You are frustrated. Your beloved Senators have come off one of their worst seasons. The team is very different from what it was a season ago. You have seen the billboards and comments on social media and may have chirped the team. We get it. But what you might not realize is that Pierre Dorion also gets it and shares your frustration.
The Sens GM does not want the team to fail. Why would he? It’s his job to ice a competitive hockey team. Pierre Dorion grew up in a hockey family and has known nothing else his whole life. He was a scout, director of player personnel and assistant general manager. Dorion loves the game and the team. And he isn’t afraid to meet face-to-face with frustrated fans to answer tough questions.
I met Pierre Dorion on Friday, August 2nd at the Royal Oak at Kent and Slater. He was there to chat with media about the new partnership between the Sens and the staple Ottawa pub. While waiting to speak with media representatives, Pierre engaged with patrons. He walked around to tables in the Royal Oak to introduce himself and chat hockey. I don’t think most fans would fault Dorion had he stayed in the corner to avoid a frustrated and vocal fan base. But he took the time to shake hands, answer questions and snap pictures. I was somewhat relieved.
I didn’t know how Dorion would react to questions about fan frustration. Would he deflect or even walk away? My concerns were baseless. Pierre was candid and came across as genuine. Pierre Dorion knows it’s been very, very hard to be a Sens fan lately. He recognizes there have been challenges and that some things should have gone better. But they didn’t. All he is asking from Sens fans is a chance. His vision is to make the Sens an exciting, youthful and competitive team that stays for the long haul.
It will take time for this vision to become reality. But Dorion believes the current pieces are taking shape. Energetic young players, a deep prospect pool and an attack-minded coach. If Dorion is right, it should make for exciting hockey in 2019-2020 and beyond.
Before we talk about the vision for the 2019-2020 season and beyond, let’s talk about last season. What are your takeaways? What worked and what needs some improvement both on- and off-ice?
I think what worked is that we were able to implement younger players in our lineup, and they had successes. Looking forward, we still have to do that but surround the younger players with quality veterans. This will help mentor the younger players and show them how to win. Bringing in quality and character guys is going to be key to the future success of this organization.
Fans have been vocal on social media about their concerns. What do you want to tell fans to help them better understand your side?
First of all, our fans are the most important thing. I always say that when it comes to the organization, the players are the most important thing. But outside the organization, the fans are the most important thing. If I could sit down with everyone who has concerns, I would love to do it. We decided to do a rebuild. Now the worst is behind us. This team is going to grow and develop together. We are building a championship team, but we have to follow the process. We are not going to take shortcuts. We are going to follow the plan.
“The worst is definitely behind us. Now we are progressing, growing and developing as a team. “
We need to make sure our young players are ready to contribute at the Ottawa Senators level. Some players will take 2 years to develop in Belleville, some may take half a year, and others 4 years – it depends on the player. At the same time, we want to tell fans it’s not just going to be a bunch of young players. They need to develop properly, and most develop and pay their dues at the American Hockey League level. They make mistakes there that aren’t seen on TSN and Sportsnet every day. But we have to be proactive and intelligent with how we develop these young players. And we have a lot of grade A, blue-chip prospects that we will help develop at the NHL level.
You talk about the Sens having lots of prospects. The team has a history of success scouting and drafting great players, as well as recruiting high-end prospects out of college. However, there seems to be a struggle retaining this talent especially with elite players. What challenges do you face in retaining top-level talent?
Our scouting staff is top notch. I think I was a pretty good chief scout, but I think Trent Mann is a better chief scout than I ever was. He has done a tremendous job drafting players. I also think we are able to get players out of the college level because when the team is closer to the bottom of the league, more youngers guys out of college see a better chance of playing with a team that doesn’t have as much success. As far as keeping elite level players, it can be a challenge. We always try to keep younger players and offer long-term contracts. But some players, elite-level players in the past, perhaps they didn’t want to be part of a rebuild. We have to be willing to understand that, while at the same time understanding the younger players we have are the rebuild. They will grow together, win together and hopefully win a championship together. Of course, we wanted to keep some of the players we ended up trading but, at the same time, we knew we had to be responsible to maintain room for the future stars we have right now.
How do you try and find a balance between sticking to an internal budget and building a team that fans want to watch?
When it comes to internal budget, right now we are in a phase where the team is rebuilding. Obviously, we aren’t going to spend as much as teams that are at the cap. But we have cap and budget flexibility to make moves. Let’s say a team phones us tomorrow and says, “Take on this contract and we’ll give you a first rounder”, we would do it in a heartbeat. For us, it’s about making sure that some of the money we are saving now will go to the stars when it comes time to pay them. But there is no limit on what we can do right now.
The 2019-2020 is fast approaching and the Sens have made some on- and off-ice moves. Can fans expect more moves before the start of the season?
I think, for the most part, what we are looking at is the team we are going to ice on October 2nd against Toronto. But there is always a chance that more changes will come. For example, the Condon deal came really quickly. We felt we did it for the development of the younger goalies in Belleville, amongst other reasons.
You mentioned a plan and vision for the team. Some fans talk about a lack of transparency from the team and are therefore being critical.
And that’s understandable. When you have been a bottom of the league team for the last little while, fans will be critical. We feel, as a group, that the worst is definitely behind us. Now we are progressing, growing and developing as a team. You’re going to see our younger players take on a bigger role, but still follow the mentorship of older guys.
What is your vision for 2019-2020 and beyond?
For us, we’re probably going to implement 4-5 new younger players into our lineup. At the same time, our fans need to know Tkachuk, White and Chabot are fairly young players. So, we’re going to see some newer guys come in. This year, the expectations are that we need to be better than we have been. We have to see the team compete, have more accountability and a higher energy level game-in-game-out. One thing I am especially proud of is hiring D.J. Smith as coach, and he hasn’t even coached one game in the NHL. We knew, right from the first interview, that he was the right guy. He is going to bring a totally different approach. I think the fans are going to be excited about how we play, how we approach things, and how we have a never-die attitude, and they’ll be proud of the team. Because the worst is behind us, now we are going to be much better.
Congratulations on the new partnership with the Royal Oak. How did the partnership come together and what can fans expect from it at the CTC?
I think the Ottawa Senators and Royal Oak are two staples of this city. We have all been to a Royal Oak. There are many locations across the city, and I don’t think there’s a better place to enjoy beer and some wings. But at the same time, having that experience in the building will be great for a pre-game meal or post-game celebration. Bringing that experience to the Canadian Tire Centre is something our fans will really appreciate.
What does an average day look like for a GM during the off-season?
Pretty much like every other working man’s day. I’m an early riser, so I’m often at the office around 7:00 am. Most days you are returning calls, negotiating contracts, planning, etc. Our busiest time of the year, I would say, is right when the season is done until about mid-August when the arbitration cases are done.
“I would ask the fans to give us a chance. Give us a chance to show that the tough decisions we made will have gains. We know we will be a good team that the fans can get behind.”
This season we hired a new coach and coaching staff, so that changes things. But right now, we are planning for the upcoming season. They are long days, and days when you work weekends, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There are only 32 jobs like this and I’m very fortunate and thankful to have this job, especially in my hometown.
Tell us about Pierre Dorion the person. What are your hobbies? What do you like to do with your free time? What would fans be surprised to learn about you?
The two things I enjoy most in life are my two kids. I bought my daughter a car a few months ago. That’s probably one of the best times I’ve had with her. She was so happy. I spend lots of time with my son, who is a big golfer. I’m a big golfer. It’s one of my biggest passions and I wish I could play more. My son recently beat me for the first time. Spending time with my kids is something I don’t get as much time to do during the season. But during the summer I try to spend as much time as possible. I’ve had the same girlfriend for 4 years this December. She rejected me twice before – once in high school and in 1999 before I met my wife. But now we are together and I’m truly in love with Melanie. She makes me so happy. She has a son who is the same age as my son and a daughter who is 2 years younger than my daughter. My favourite beer is Coors Light. My favourite non-beer drink is a Moscow mule. On the plane ride home, I’ll have one if we win, but not if we lose. Every day I wake up I am thankful for this job. I don’t take it for granted. I think every loss hurts me more than people know. I know better things are ahead, but I have to bite the bullet whenever we lose. I went to Garneau High School in Orleans and have pretty much the same core group of friends. Many of us went to University of Ottawa together too. On a night off I’ll end up watching a hockey game, which annoys Melanie a bit.
What are you most looking forward to this season?
As a general manager, this is the year I am most excited for. People may say you’d be excited about your first year. But I am excited to be working with D.J. Smith. He’s our number one choice for coach and we’re looking forward to working with him. If you look at our roster last year on October 4th when we played our first game, we have made significant changes. That team, for whatever reason, didn’t work. We feel that with all the changes we made, we will be a four-line team, a six-defenceman team with a strong make-up. People are going to be able to identify with this team. We feel our defence is deep and that some of the younger players are going to take big steps with big minutes. There will be mistakes, but we will grow and be better for it.
Let’s say there are fans who have given up. All their favourite players are gone, and they are fed up. What would you say to get them to trust you and the process and convince them to come to games?
In every rebuild there is a tough phase. I assure our fans that the worst is behind us. I can say this with the utmost confidence. We are going to start seeing the fruits and gains of the tough decisions we made in the past few years. But most importantly, these players are going to be here for the long haul. There are no plans to trade our young stars. If we can get contracts done, we are going to sign them all to long-term deals. And we’re all going to grow together. I would ask the fans to grow with us at the same time as this rebuild, growth and development of this team is going on. We are going to be fun to watch. Guy Boucher was a great coach and we give him a lot of credit, but he was very defensive. With D.J. Smith, he enjoys being on the puck, attacking and forechecking, which brings excitement. But at the same time, his defensive structure is way different than what we have seen in the past. I know our special teams will also be better.
So, I would ask the fans to give us a chance. Give us a chance to show that the tough decisions we made will have gains. We know we will be a good team that the fans can get behind. Of course, we recognize and thank the fans who have stayed behind us these past 2 years. We know that has been very difficult and we appreciate the fans sticking with us.
I’m from Ottawa and I remember when the franchise came here—I was in high school. They were bad but developed into something good. We are trending and going in the right direction. Let’s not fool ourselves, there will be some tough nights, but as long as we have a healthy team, we will have something the fans can get behind. This is why it’s the most excited I have been as a general manager.