Beedie prof. Kim Trottier examines art of decision-making

Sep 30, 2013
Kim Trottier-smaller

Beedie School of Business Professor Kim Trottier’s research shows that the decision environments of NHL coaches are analogous to those of business leaders.

Study by Kim Trottier shows making choices under pressure is critical in business as well as sport.

Growing up in the northern Ontario community of Kapuskasing, Beedie School of Business assistant professor Kim Trottier was naturally drawn to the sport of hockey at an early age.

She was at one point the only girl on an all-boys hockey team – drawing attention to herself as the fastest skater in her age group.

She eventually gave up the sport – at least as a player. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as an academic, she would be drawn back to the game she grew up with.

Trottier, a Chartered Accountant whose research interests include mathematical modeling, capital markets, and governance and regulation, has found in professional hockey a microcosm for corporate management and decision-making situations.

Her study, “Leading under pressure, Evaluating a successful decision-making style,” hinges on the premise that the ability to make the right decision under pressure is critical in a variety of domains, including the world of professional sports.

According to Trottier, the work of National Hockey League coaches speaks to the corporate world because their decision environments are analogous to those of business leaders, such as hedge fund managers.

Both coaches and fund managers have “game-specific” information. Coaches rely on player statistics, injury reports and venue characteristics; whereas fund managers tap into market sentiment, exchange and interest rates, and public news such as media releases and earnings reports.

“There are thousands of corporations, and it’s difficult to construct a sample of managers that is undisputedly the cream of the crop,” she says. “The business world is inconstant and complex, but with hockey, we can easily identify the top teams and the top coaches in the world. NHL coaches have obtained a small number of extremely competitive positions by demonstrating outstanding skills over time. Using them as a proxy for top decision makers gives me a sample that is clearly and objectively circumscribed.”

Trottier conducted research and interviews with NHL head coaches Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers (formerly with the Vancouver Canucks) and Glen Gulutzan, formerly of the Dallas Stars.

Trottier is quick to acknowledge the owners of both the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars — the Aquilini and Gagliardi families, respectively — who generously gave her access to the coaches on their teams.

Her research was then extended to a larger sample of NHL coaches as well as sports reporters and amateur hockey coaches.

Working with high-profile sporting personalities in an academic context, especially in a hockey-mad environment like Vancouver, might seem daunting.

But Trottier found both Vigneault and Gulutzan to be compelling and accommodating research subjects.

“They were really receptive and cooperative and very interesting to talk to,” she said. “These guys are quick thinkers with expansive knowledge.”

Trottier’s research explored whether NHL coaches are more inclined to use intuition or analysis. “Since their ability to make good choices is a differentiating characteristic that is key to their effectiveness, one would expect a distinction between how top-level coaches make choices and how others do it,” according to Trottier.

To this end, she investigated whether the proclivity to intuition or analysis differs between NHL coaches and two other groups in the hockey-world: amateur hockey coaches and sports reporters.

Are strong analytic skills a crucial factor differentiating top-level decision makers?

Another intriguing layer to this discussion is the backgrounds of professional hockey coaches themselves. Many, like Vigneault, were former professional players. After playing a few seasons in the NHL, Vigneault knew at the relatively early age of 25 that coaching would be his passion, and he eventually switched to coaching full-time.

Trottier’s research raises important questions about the kind of athletes who are drawn to coaching – and whether that career path is a result of their being an analytical athlete in the midst of mostly intuitive players.

Trottier extends her analysis to explore differences in common biases between NHL and amateur coaches as well as sports reporters, and finds novel results.

An example of a bias is the notion in some circles that a hockey instigator prone to fighting can never be a good leader. When assessing the extent to which they agree with this viewpoint, Trottier found marked differences in the responses between the NHL coaches and their contemporaries from the media and amateur ranks.

Hockey’s “rules of thumb” are another area rich for coaching and decision-making dissection. Trottier describes them as “a different way of looking at intuition versus analysis – rules of thumb are short-cuts that don’t require much cognitive effort.”

A case in point: The oft-used coaching tactic of pulling the goalie during the last few minutes of a game when a team is down by a goal – in order to replace him with a skater and increase the team’s chance of scoring an equalizing marker. Asked whether there were situations where they would not pull the goalie during the last two minutes of a losing game, responses from the NHL coaches in the study were again markedly different from their amateur counterparts.

The art of pulling the goalie as the minutes wind down is a managerial decision without equal in terms of public spotlight and for creating discussion fodder around office water coolers the next morning.

Ultimately, that’s what makes professional hockey such a fascinating microcosm for business. Trottier’s research is a reminder once again of why coaching decisions at the highest levels of professional sport bring out the armchair manager in all of us, hockey fans or otherwise.

This story was first published in the August edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ iPad, Android and desktop magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. To view the full digital magazine or download the iPad and Android apps, visit

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