The most interesting man in junior hockey
He lived the Jerry Maguire Hollywood life of an NFL agent. For some 20 years he represented players who now have their visages enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He calls Kentucky home, has owned thoroughbreds and even had a horse run in the prestigious Kentucky Oaks.
Today, however, Jim Paliafito is just another general manager in the Ontario Hockey League.
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, Palafito is sitting inside the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ont., intently watching his Saginaw Spirit from the press box. Dressed in dark pants, white shirt and maroon tie, Paliafito is a commanding physical presence though his personality is far more understated. Outside of the occasional fist hitting the counter after goals by the hometown Battalion, there’s nothing boisterous or eye-catching that makes Paliafito stand out.
That changes once you hear the 53-year-old's journey to his current lot in life.
“It’s like that commercial with the ‘Most Interesting Man in the World,’” says long-time friend Paul Skjodt, who gave Paliafito his first hockey job with the USHL’s Indiana Ice. “Based on where he’s come from, Jimmy’s the most interesting GM in the OHL.”
And it’s true. Junior hockey seems so far removed from Paliafito’s other endeavours that the first question, naturally, is: How in the world did you end up here?
“I ask myself that,” says Paliafito with a laugh.
As an agent he started representing football players while he was still a business student at Marquette University in his native Milwaukee. He would go on to represent a number of high-profile football players, including Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor, Anthony Munoz and Tony Dorsett.
In 1983, when Taylor was involved in a contentious three-week holdout from training camp with the New York Giants, it was Paliafito who was handling the negotiations for the linebacker many consider the greatest to play the position.
“That was a tough time,” says Palafito. “We were holding him out and it got pretty intense, but it was something that we just had to do and it worked out well for him.
“That’s all part of sports and negotiating.”
Eventually it was the constant grind, the many nights spent on the road while trying to raise young kids with his wife of 27 years, Bonnie, that forced him to think about making a career change.
“I think after doing it for 20 years and starting a family and things like that, your priorities change,” says Paliafito, who grew up as a hockey fan. “It’s just a different lifestyle. You’re gone a lot. But it was good to me and I’ve always loved hockey a lot and the opportunity came, and it was just something that I still wanted to do in my lifetime.”
So he gave up the glamour of Monday Night Football, household-name athletes, and cheerleaders. In exchange, he now deals with cold arenas, bus trips and lousy coffee.
“A lot of bad coffee,” says Skjodt of the scouting life. “If you really want to be good you’ve got to have the ability to get through that and watch (hockey) all day long. You’ve got to love what you’re doing.
“There’s not too many guys that will spend that much time in cold hockey rinks to put these teams together, but he believes in what he does.”
Paliafito made his first foray into hockey with a Triple-A team that eventually morphed into a job with the USHL’s Ice. Skjodt bought the team and hired his friend to become the team’s vice-president of player personnel.
“He did an outstanding job for us,” says Skjodt. “His work was probably the biggest reason why we ended up winning the Clark Cup (USHL championship) in 2009, because of his ability to find players and groom players. He had a really great hockey eye.”
Scouting, it seems, comes naturally to Paliafito, who was doing it back even during his days as an agent – trying to find the best talent possible to represent. That eye for talent included horse racing where he has dabbled with thoroughbreds. He eventually saw his horse Joe’s Tammie run in the 1988 Kentucky Oaks – the premier stakes race for three-year-old fillies.
“I just think it’s something you kind of have a knack for,” says Paliafito who put down roots in his wife’s native Kentucky some 27 years ago. “There’s no book you can really read, you can learn by talking to people, but I just think it’s either you have a good eye or you don’t. It’s very subjective and the people who say they’re right all the time aren’t being very honest, because sometimes you’re going to be wrong.”
With his children now grown – daughter Gina is a senior in high school and son Christopher is a goaltender and student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut – Paliafito is back on the road evaluating talent for the Spirit, the team joined as a scout in 2009. He became GM last December when his predecessor Todd Watson was fired after an 11-17-0-2 start with a team many thought would challenge for the Western Conference title. Greg Gilbert was hired as coach and Paliafito’s first moves were to trade NHL draft picks Jamie Oleksiak, John McFarland and Anthony Camara.
The deals worked and not only did the team rebound with a 20-10-1-5 record to make the playoffs, but they knocked off the higher-seeded Sarnia Sting in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual OHL-champion London Knights. The turnaround was so surprising that Gilbert was named the league’s coach of the year. This season the rebuilding Spirit are fielding a much younger squad, reflected in their 3-5-2-0 start.
“We’re pretty committed to stay in the direction we’ve started to go,” says Paliafito. “You’ve got to ride it out. What we’re doing is a marathon, not a sprint. I think Greg and I, we’re on the same page.”
Their relationship also includes a lot of good-natured ribbing.
“Did he tell you about the Ferraris and Lamborghinis?” asks Gilbert, playfully.
“No, he spends too much money on gas working and driving around,” says the former NHL coach with a smile. “He’s always gone. He’s got to be one of the hardest working guys in all of hockey. He lives down south (in Kentucky) and he comes up to Saginaw, watches some games and then he’s gone – a week, two weeks – travelling around watching games and scouting kids getting ready for next year’s (OHL) draft.”
By his own calculations, Paliafito figures he spends roughly 150 nights in a hotel while on the road looking for hockey’s next great star. And while it might not have the same cachet as his other ventures, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s nothing better,” says Paliafito. “I love what I’m doing and I kind of wish I would have done it 20 years ago.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
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