EXPERIENCE IS KEY FOR KURVERS AS NEW IOWA WILD GMJul 31, 2018
By Tom Witosky
When Tom Kurvers received the phone call from Minnesota Wild General Manager Paul Fenton about becoming his top assistant, the Eden Prairie, Minnesota, native was neither surprised nor reluctant to the take job.
“I wasn’t that surprised because I was here already,” Kurvers, 55, said. “I was excited because it was a good phone call to get.”
Fenton hired Kurvers as Minnesota’s assistant general manager and general manager of the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild shortly after their phone conversation. They have known each other for years and have a common philosophy about player development in the NHL and hockey in general.
“Paul has been a friend since 1983,” Kurvers explained. “We would have a continuing dialogue whenever we would bump into each other and we are more or less in the same job description for the last 20 years.”
As the Iowa Wild’s new general manager, Kurvers brings a resume full of NHL experience. Player, scout, radio broadcaster, front office executive and even a brief stint as an interim assistant coach marks a resume on which he can rely. During his 11-year NHL playing career, the 1985 Hobey Baker award winner scored 93 goals and notched 328 assists across more than 650 games with seven different teams, including the 1985-86 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadians.
Kurvers also acknowledged he has learned valuable lessons over the years, even when they haven’t been pleasant. Early in the 1989-90 season, the New Jersey Devils traded Kurvers to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Toronto’s top draft choice in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. With Toronto’s draft pick from the trade, the Devils selected Scott Niedermayer, who played for 18 seasons and is regarded as one of the top defensemen in NHL history.
For Kurvers, it’s meant becoming a target of derision among the fanatical Maple Leafs fans to this day, despite the fact Kurvers had nothing to do with the trade and ranked seventh in points on the Leafs’ roster that year as one of the league’s top defenseman.
“I wasn’t traded for a Hall of Famer, I was traded for a draft pick,” Kurvers said with a wry smile. “When I go to Montreal, I am one of the alumni who helped win a Stanley Cup. I go to Vancouver for a cup of coffee and they sorta, kinda remember me. But I go to Toronto and I am the guy that did it to them.”
At the same time, Kurvers said the trade had such an underlying historical impact that a documentary was made about the process and aftermath. The movie, featuring Viacheslav Fetisov, is about one of the first hockey players from behind the Iron Curtain to play in the NHL. Fetisov played his first game on Oct. 5, 1989; Kurvers’ trade to the Maple Leafs took place 11 days later.
“I was in Chicago scouting when I saw the movie was in town. So, I went to this movie and I am sitting there and it is just fascinating stuff,” Kurvers said of the movie Red Army.
During the movie, he became aware that he had been involved not only in a piece of hockey history, but also in a development that progressed the NHL to a much more international league.
“In the course of the movie, Fetisov says I fought for it, I fought for it and finally they allowed me to leave the country. I was the first athlete to go from behind the Iron Curtain to take a job in the West,” Kurvers remembered. “That made me the first person to lose their job to someone coming from behind the Iron Curtain. Not maybe me, but me. There is no question about that. I sat there and just said to myself, ‘Oh, wow. I am actually drifting close to history here.’”
When asked what he learned from the entire experience, Kurvers was direct, succinct and informative.
“I learned that trading draft picks is dangerous. It is very dangerous,” he said.
When Fenton announced his decision to hire Kurvers, he spoke of the years the two had known each other. The two had played briefly together before Kurvers left Toronto.
“I’ve had a relationship with him for a long time,” Fenton said. “We have always had a good relationship and looked at the game the same way, and I thought if I ever got a job he’d be the type of guy I would want in my front office.”
Kurvers, who had been scouting the Midwest for years for the Tampa Bay Lightning while living in the Twin Cities area, said he didn’t seek the job, but wasn’t surprised when Fenton called. Kurvers regularly attended Minnesota Wild games and was a frequent figure on scout row at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines to watch Iowa and its opponents.
“I can’t say we knew that we looked at things the same way, but there was always comfort there in the conversations,” Kurvers said. “I’ve always had respect for Paul and how hard he worked and how he approached the business and the game.”
Asked how he assessed the first five years of Iowa Wild hockey on the ice, Kurvers acknowledged that continuing the improvement of the last two seasons is a top priority, while also focusing on the development of players with NHL potential.
“We all saw them struggle,” he said. “The reality is that it gets hard on everyone when you aren’t winning. It actually wears people out. The job for everyone is a constant challenge but when you don’t get enough wins, it really wears people out.”
Kurvers attributed much of Iowa’s early problems on the demands of the parent club and the relatively quick development of players. He said Minnesota, which has recorded consecutive 100-point seasons, isn’t much different than other NHL teams in that respect because the demands of an NHL season are so great.
“You need the players to play and be able to play in the NHL sometime during their entry-level contract years,” he said. “But you still need them to play the pro game when in most cases they aren’t able to make the jump from college or juniors straight into the NHL.”
As a result, Kurvers indicated, some young Wild players might find themselves in the AHL longer than they anticipate as they develop into solid professional hockey players.
Former Iowa Wild defenseman Nick Seeler, who finished the season with Minnesota and recently signed a three-year contract, represents how taking time to develop a player benefits the individual and team, he said. Seeler, who was called up to Minnesota after playing 106 AHL games with Iowa over two seasons, impressed the parent club’s staff with his decision making and his tenacious work in front of the goal.
“It took him a long, winding road from being drafted to playing for this team. He’d been through a lot and learned a lot,” Kurvers said, adding that is the model likely to be followed in the future. “What you would prefer is to have the player completely ready for the NHL and arrive with authority. That’s what Nick did.”
Kurvers also stated his philosophy, like Fenton’s, is to use draft choices as the primary tool to build a winning hockey team. He pointed to his years with the Tampa Bay Lightning under GM Steve Yzerman for showing the success of such an approach.
“We were protective of our draft picks in Tampa. I learned that from Steve Yzerman and he learned that from the Detroit Red Wings’ way of doing business,” Kurvers said. He added, “we were in much the same position as Minnesota in Tampa when Steve arrived.”
He said the Lighting didn’t have a great number of prospects, but over the last eight seasons, that has changed dramatically.
“Tampa now has had and has fuel in the system in terms of draft picks and prospects on their way. The roster has proven that in Tampa and there is more to come down there,” Kurvers said.
With his new job, Kurvers will be a frequent traveler on I-35, but that won’t be anything new.
Kurvers’ oldest daughter, Madison, graduated from Iowa State in 2017 with a degree in marketing and advertising. His other daughter, Rose, has been accepted at Iowa State, but her decision whether to attend school in Ames or not is still pending.
“I took the drive down there often,” he said. “Most every trip I managed to work in a stop in Ames. I would often stay in Ames to have dinner or coffee with my daughter.”
He has been in Des Moines enough to visit the downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market and expects to be here frequently during the season. His goals will twofold: provide encouragement and accountability.
“When the season gets going, it is a long hard grind of 190 days. After you have been doing it for a while you need someone to show up to provide a little inspiration,” Kurvers said. “So if the players see me or one of the staff from Saint Paul at the morning skate and get a quick word or two with them that might give him a little jolt to have a good game.”
At the same time, he said it also reminds each player that their best is expected every day in practice and in games.
“When they see the suit and tie show up, they are reminded that it is a business and decisions have to be made. That reminds them to think about how well they want to show themselves,” Kurvers said.
That’s what‘s called experience.