Monday, 07.18.2011 / 11:22 PM
Features By Michelle Crechiolo
The Penguins prospects have all gone their separate ways now that the 2011 development camp is over.
But no matter where they’re heading – whether back to college, juniors, or to one of the Penguins’ minor-league affiliates – they’ll have Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald monitoring their development and mentoring them as they embark on the journey of becoming professional hockey players.
The impact Fitzgerald has on these players cannot be understated.
“Knowing his personality, he was a great hire,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said of Fitzgerald, who served as the Predators’ first-ever captain when Shero was Nashville’s assistant GM. “He has got the personality to interact with the players. He’s got over 1,000 games in the National Hockey League. He’s got a great demeanor about him. He is a motivator, he is a teacher, he is a shoulder for these guys to lean on.”
Take, for example, these words from Simon Despres, Pittsburgh’s first-round choice (30th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, who just finished a stellar season with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Despres won a Memorial Cup, the Emile “Butch” Bouchard Trophy as the league’s best defenseman and a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2011 World Juniors.
“I think that I wouldn't be where I was if it wasn't for (Fitzgerald),” Despres said. “He knows the game and he knows what it takes to get to the next level. So when he calls me, I listen to him the most I can. I think that we get along very well and he helps me a lot.”
Fitzgerald, 42, brings invaluable experience to his role, as he’s a 17-season NHL veteran and former first-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 1986. He played 1,097 career games with the Islanders, Florida, Colorado, Nashville, Chicago, Toronto and Boston before retiring in 2006.
Before being promoted to his current role on July 3, 2009, Fitzgerald served two seasons as director of player development. He was also named interim assistant coach for the Penguins on Feb. 15, 2009 and helped coach the club to a Stanley Cup championship just three months later.
According to Penguins assistant GM Jason Botterill, Fitzgerald’s experience as a player coupled with his diverse front-office duties is why he relates so well to the prospects.
“I think that carries a lot of weight with our players,” Botterill said. “Because he has had those experiences, he can pass that along to our players and I think that’s where the respect level is. You talk to our players, and I think the first thing they talk about when they meet Tom for the first time is his passion.
“Tom has four boys and he’s a great father, but he looks upon these prospects as almost an extension of his family. He wants to see them have success, and it’s good to see that enjoyment and that someone can have so much passion for that.”
Botterill’s take is dead on, as Fitzgerald thoroughly enjoys his role of “developing people,” as he puts it.
“We know they’re good hockey players,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, it’s about developing an attitude and developing good habits – just kind of educating them on every aspect of what we are as an organization and what to expect.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think development is saying ‘let’s just watch video, tell them what to eat and tell them how to play.’ It’s about building relationships. To me, that’s what development is all about. You build a trust so the player knows that we have your back. We’re out for your best interests as a player. We know what you want and we want to help you get there.”
Throughout the season, Fitzgerald will keep in touch with both the prospect and his coaches through phone calls, texts and emails.
“I build a relationship with the coach and I build a relationship with the player,” he said. “My philosophy has always been to call the coach first and get what he’s saying of where the kid’s at. Then I call the kid and ask him how he’s doing, what’s going on and to tell me about his game. They might be polar opposites. My job is to bring them together.”
“The good thing with Tom is that he’s up front with players,” Botterill said. “Sometimes, there’s criticism. But when there are criticisms, he doesn't just leave them hanging out to dry. There’s criticism and then there’s ‘this is what you have to do to follow up and improve your game.’ I think that’s the biggest thing. There’s the reinforcement. It’s not just Tom yelling at the players. It’s Tom sometimes being aggressive, but then giving them the plan on what they need to follow up on to develop their career at the next level.”
But despite all of his efforts to the contrary, Fitzgerald knows that sometimes the only way to learn is through actual trial-and-error.
“In life, the only way to gain experience is through experiences,” he said. “I could sit there and tell the batter, fastball. And they sit on it. Here’s the curve. And they sit on it. But when I’m not whispering to them and they’re not learning how to hit the curve and they’re not jumping on the fastball as fast as they should, you’ve got to let them live. You have to let them learn.”
But no matter what the prospects go through, Fitzgerald will be there to help them learn.