Hockey and Social Networks: The Importance of Team Members as Social Networks Assets in the NHL

For the last few days, I worked hard on the modeling of networking interactions in viral contests and with the start of the National Hockey league (NHL) season on October 1st, I thought it would be a nice idea to share my vision of how a sport, in this case hockey, is importantly influenced by connections, and how the power of some specific members of an organization can prove to be influential assets to attract the best players. Even though that is not directly related to e-marketing issues, the same principles can be adapted to any kind of organization operating in an e-marketing context.

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)
Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)

In the NHL, one of the most interesting off-season events is the opening of the free-agent market on July 1st at noon (Pacific time). At this moment, more than a hundred players are free to sign with the team they choose and teams are free to propose offers to the players available that they would like to have in their team. The player’s decision to sign or not with a team mainly depends on the following five factors:

1. How much money is offered?
2. How many offers does he have?
3. Where is the city situated?
4. What is the reputation of the team?
5. Who are the members of this organization?

Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager
Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager

Even though players and their agents put different weights on each of these components, the component on which a team has the most control is the last one (who are the members of the organization?). Thus, this is why entering the free-agent market with some good assets in an organization is a good way to recruit valuable players without topping the salary cap. One of the typical example is the trade on June 30th of Scott Gomez and Tom Pyatt to Montreal for Chris Higgins, Pavel Valentenko and prospect Ryan McDonagh. The next day, Montreal signed up free-agent Brian Gionta who has played with Scott Gomez for 5 years in New Jersey and has known him for nearly 15 years. The first trade helped Montreal to acquire Scott Gomez, but should also be seen as a way to attract another player, in this case Brian Gionta. In another way, when Toronto Maple Leafs’ General Manager (GM) Brian Burke went to Sweden last Summer to convince the Sedin’s twins – which he both knows since his past position as the Vancouver Canucks GM – he missed his shot to convince them, but in the meantime, he hired all-star goalie coach and former colleague in the Anaheim Ducks team, François Allaire, and also signed Färjestads BK goalie Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson mainly because of Allaire’s presence. Finally, Burke brought overseas Färjestads BK captain Rickard Wallin mainly because of Gustavsson’s signing. So, are connections important? Here are in the table below, some of the connections that have had, to my knowledge, a strong impact on the signing of players with an organization.

# General Manager Player Moment Team Signed
1 Brian Burke François Beauchemin July 6th Toronto Maple Leafs
2 Brian Burke Jonas Gustavsson July 7th Toronto Maple Leafs
3 Mike Gillis Mathieu Schneider August 28th Vancouver Canucks
4 Coach Player Moment Team Signed
4 Claude Julien Steve Bégin July 1st Boston Bruins
# Goaltender Coach Goaltender Moment Team Signed
5 François Allaire Jonas Gustavsson July 7th Toronto Maple Leafs
# Other players Player Moment Team signed
6 Teemu Selanne Saku Koivu July 8th Anaheim Ducks
7 Scott Gomez Brian Gionta July 1st Montreal Canadians
8 Victor Hedman Mattias Ohlund July 1st Tampa Bay Lightning
9 Vincent Lecavalier
Martin St-Louis
Stéphane Veilleux July 7th Tampa Bay Lightning
10 Vincent Lecavalier
Martin St-Louis
Alex Tanguay Sept. 1st Tampa Bay Lightning
11 Jonas Gustavsson Rickard Wallin July 9th Toronto Maple Leafs
12 Daniel Sedin Henrik Sedin July 1st Vancouver Canucks
13 Henrik Sedin Daniel Sedin July 1st Vancouver Canucks
14 Henrik Sedin
Daniel Sedin
Mikael Samuelsson July 3rd Vancouver Canucks


Conclusion

So what can we conclude from this classification? Ready for the new NHL season? Or ready to network in quest for powerful assets for your company? Any other examples from the NHL that I missed because of my lack of time to get to know hockey more? Examples from other sports? Or some easy examples from an organization with X and Y?

Jean-Francois Belisle

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11 thoughts on “Hockey and Social Networks: The Importance of Team Members as Social Networks Assets in the NHL”

  1. I completely agree with the importance of such networks in sports and I believe that of the examples you mentioned, the trade for Scott Gomez is the best one. The reason I say that is in my opinion Bob Gainey made that trade knowing that Gomez is a player who could attract other free agents. In terms of player value, most experts agreed that Gainey was on the losing side of the deal but they forgot to account for the “networking value” that Gomez brought to the team. The value he added was in part his connections to a player like Gionta and his reputation throughout the league as an excellent playmaker.

    You named a few examples in hockey but I believe the best examples are in the NFL, probably because there are more players on every team. One of the most common practices in the NFL is when an offensive coordinator is hire by another team as head coach, he will typically try to sign a number of the players that he worked with on his previous team. When Sean Payton was hired by the New Orleans Saints in 2006, he signed about 7 or 8 players that he had worked with in the past either with the Cowboys or the Giants (Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle, Terrance Copper, Curtis Deloatch and others). I took a quick look at more recent examples and the three coordinators that earned a head coaching job signed between 1 and 3 players from their former team. Most of these players aren’t particularly talented but they are players that have excellent work ethics and that these coaches want to work with again.

  2. Thanks for the comment Philippe. Your analogy to football is really interesting and that would in part explain why coaches, offensive coordinators and defense coordinators are so valued (highly paid) in the NFL compare to other sports.

  3. I don’t know much about Hockey and Football, but I think that for soccer, things can be different.

    The terms of contracts in soccer are quite long, which gives less freedom to the players. Thus, they can change teams at the end of their contracts, and I think that factors 1 (money) and 4(reputation of the team) are more important (in Soccer), than the factor 5 (members of the organization).

    The prestige of teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United (history, performance) does attract the best players in the world, but they don’t join the team only because of the other players. I think they join the team mainly because they have more opportunities to win.
    Maybe soccer players have less power because the decisions are often taken by the owner of the club.

  4. Great point that you raised Kenza. Sure factor 1 (money) has an importance in every sport, but like you mention in a sport with such a long history like soccer, factor 4 (reputation) is really important. However, I also think that soccer is much more individual than hockey or football for example. In this way, like you raised, members of the organization is perhaps not an important factor to attract other players.

  5. Athletes are humans and want to be around people they like. How many of us worked somewhere so they can be around some friends. I know I did. In 2003, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne joined the Colorado Avalanche so they can finally play with a great center other than Steve Rucchin (no offense Steve, you did the best you could). They wished to play together, but also with either Forsberg or Sakic and get a shot at the Stanley Cup. At that point in time, the Avalanche had the money, the people and the reputation to attract theses two players, who were free agents at the same time. It’s another example to prove your point.

    I just hope that it turns out better for Gomez and Gionta that it did for Selanne, Kariya and the Avalanche in 2003-2004…
    ( for those who want to know, Selanne and Kariya produced a grand total of 68 points that year, combined . Ouch !)

  6. Nice point that you raised Jean-Francois concerning friendships. Purely on a hockey perspective, I think the main difference between the Kariya/Selanne duo and the Gomez/Gionta one will certainly be ice time. Kariya and Selanne where stuck on the second powerplay line and sometimes played on the third line, I don’t think that will happen to the Gomez/Gionta duo comparing the depth of the 09/10 Habs team compared to the 03/04 Avs team.

  7. @Kenza

    I agree with you on the fact that soccer and hockey have different realities in transfer matters. I would just like to build on that comment, as I think that even though members of the organization do not hold such an important value in attracting players, they can still prove decisive.

    First of all, the context is different: no salary cap enables the richest and most prestigious clubs to attract several top-performers who worry little about who’s on the team. I’m referring to clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Chelsea, even if it can be argued that seeing an army of Galacticos in Madrid is what made Ribery plea for a move from Munich to Spain.

    However, it’s interesting to see that the role of money may not be so important, as a club like Manchester City was able to attract Robinho in 2008 but had to face harsh refusals from Kaka and Messi. Still, in 2009 they pulled both Kolo Toure and Adebayor away from Arsenal, Tevez from Manchester United, Barry from Aston Villa, and Santa Cruz from Blackburn (the first three clubs are engaged in European cups and have a more solid reputation/track record than Manchester City). The reasons behind these moves seem to be depending on the following 5 factors:
    1- Money
    2- Money
    3- Money
    4- Who else is making the move to that team
    5- Other personal reasons (not enough field time in their team, lack of evolution, need for a new challenge, conflicts with former teammates/coaches…)

    Of course, the official reason is always the “sportive challenge”, but having already signed some good players has definitely helped Manchester City more than their location, reputation, performance, or the lack of other offers that these players received.

    Secondly, although members of soccer clubs are not as important as those in less individualistic sports, they can still prove decisive in some occasions. We can take two examples from this summer to illustrate this: a few days after Porto’s player Lisandro Lopez made a move to Lyon, his former teammate Aly Cissokho was announced in Milan AC. But while the discussions with the Italian club dragged on, Cissokho ended up landing in the Lyon St Exupery airport and signed a five-year contract with the French team.

    So what happened? First, Lyon had made a 15 million euros offer to Porto, both club presidents had been in very good terms for several years, and Lopez called Cissokho to tell him that he was surprised to find “such a great club in such a nice city”. Interestingly enough, the two last factors are related to members of the club.

    The second example is a bit more straightforward. Fernando Morientes, former Spain international and star scorer in several prestigious clubs (Real Madrid, Liverpool and Valence) was a free-agent. Even at 33, several teams were interested in signing such a player, were it only for the shirts he would sell and the influence he can have on teammates. He finally opted for Marseille, not so surprisingly. Indeed, Marseille’s coach, Didier Deschamps, coached Morientes in Monaco the year they made it to the Champions’ league final. Both men appreciate each other and know they can work together, that was enough for Deschamps to convince Morientes.

    I’ve strayed a bit from the original topic but I like the idea of the value of members in an organization, and since we can even find examples in sports like soccer, I think this is a solid concept.

  8. Great post Jeff ! It would be interesting to perform the same exercice with techno startups. I would think that, at least as much as salary and share, the profile of other members on the team and presence of possible ex co-workers is an important factor to draw startup developer/entrepreneur/marketer. Look at the trail of Paypal or Amazon early employees…

  9. @Sam, thanks for the comment. You brought up two important concepts to my mind with your two examples. First, money constraints in sports (i.e. salary gap) and in organizations reinforce the need for members to have players or members that have the power to attract others, in comparison to situations where money can buy players or members for an organization. Second and more globally, I also thought about the concept of personal brand equity, where the value of a player or a member of an organization, his/her personal brand equity, is influenced by factors such as (1) performance, (2) attitude, (3) capacity to attract others.

    @Phil, Thanks for your interesting comment, always nice to hear from you. As you mentioned, I agree that the techno start up market is a great example for testing the importance of connections. I think one of the best example is the creation of the Altimeter Group, formed by Charlene Li, who also includes as partners former Forester’s colleagues Jeremiah Owyang and Ray Wang. From another point of view, strong connections (ties) reduce uncertainty and may help someone to estimate the future profits/losses of a start up. Furthermore, since the techno start up market can be considered as a small world, someone’s reputation is an important component to decide whether or not to join this person in a specific start up.

  10. Great Post! I think you forgot THE example in Hockey especially for us in Montreal. Daniel Brière that went to play in Philly because of Martin Biron and Simon Gagné his friends, instead of coming here in Montreal. Montreal offered him the same amount of cash, the possibility to become a god in his own courtyard, etc… And we all know what the Habs means for a French Canadian!

    Cheers!

    Dominic

  11. @Dominic, thanks for the comment. I totally agree with your point that the signing of Daniel Brière by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, was one of the best example that illustrated the power of hockey connections. However, my post focused on the 2009 free agent market which didn’t involved an example as important as this one. Who knows what the Habs would have looked like with Brière in the lineup?

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