After decade with Penguins, Bill Guerin wants to make mark with Wild |

After decade with Penguins, Bill Guerin wants to make mark with Wild

Seth Rorabaugh
Getty Images
Wild general manager Bill Guerin was a member of three Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins either as a player or executive.

“What’s it like outside?”

Bill Guerin had a simple query for a pair of reporters in the Civic Arena’s cramped, stuffy home dressing room after a rare Sunday morning practice.

“How cold is it? Do I need to dress in layers?”

Maybe, why?

“I’m going to the Steelers game.”

Guerin bundled up and hustled across town to Heinz Field to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers bumble their way to a sloppy 27-24 loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders on Dec. 6, 2009.

He, like most of the other 61,819 souls in attendance that day, went home unsatisfied with the defeat. After all, he had become one of them.

A Pittsburgher.

Nine months prior, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded for Guerin, an aging power forward with the New York Islanders. At 38, he was at the end of the line of his all-star career and was added as a rental to boost the Penguins’ playoff hopes.

Placed alongside Sidney Crosby, Guerin found nearly instant chemistry with the Penguins captain and played a significant role in helping the franchise claim its third Stanley Cup title against the despised Marian Hossa and the Detroit Red Wings.

That success, along with an engaging, affable demeanor, turned Guerin into a cult hero with Penguins fans. Guerin became the standard go-to subject of fun Penguins-centric memes six years before Phil Kessel arrived in Pittsburgh.

Routinely wearing a “Fighting Fifth” T-shirt around the team’s facilities in recognition of Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo II and Paul Mayhle, the Zone 5 Pittsburgh Police officers who were killed in the line of duty in April of 2009, Guerin connected with the region with an uncommon haste.

“He definitely embraced everything about the city and the people here,” Crosby said. “And they did him back. He’s a great guy. For his time here, he had a big impact.”

After retiring following the 2009-10 campaign, Guerin returned to the Penguins when he was hired by former general manager Ray Shero as a player development coach and helped aid the growth of prospects such as Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust, each of whom became contributors to 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup titles. Guerin was promoted to assistant general manager when Jim Rutherford replaced Shero in June of 2014.

For the better part of a decade, Guerin, who made also stops in New Jersey, Edmonton, Boston, Dallas, St. Louis and San Jose as a player, had something he rarely enjoyed during his NHL career.

A permanent residence.

That changed this past summer when the Minnesota Wild surprisingly fired Paul Fenton as general manager in August and hired Guerin.

Not even on the job for two months, Guerin still is feeling his way around the organization and the Twin Cities. Having been hired Aug. 21, well after the NHL Draft in June and the start of the unrestricted free agent signing period in July, Guerin’s signature transaction to this point has been signing defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a massive seven-year, $53 million contract extension Sept. 14.

When the Wild face the Penguins on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., it could be argued Guerin has had a much larger impact on the visitors than the hosts.

On Wednesday, he spoke by phone with the Tribune-Review about being hired so late in the summer, his connection with Pittsburgh and the demands of being a general manager.

Was it strange getting this job in late August? Training camp was just weeks away.

I guess it was a bit unorthodox. But you know what? When a job like this opens up … I didn’t care when I got it. I was excited to get it.

Was it a challenge just logistically? The draft was held two months prior, and free agency was all but done.

Yeah, but you have to be patient. You can’t just try to do something to do something. If it makes sense to help the team, then I’ll do it. But I’m not going to just make a move to make a move. I don’t feel a need to do that. I’m pretty comfortable with the team where it is right now. Everything is under evaluation.

Do you have a hard mandate from ownership or even from yourself? Like making the playoffs, winning a division, getting to the second round, etc.?

No. No hard mandate. All 32 teams are after the same thing. It’s just a matter of getting to that level where you can compete consistently.

You signed Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year extension. You’ve been around the Penguins enough as an executive to see how those long deals unfold, but is it more daunting when you have the final say on offering that type of contract? That can impact a franchise, positively or negatively, for many years.

You said it. That’s my deal. I’m attached to that. That’s my decision. That’s the biggest thing. As an assistant GM, you can help, you can give your opinion, you can help with the contract, you can do all that stuff. But it’s tied to the general manager.

Minnesota has marketed itself as the “state of hockey.” People love hockey in Boston and Pittsburgh and lots of other places in the United States, but Minnesota seems different.

Yeah, oh big time, man. I’ve spent enough time out here to know that, to see that. It’s not that they just like hockey out here. It’s in the fabric of the state. It’s what people do. It’s not baseball, basketball, football. It’s hockey and everything else.

As general manager of Minnesota’s NHL team, are you a caretaker or primary custodian of something important considering the culture of hockey there?

I feel part of it and I feel a responsibility. And I like this about the area. … There are high expectations. The fanbase is knowledgeable, they’re passionate and I feel a responsibility. They know a good team when they see one, and they know everything else. I like that. I don’t mind that responsibility.

Why did you connect with Pittsburgh — the city — so quickly and so thoroughly?

The last few years of my (playing) career, I bounced around a lot. And when I got to Pittsburgh, it instantly felt like a home. Through the organization, everybody made it feel like I had been there forever. The reception of the fans and just the city as a whole made me feel like I was at home. For a family that had bounced around for a few years, it felt like we had roots. The people of the city were fantastic. The values the people of Pittsburgh, it’s just a great town and something we could feel a connection with. And we did.

Did you harbor any hopes of becoming the Penguins’ general manager? Either when Ray Shero was fired or after Jim Rutherford was hired? Initially, he suggested he might only be on the job for a few years and give way to a lieutenant such as yourself.

Yeah, that’s a job anybody would love to have. But listen, I’m also very honest with what’s going on and the situation around. I just wanted to do my job as well as I could. If that worked out, then that would be great. When Ray left, there was no way I was ready. And I knew that. And I didn’t want it then. Then, with Jim, he’s got a hall-of-fame career going. Jim’s not going anywhere. And he shouldn’t. And that’s the reality of it. An opportunity like this (with Minnesota) came about, and it’s fantastic. Of course, in the back of your head, you think (becoming the Penguins general manager is possible). But I also thought I would also play in one place forever. It just doesn’t go like that.

You never had a relationship with Jim Rutherford before he arrived. How has that connection developed?

I never crossed paths with him. Jim and I over the years have become very close. It didn’t happen overnight. One of the things I give Jim so much credit for, and it’s one of the things I’ve had in the back of my mind coming to Minnesota, is that Jim came in with an open mind and a brand new staff of people he didn’t know before, and I was included in that. And he gave us an opportunity to earn his trust. I’m forever grateful for that. That’s what I’m going through right now. Jim and my relationship has definitely evolved over time and strengthened to where I consider him a very good friend and mentor. I’ve learned a ton from him.

What’s the most difficult part of being the general manager? The granular, nitty-gritty details with the collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap? Or other things, like human nature with players or employees?

The CBA and the salary cap and things like that, we have people that are in charge of that, and that’s their expertise. We’ve got that covered. I think it’s all the extras. Just everything else that goes with the job. There’s a lot of fires to put out, and it’s not always just hockey. There’s things with staffing. There’s business stuff. You have to meet with ownership and things like that. Budgets. All sorts of stuff. And especially being the new guy, there’s a lot of media and stuff. There’s a lot of different things pulling you a lot of different ways.

Will Saturday’s game be weird? You were with the Penguins less than two months ago. You’ve hugged Sidney Crosby on the ice after scoring goals and winning the Stanley Cup. You’ve recruited players like Zach Aston-Reese to sign with the club. Your imprint is still with this franchise in a big way.

Yeah, it’ll be weird. But it will be nice to see everybody. I’m very proud of my time with Pittsburgh. I’ve made so many good friends, had so many great experiences there. I can look at that team and feel like I’ve had an impact. I have pride in that. And I always will.

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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