Detroit Red Wings – A Case Study in Succession Planning

Hockey Sticks In A Bar” by Dan Zen – used under CC BY 2.0 / cropped size from original

Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings playoff streak currently stands at 24 years in a row, the longest current streak of post-season appearances in all North American professional sports. From front line-scouting and middle management to the Executive level, this organization is the model for succession planning.

The Situation

The City of Detroit began a steep decline as a result of mass closings of workshops and factories in the manufacturing sector. In 1989, the first-round draft pick of the Red Wings, Steve Yzerman, scores a career-best 65 goal but was unable to progress past the first round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks. In the following season, Yzerman scored 62 goals, but the team was unable to make the playoffs.

The management of the Red Wings realized the potential in the player and took the opportunity to introduce star players to complement Yzerman, in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup. While this resulted in back to back championships, the Red Wings management recognized the shrinking market of Detroit and needed a shift in team structure philosophy.

Team Structure Philosophy

  • Assessing the Talent – The prevailing opinion of the Red Wings during the NHL Draft is their ability to draft better than any other team. This is made more apparent considering where their selection placement is in the last 15 years. TSN analyst and top scout – Craig Button, described their assessment benchmark as such: “(The Red Wings GM) Ken Holland’s draft philosophy is to get two players out of every draft (to the NHL), doesn’t matter if it’s first round or fifth or sixth,” said Button “They draft players who can skate, with skill but then they become part of a group … They throw them all in the mix. Some are going to make it, some aren’t.”
  • Apprenticing/Mentoring – Similar to the manufacturing industries surrounding Detroit, the use of apprenticeship plays an important factor of the Red Wings success. New draft picks are paired with team veterans to better their craft without the pressure of carrying the franchise as a new team star.
  • Promote – Often overlooked, succession planning requires a three to five year planning schedule which can be seen in each major factor of the Red Wings team management.
    1. Coaches: Bowman retirement to Dave Lewis to Mike Babcock
    2. Captains: Yzerman to Lidstrom to Zetterberg
    3. Teammates: Yzerman and Fedorov to Datsyuk and Zetterberg to Nyquist and Tatar

The final ingredient is, in my opinion, the most important.

  • Ownership Buy-In – Money will need to be spent and there must be an organization-wide belief in the end goal.

Succession Planning in Business

While the average company does not have a payroll of $50 million like the Red Wings, (and even then they are still small compared to high revenue teams such as New York or Chicago) the matter of assessing talent and growing the team to identify the next leaders can be applied to both sports organizations and businesses.

What are your ways of mimicking this success without the budget of a sports franchise?