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ST. LOUIS — When Bill Armstrong was still the St. Louis Blues director of amateur scouting in the middle part of the previous decade, he walked into a meeting with a marquee list of NHL names. Blues senior advisors Larry Pleau and Al MacInnis were there. Team consultant Larry Robinson was there. Assistant GM Martin Brodeur was there. Amateur scout Keith Tkachuk was there.
It could have been chaos with all of that knowledge, all of those opinions, and all of that alpha-male energy. Instead, Blues GM Doug Armstrong orchestrated the meeting in a manner that allowed everyone a voice and genuine input, while still keeping everybody on task and in check.
“He was just so calm,” Bill Armstrong said. “He thought through the entire process very well. As GM, you have to do that. You have to sit back and take a look at all sides and approach with caution, but he wasn’t afraid to have really smart hockey people around him. He wasn’t afraid to have people with talent and opinions.
“He understood that when you have those types of people, they’re specialists in something that you’re not so you’ve got to let them talk and get a feel for their side of things; pull that information out so you can make better decisions.”
As Bill Armstrong returns to St. Louis this week in his fourth season as Arizona’s GM, he freely admits that he has integrated many of Doug Armstrong’s methods and mannerisms into his approach. And as the Coyotes enter the next phase of their rebuild, Arizona’s GM is reminded why going back to his NHL roots is so special.
“It’s always special because when I was a scout, and then when I was the assistant GM, I would always say ‘We want to be the first group here that wins the Stanley Cup,'” he said. “That’s what’s special for me when I go back. I know that we did that.“
Ready or not
When the assistant GM slot opened up in St. Louis, Doug Armstrong already had a good book on Bill Armstrong from the latter’s 14 years in the scouting department. He still did his due diligence, however, talking to people who had worked with his prime candidate. One of those people was Pleau, who had originally signed on for a one-year advisor role, but kept coming back because he enjoyed the job so much.
“Billy and I spent a lot of time just talking hockey, talking management, taking car rides for amateur scouting — I think we worked 10 years together,” said Pleau, who now serves the same role for the Coyotes. “I think the amateur scouting side is a huge piece to have on your side if you’re looking to be a general manager. I told Doug, ‘It’s the right position for him, but if I’m the GM, I don’t let him away from the amateur table. He’s still making the call. He’s still running the amateur side because he’s that good.’
As a former GM, Pleau saw a lot of qualities in Bill Armstrong that put him on a path to becoming a GM.
“When Bill got out in the field, he was a worker,” Pleau said. “He never stopped and he wasn’t afraid to speak his opinion in the meetings. It helped that he was always well spoken, but he’s also a good listener. He doesn’t rush anything. He does his homework.
“I can remember times where we’d be in the scouting meetings. Doug would ask him a question and he’d take a minute before he answered. Everybody was silent, waiting for him to speak. He has a great presence about him. That’s why I think he can manage up pretty well, too. He’s got a good way with people yet he gets his point across.”
Doug Armstrong hesitates to even call himself a mentor or teacher. He describes the relationship he had with Bill Armstrong as more of a give-and-take.
“It’s more just working together and you share experiences,” he said. “He had obviously done a lot more in the amateur scouting area than I had so I learned a lot from him there. Then I just tried to share my experience. Together, we tried to build a program that was sustainable.
“Having more experiences in certain areas and sharing that with him was important for me — to get his opinion on it and also for him to learn things that he wasn’t doing day to day.”
Bill Armstrong had gained a wealth of experience from his time directing the amateur scouting staff, not the least of which was learning to manage people. But there were areas in which he had never dirtied his hands.
“When he left amateur scouting he got involved in pro scouting, which is a different animal,” Doug Armstrong said. “In amateur scouting, you’re very attached to your picks and prospects because you’ve spent all the time studying them; investing resources in them. As a manager, you have to look more globally. Maybe some players that you were expecting to go one direction didn’t go there, and then players from other organizations that you didn’t expect to be as good as they are, in fact turned out to be that good.
“It’s a business at the end of the day and you have to make hard decisions. You have to hire and help run a staff. You have to be involved in player development, player personnel, and then dabbling and understanding what we’re trying to do on all contracts; entry level all the way up to unrestricted. There’s just a whole host of things that you do as a manager that are not advertised or talked about. It’s just the day-to-day business of a hockey team.”
Bill Armstrong got to participate in every one of those GM duties while he served two seasons as AGM on Doug Armstrong’s staff. Despite all of those experiences and the seasoning that they provided for his eventual post with the Coyotes, Bill Armstrong never forgot his first edict. Doug Armstrong made that clear from the get-go.
“When Jarmo [Kekäläinen] left [his position as AGM in 2010] I knew that I wanted that job. I was looking for a new challenge and that was right in my wheelhouse. I remember putting together a presentation; probably a lot of the same structure that I have now for our scouting staff, but the thought process and the structure and the coverage and how we were going to do business.
“Doug says to me, ‘It doesn’t matter how organized you are or how well you do the budgets. If you don’t find players, this job won’t work out for you.’ So when I got the Arizona job, I already understood the priority right from the get-go was to find players.”
Armstrong’s next phase
When Doug Armstrong looks at the Coyotes, he sees similarities to his own experience with the Blues.
“Going way back, we had fluctuations in ownership before [Tom] Stillman came in,” he said. “When Bill started, we weren’t a cap team and you were making decisions as much based on the competitive part of your team as you were on the economic part of the team. Once you get the blessing from ownership to spend with the competitive teams that are trying to win, it changes your outlook, but it’s still no easier because at the end of the day, it’s still a finite amount of money, whether it’s a cap or your budget.”
Doug Armstrong had no idea if Bill Armstrong was ready when he took the Arizona job, but he liked the foundation that he saw and he’s genuinely excited for his old friend as the Coyotes enter the next phase of their overhaul.
“Whether you’re ready or not, it doesn’t matter. When you get the job, you have to take off on it and I think he’s done a nice job there,” Doug Armstrong said. “I think the pandemic obviously really helped out those teams that were trying to acquire draft assets, but I think he did a really good job of taking advantage of the flat cap and of teams that were in trouble because of it.
“Now they’re in a different position than when he got there and you have to be sure that you’re not blindly attached to draft picks or prospects because at certain times you have to use all the assets at your disposal. Sometimes they’re future draft picks and sometimes they’re recently drafted players that you use to get better. That’s an exciting phase for Bill because he’ll get the chance to do something different. The rewards are very immediate with that. You trade for a player, you sign a player or you play the free-agent market, and that result is not four or five years away. It’s four or five hours away.”
The Armstrongs will get the chance to reconnect before the Coyotes face the Blues at Enterprise Center on Thursday. They’ll talk about the past. They’ll talk about their families and they’ll talk about common acquaintances. But there are limits to the sharing now that they are Central Division rivals.
The Blues are trying to regain their customary perch as a Western Conference playoff team. The Coyotes are trying to climb another rung on the Central Division ladder.
“There’s always going to be a friendship there and yeah, there’s always going to be a respect level there,” Bill Armstrong said. “The rest is just business.”
Top photo via Getty Images: Bill Armstrong (fourth from left) and Doug Armstrong (far right) oversaw many drafts in their time together in St. Louis.
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