 games on the road. We had an older team, a real character team.
“We tried to get guys who we thought were heart players. We tried to stay away from the moaners and groaners.
“We tried to get guys who were ready for a jump up. (Bob) Corkum was in that category. Garry Valk was a good, late addition. Guy (Hebert) was ready to take off. I thought (Mikhail) Shtalenkov was the best goalie in the minors the year I saw him (in Milwaukee in 1992-93).”
Meanwhile, San Jose had a brilliant run in its third season, beating heavily favored Detroit in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to Toronto in the second.
“I wasn’t looking for someone to clap me on the back,” he said. “I was happy to see it. I was happy to see them (the players he brought to San Jose) have success.”
With the exception of large contracts given Kariya and Tverdovsky, the Ducks have done business like the Sharks.
Initially there was a perception, particularly among veteran Canadian hockey writers, that the Ducks, with all of Disney’s millions, would be able to buy a Stanley Cup in a few years.
The lengthy battle to sign Kariya apparently has halted such talk.
Ferreira finds it mildly amusing.
“You’ll never see us trying to lock up every free agent there is,” he said. “Disney doesn’t operate that way. Eventually it may get to the point where maybe there’s one guy who can make the difference in winning the Stanley Cup.
“I talked to an agent once and he said, ‘Disney is making all this money on The Lion King.’ I said, ‘Well, Disney is a $7-billion company. They could buy the NHL if they wanted to.’ Just because we can doesn’t mean we should be so foolish.”
Ferreira spends a great deal of time making sure nobody gets the impression that he’s foolish. He’s a student of other sports, of other general managers. He calls former Minnesota Twin and now Chicago Cub GM Andy MacPhail his idol, admires San Diego Charger GM Bobby Beathard and has read all he can about Red Auerbach.
He attended the Rams’ 1994 draft and, in addition to learning that it would have been better to simply take Trent Dilfer and avoid the ridicule, he came away enriched.
First, he realized the NFL runs its draft for maximum media exposure. Second, he saw how involved the Ram coaching staff was in the selection process.
"(In the NFL draft) each team is in their local city,” Ferreira said. “We would certainly get more coverage if we handled it the way the NFL does it. There’s so much more hype to the event.
“As far as the way the Rams do things, it’s similar. They’re talking to scouts, rating players, looking to get the best athletes. The way they evaluate the players is different in football, too. Because there is so much more film and video, their coaches have more input rating players. Hockey doesn’t film that much.
"(Coach) Ron Wilson never saw Tverdovsky until he got here. You try to give the coach a mental picture of what a player can do, what he’s like on the ice.”
Coming to the West Coast, to sunshine in December instead of snow drifts, has forced Ferreira to do business differently, too.
“It’s great to get up and put on a pair of shorts and go into the back yard with a cup of coffee and read the paper,” he said. “I wasn’t kidding the other day (at Kariya’s first press conference) that that was the first time I’d worn a tie all summer.”
He can live with that.