David Poile quietly turns Nashville into a hockey power

Updated May 23, 2017

Reacting to the general dismay over the dearth of drama and grit in the NBA postseason, Golden State Warriors All-Star Kevin Durant scoffed: “If you don’t like it, don’t watch.”

He has a point. Much more fun watching the Stanley Cup playoffs instead.

The Nashville Predators’ victory over Anaheim in the Western Conference final enthralled far more than anything in the NBA postseason. In Monday’s decisive Game 6 in Nashville, the Preds, the second-seeded wild card, broke a 3-3 tie when 23-year-old Colton Sissons scored his third goal of the night.

Two empty-netters finished off the 6-3 triumph in a Bridgestone Arena buzzing like a cavern filled with bees. Outside the building, thousands watched the game on a big-screen in a park.

Yes, Music City is rocking with hockey, and the little-known maestro is David Poile, 67-year-old general manager. He may be the greatest North American sports executive who has not won a world championship. In his 15 years of managing the Washington Capitals, they were 140 games over .500 and made the playoffs every season except his last.

The owner decided 15 years without a Stanley Cup is long enough, so in 1997 he fired Poile. The Caps have yet to win it without him, while Poile is on the doorstep.

Within a few weeks of his term limitation in Washington, Poile was GM of a newborn expansion team.   On a tight budget he steadily improved the unfortunately named Predators. For his 19 years in Nashville — a tough hockey market if ever there was one – he’s 126 games above .500.

Poile goes unnoticed because he has no swagger at all. When his team posed on the ice to receive the silver trophy for winning the West, the mastermind of the campaign was nowhere to be seen.

He was just as reticent when I knew him in his first front-office job, as assistant to Atlanta Flames GM Cliff Fletcher. Though always guarded about his team, Poile was insightful and eloquent when discussing the sport he loves. I once accompanied him to a hockey game at his alma mater, Northeastern University, where he had set a career record by scoring 11 hat tricks.

He and I often engaged in friendly debate over whether boxing is an integral part of hockey. I contended college hockey was safer because fighting brought automatic ejection.

But as the collegians skated in front of us, David pointed out angry players raising their sticks like lances, which I had to admit looked more menacing than two guys grappling barehanded and sliding on ice.

“It would be a lot safer if they fought for a few seconds with their hands and had their safety valve,” he said. “Somebody’s gonna lose an eye.”

It turned out, sadly, that the one to lose an eye would be David Poile, though not in a game but while watching the Predators practice.

He was sitting in the bench area when a hard-struck puck cleared the Plexiglas and smashed his right eye. It was a few days before he was to leave for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi as general manager of the U.S. hockey team.

Fortunately he retained his eye for finding talent and his tenacity in procuring it. From Fletcher, an historic wheeler-dealer, Poile learned the concept of high risk, high reward. Be willing to give up good players for one who’s better.

Poile made his first splash nationally in 1982 when as GM of the Capitals he engineered a 7-player trade. It brought him a key piece: Rod Langway, who would go on to win two Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman.

It was one of the most impactful hockey trades ever and was all the more shocking because Poile had let no one suspect it would happen. His father, Bud Poile, an NHL executive at the time, said, “I had dinner with David the night before, and he never let on that anything was coming.”

Stealth may be David Poile’s greatest weapon. One thing I’ve noticed about him, in almost all his trades the story is more about whom he’s getting, not what he’s giving up.

He’s always alert for a supertalent who’s not happy where he is. He can get him at a discount.

So it was with his swap last offseason of high-scoring defensemen, his captain, Shea Weber, for Montreal’s P.K. Subban. Poile exploited a rift between Subban and coach Michel Therrien.

The trade was lambasted in Montreal. Both Weber and Subban are elite players, but the latter is just entering his prime, at 27.   Weber is four years older. Nashville controls Subban’s playing rights for five seasons after this one.

Poile is constantly seeking intangibles others may not appreciate. In Subban he saw “contagious energy.” Indeed, the Predators are playing with the intensity of a tornado, their big, fast defensemen swirling over the ice, clearing out the middle, setting the up-tempo flow of the game.

In 2014 Poile dismissed a well respected and successful coach, Barry Trotz, who had been with him for 16 years. But Poile felt Trotz was not advancing with the times, that his strategy was too cautious.

So while Trotz moved on to forever disappointing Washington, Poile turned to American-born Peter Laviolette, who has his defensemen – Subban, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi — leading the attack.

And leading it more than ever now that first-line center Ryan Johansen, 23, is hobbled with a thigh injury. He stood with a crutch, hugged by teammates, at the presentation of the trophy nobody wants. The players hope the Clarence Campbell silver is the prelude to the 124-year-old Stanley Cup.

The departure of Johansen, their leading scorer, should have been the end to this Cinderella story. But up stepped fourth-liner Sissons, suddenly poised and polished.

Most of the Preds are relatively inexperienced, but Poile knows chemistry like nobody’s business. His team, drawn from six countries, is steadied by the reassuring presence of a select few savvy vets.

One is a Connecticut Yankee, 27-year-old Colin Wilson, power play specialist. Another is the captain, Mike Fisher, a Canadian who scored 42 points in the regular season.

Fisher hasn’t scored any points in the playoffs, but he’s valued for his calming presence on the bench, in the dressing room, on the fraternal team bus. He has won the NHL’s citizenship award as “the player who best applies the core values of hockey.”

Not that Fisher’s off-ice leadership is anywhere near as vital as the on-ice dominance of 34-year-old goaler Pekka Rinne. In the playoffs he’s stopping a surreal 94.1%. He’s playing with the confidence of someone who got away with burglarizing a Vegas casino. Positioning himself perfectly, scooping up all the rebounds, he repelled 35 of 38 Duck shots in the grand finale.

Sissons was not just being modest when he said, following his hat trick (belatedly acknowledged by the largely new-to-hockey crowd), “Pekka is our best player every game.”

The Finnish goalie has played his entire NHL career in Nashville. There was pressure to move him a year ago as suspicion arose that his skills were beginning to erode.

Rinne smoothed out some mechanical flaws, and Poile showed how not trading is also a key to his success. Of course, such inaction won’t get him the attention he deserves and doesn’t want.


Alan Truex formerly covered the NHL beat for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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