What does a Director of Player Development Do?
A blueprint for an evolving role
A Historical Perspective
Claude Ruel (1938-2015) might be the most important hockey man you’ve never heard of.
A squat defenseman hailing from Sherbrooke, QC, Ruel’s promising playing career was cut short by a serious eye injury when he was just 20. Instead of leaving the sport, however, Ruel built a brilliant second career in hockey.
In the early 1960s, Ruel received his first coaching job, taking a position with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. He became a key part of the Montreal farm system, serving as one of the team's top scouts. He later was elevated to the front office of the NHL club and served as director of player development.
Ruel was hired to coach the Habs in 1968, replacing the legendary Toe Blake. He led a talented group of players to a Stanley Cup championship during his first year. However, the following season, Montreal was the odd team out in a tight, five-team "Original Six" battle for four playoff spots.
He started the 1970-71 season behind the bench, but decided to step down 23 games into the season because the pressure of life behind the bench was affecting his health.
He subsequently returned to his role director of player development, but he took over as Montreal coach again in 1979, leading the team for one and a half years during the waning days of the 1970s dynasty. Ruel died on February 9, 2015.
The short, matter-of-fact Wikipedia entry largely underestimates Ruel’s contribution to the Canadiens.
Not only did Ruel help manage the largest NHL farm system of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he scouted, developed and coached a number of future Habs greats between successful stints as the team’s designated caretaker coach.
Without ever holding the proverbial torch, Ruel nevertheless made sure that its flames burned brightly during his five-plus decades with MTL.
“He used to come watch me play when I was in the QMJHL,” said Stéphane Robidas, one of Ruel’s final projects in Montreal. Robidas, a skilled but undersized D-man much like his mentor, became a value pick for MTL in the seventh round of the 1995 draft. “He and (MTL forward-turned-scout) Pierre Mondou were among the few who believed in my game.”
In subsequent years, the aging Ruel would occasionally hop on the ice for one-on-one skills sessions with the budding Robidas, a practice the future Toronto Maple Leafs Director of Player Development would later continue with TOR prospects.
A Day in the Life
An NHL team’s Director of Player Development should be a person with a versatile skillset. The reason is simple: there is no such thing as a typical day.
When I was a Player Development Analyst working alongside Scott Pellerin (TOR Sr. Director of P.D.) and Stéphane Robidas (TOR Director of P.D.), our days were split between the three categories below:
Working from home
Working on-site with the NHL or AHL team
Working on-site with prospects in the system
The best way to get a lot of work done in a short period of time was to hunker down at home. It’s the ideal way to complete video scouting assignments and to catch up on administrative work, such as organizing the week-long Development Camp held following each NHL Draft.
Another chunk of work-from-home time was spent communicating with prospects, agents and junior/college coaches, which can either be the most rewarding or the least pleasant part of the job. In the best case, the Director is a valued conduit between a prospect, his handlers and the rest of the front office. In the worst case, the Director is a firewall between an uncooperative player/agent/team and an NHL GM who has better things to do with his time than to worry about a late-round pick’s ice time.
Today TOR is regarded as one of the leading P.D. organizations in all of hockey. Much of that reputation was earned during expansive Development Days held every other week (or more often) at the Leafs and Marlies practice facility in Etobicoke. On those days, a Director’s job was less about on-ice teaching and more about making sure the bench coaches, the skills coaches and myriad support staff were on the same page. World-class experts such as Sheldon Keefe, Darryl Belfry and Barb Underhill drove the development curriculum, but none would be in a position to do their best work without the support of people such as Pelly and Robi, who led the way in planning while being able to jump on the ice at a moment’s notice.
Pelly and Robi frequently went on the road to meet with TOR prospects at their club teams, traveling as far west as Spokane and as far east as Russia. Those trips allowed them to scout prospects live and, occasionally, to get on the ice with them for remedial skills work. But, most importantly, the information they gathered helped us understand the sporting and life conditions these young players were living in.
Adding Value as a Director of Player Development
With competitive advantages harder to come by in the NHL, there are new opportunities for savvy, multi-talented Directors to create value for their teams.
They’ll still need to act as a buffer between the front office and players/agents/affiliated teams.
They’ll still be called upon to get on the ice during skills sessions, and maybe even to get on the bench during a COVID outbreak.
They’ll still have to do a fair bit of traveling to visit individual players or to help the AHL/NHL team on the road.
But there’s more.
Here are a few ideas for an enterprising GM wondering what more a Director of Player Development can do in a modern front office:
Editor-in-Chief of the team’s internal newsletter - a publication in which people are introduced, best practices are shared and success stories, celebrated
Career Advisor for hockey ops staff - in other words, a Director of People Development whose job it is to identify and nurture promising players and analysts
Sounding board for the team’s NHL coaching staff - in other words, a Director of Coaching Development who can talk to the Head Coach on a human level, without the power dynamics