It was a random game in October. Couldn’t even tell you what team was in town that night. As I walked along the event level towards the Dallas Stars locker room, as I have done a number of times before and since this particular night, Stars general manager Jim Nill stopped me. Unusual, because typically he may give a nod or a smile to the media he passes along the way after games.
He stopped me because he’d heard about what happened during training camp, when I found out that my estranged mother was in a coma after a seizure. She died a few days later. I wrote about it and posted the story on my Twitter account, because writing is a form of catharsis and helps me to work through some particularly heavy experiences.
Somehow, Jim Nill had seen that piece of writing. That’s what he stopped me about that night — to share a personal message in my time of weird grief? unease? complex emotion? (I’m still not sure how to describe losing a parent that wasn’t really a parent, if I’m being honest.) Then he gave me a hug and told me he and his wife, Becky, would be praying for me.
That’s the kind of man Nill is. He cares deeply, and it isn’t limited to just those in his immediate sphere.
He’s shown that in a number of ways since he came to Dallas, even if they’re not always made much of in the public eye. Maybe his biggest expression of the type of person he is came when he gave Stephen Johns the time and space and buffer from the expectations of the public for him to recover from the post-traumatic headaches that plagued him for more than a season and a half. There was also the time he took a 50 percent pay cut at the start of the global pandemic in order to ensure he could keep the jobs of those lower in the organization for as long as possible. Or how hopeful he sounded about joining the executive inclusion committee the NHL is putting together to enact change for equality. “Hopefully we can change lives one person at a time,” he said when asked about why he joined the initiative.
Or how he fired then-head coach Jim Montgomery as a result of a “breach of conduct” when the team was amongst the hottest in the league after turning around a 1-7-1 start because he knows that the off-ice is as important, if not more so, than the on-ice work. He holds everyone to a high standard, and it’s easy to do when you’re willing to live that yourself as a leader.
These are just recent examples. For most, there’s no question that Nill, the man, deserves all of the accolades he gets considering how he treats others.
General manager of the year isn’t a recognition of a good person, though. It is an award voted on by all 31 general managers in the league, a panel of league executives, and select print and broadcast media after the second round of the playoffs. The award is to recognize the work of building a roster that competes well in the NHL.
But there’s something to be said about the honor potentially going to someone so respected in the hockey world.
Nill has had seven seasons in Dallas to re-shape a roster that was all but gutted after the organization went through bankruptcy and league management. He’s been given the salary cap to work with to make the moves he deemed necessary, to sign the contracts he deemed worthy, and to compete in the Western Conference. In those seven seasons, the Stars have made the playoffs four times.
In his first season, they got to the playoffs as an eight seed and lost to the Anaheim Ducks on home ice. They followed that up with not qualifying the next year, followed by a second round exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Two more seasons of not qualifying, and another second round exit at the hands of the Blues once again preceded this year where the team is now in the Western Conference Finals.
There have been some missteps along the way, of course. But no general manager in this league bats a thousand, either. Nill has done a relatively good job at not completely handcuffing the team in the future with long, high-cap contracts while balancing the need to pay the cornerstones of the franchise. Some of it is luck (winning the draft lottery and drafting Miro Heiskanen comes to mind), and some of it is executing a shrewd business move (like trading for Tyler Seguin for pieces that were near the end of their productivity in Dallas).
How Nill handled the ups and downs of this season — both on and off the ice — makes him a well-deserving finalist for the general manager of the year award this year.