Bill Torrey is a name that needs no introduction in hockey circles. The legendary bow-tied general manager was the architect of the New York Islanders’ four Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s and is enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
So, when Torrey talks, you listen.
And that’s exactly what Tom Fitzgerald, just beginning his post-playing career in a role in hockey development, did.
“I played for Bill Torrey,” said Fitzgerald, an Islander from 1988-93 before following Torrey to the Florida Panthers from ’93-98. “I consider him a mentor.
“I respect him so much and leaned on him. He said to me one day, ‘I think you’re going to be a great general manager.’ This was way efore. I just thought, ‘general manager? I’m just in development.'”
Obviously, as evidenced by the Islanders’ dynasty, Torrey has an eye for talent. Whether it’s on the ice, on the bench or in hockey operations. And his intuition would later bear fruit as Fitzgerald would become the New Jersey Devils general manager, first taking over on Jan. 20, 2020 as interim and then earning his place officially seven months later, July 9.
And over the past year at the helm, Fitzgerald has learned many things. But one stands out amongst them all.
“Where I’ve gained experience is being patient and not just jumping at something, really dissecting it,” Fitzgerald told the Speak of the Devils podcast. “If it’s the right thing, it’ll come to you instead of forcing something. I learned a lot there about just being calmer. My staff are like ‘call so and so back.’ (I tell them) ‘settle down. We’ll be good. We’ll be all right. Dougie Hamilton will listen to us.’ It’s been fun for sure, but learning patience, the process of really digging down and pressure testing my team on answers or getting answers that they may not have thought through the way I see it at the time. We’re a good team and we push each other that’s for sure.”
Fitzgerald makes sure that he and his team put in the time and go through the process of digging deep into every scenario and circumstance, peering at all options from all angles. And through that process, Fitzgerald draws upon his own past as a 17-year NHL player, a Stanley Cup-winning assistant coach, a team developer and 10-plus years as an assistant general manager.
“At the end of the day, it’s my intuition as an ex-player, an ex-coach, a team builder, understanding a locker room, understanding a coaches room and what expectations are needed,” he said. “What pieces are a must to complete your team? That’s the fun part. We’re not a finished product. We’re drafting well, we’re going to develop well and submerge these kids and get them into the lineup at some point. But then you look at the extra pieces that will put us over the top. And I look forward to those days because then you become the Tampa Bay Lightning and they’re just looking for a Blake Coleman or a Barclay Goodrow because they fit and this is what they need. But those days are coming and I’m looking forward to it.”
Fitzgerald has been putting those pieces together and adding a brick to each layer of the building. This offseason alone he’s upgraded the teams defense by signing free agent stud Dougie Hamilton and trading for Ryan Graves, as well as signing Jonathan Bernier to solidify the goaltending position. Fitzgerald and his team have also added another talented draft class to the fold for the future, highlighted by Jack Hughes‘ brother Luke, taken with the fourth-overall pick.
Fitzgerald had a list of team needs heading into the offseason: adding defensive depth and size, adding a veteran goaltender and adding a finishing winger. He has already checked those first few boxes in the past three weeks.
“Saying and doing are two different things,” he noted. “I’m proud of my team for doing the work and going through the process of identifying players that will add the value that we wanted to and help take us to where we want to go. I’m proud of that. It’s something we don’t take lightly … Sometimes it’s exhausting, but we know the end result is always going to be to our benefit. It is satisfying.”
While Fitzgerald has added depth and size to the back end and that veteran 1-2 punch in goal, he is still in search for that winger. But the summer isn’t over yet.
“I think there’s still a little bit of an empty feeling for me as a GM,” he admitted. “I said I want to get a top-6 winger and I haven’t yet. I put pressure on myself, but I’m not going to chase something, and do it because I said it. It’s got to be the right piece for the right price, the right term. But also, why can’t Jesper Bratt take another step. Why can’t (Yegor Sharangovich) become that guy. That’s what you put your faith in.
“We’re still looking to add, we’re still very young up front. We’re starting to get more experience. That’s all I’m trying to do is find guys that have some experience via trade or via free agency.”
In many ways, Fitzgerald is trying to emulate his mentor, Torrey, in building a team from the bottom and taking them to the top. And Fitzgerald’s passion for molding a team is as obvious as his passion for playing the game.
“I’ve always been intrigued with the team building part of it,” he admitted. “Ray Shero gave me an opportunity back in 07-08 to get into the business on the development side, but that development side really came to a head and split and you either take it coaching or take it management. After I coached in ’09 (with Pittsburgh) and won a Cup, I realized that the team building part was the part that I actually got excited about, having a hand in building.”
It’s taken Fitzgerald many years, but Torrey’s premonition is proving true. Fitzgerald has put in the work at every level, and now is at the top of the hockey operations department. But, as a team builder, Fitzgerald knows that if you want to build a championship team on the ice, you must first build a championship team off the ice.
“This is my organization now. I’ve got a lot of help,” he said. “I’ve got great ownership who encourage me to continue to grow the organization, higher executives that we have, (HBSE President) Hugh Weber being a mentor of mine, helping me understanding processes and decision making, and it’s not just a scratch the surface type of thing. You have to dig deep to get proper information to make proper decisions.
“Lastly my staff, they worked tirelessly. I give them a lot of credit. I may be the front of the band here but at the end of the day it’s the people playing the instruments behind me that make me look good. They do a good job of propping me up, that’s for sure.”