Jim Nill has made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time as a general manager. So how does he feel that, after decades of work, the moment has come with his Dallas Stars stuck in a bubble because of the coronavirus, isolated in a hotel and an arena, with no fans in the stands?
“It has been different,” Nill said Tuesday, the Stars’ 52nd day in Edmonton, the hub city for the Western Conference half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, plus the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final. “But there’s two ways you can look at it.
“In life, you can sit and complain about something and wish it was better, or you accept what it is and make the most of it.”
Nill has kept perspective on his journey to the Final. Dallas will play the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay leads the best-of-7 series 3-2 entering Game 6 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Over the years, Nill didn’t get the GM job with his hometown team, the Calgary Flames, gave up chances to pursue GM jobs to help the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup, and gave up a chance to pursue a GM job at least in part because his wife, Bekki, was battling cancer.
But he sees it as for the best.
He ended up with the Stars in 2013 more prepared for what became a seven-year process to get to this point, and his wife is doing well while undergoing treatments every three weeks in Dallas. The Nills are open about her 18-year fight in hopes of inspiring others.
“She’s a living angel,” Nill said.
“I’m thrilled for him, because he’s got a lot of passion,” said Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, who played with Nill in junior with Medicine Hat of the Western Canada Hockey League in 1975-76 and worked with him for 19 seasons in the Detroit front office.
“He was a big part of my success, the Red Wings’ success in Detroit. He’s a good man. He’s got a great family. He’s been involved in hockey a long, long time. You’re happy to see good, good people, good hockey people, get rewarded with their teams’ success.”
After nine seasons as an NHL forward, Nill spent nine as an NHL executive — three with the Ottawa Senators, six with the Red Wings — before becoming a GM candidate. The Hanna, Alberta, native was a finalist with the Flames in 2000, but even though he’d helped build championship teams in Detroit in 1997 and ’98, he didn’t get the job.
Nill spent 13 more years in Detroit, helped build championship teams in 2002 and ’08, and kept learning from several Hall of Famers. At one point, Nill committed to stay in exchange for a high salary for an assistant GM. The Red Wings declined requests from multiple teams to speak to him. Later, Nill negotiated an out clause.
The Montreal Canadiens called in 2012. Nill spoke over the phone twice with owner Geoff Molson but declined to pursue the job in large part because of his wife’s health. When the Stars called a year later, his wife told him it was time to be a GM.
It has been hard. Three times, the Stars missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Twice, they lost to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 in the second round. Last season, it happened in double overtime, and the Blues went on to win the Cup.
But Nill is here for a reason.
“I remember when I first got into this end of the business,” Nill said. “You’re young. You’re energetic. You’re ready to go. You think you can tackle anything. And when I look back now, I had some opportunities maybe to go to other teams when I was younger, probably a good thing I didn’t, because I may have got eaten alive.
“It’s a tough business. You have to live the ups and the downs. You’re dealing with ownership. You’re dealing with media. You’re dealing with players, with agents. And it’s a tough position. And I was very fortunate to be put in the right situations to learn from great people and then to have the opportunity come to Dallas.”
Nill inherited pieces like Jamie Benn and John Klingberg, but via the NHL Draft, trades and free agency, he brought in pieces like Ben Bishop, Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, Anton Khudobin, Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin.
He went from Lindy Ruff to Ken Hitchcock to Jim Montgomery behind the bench, then fired Montgomery on Dec. 10 for unprofessional conduct and replaced him with Rick Bowness.
“It’s not a magic wand,” Holland said. “You work and you build and you draft, and now you’re seeing the fruits of his labor.”
At the same time, his wife has helped give others hope, reaching out to fellow cancer patients, organizing Bible studies for Stars employees and wives. Right now, she’s quarantining at home because of the coronavirus, watching the grandkids, rooting for the Stars.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Nill said. “We all know we don’t know where our next breath’s going to come from, but she lives the right way, treats people right, and she’s in a good spot.”