Why Ryan O’Reilly went from worst to first after leaving the Buffalo Sabres

For those of you not familiar with NHL hockey, Ryan O’Reilly became the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs in June as he led his team, the St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup (the championship) over the Boston Bruins. 

Less than a year prior to that accomplishment, O’Reilly was a member of the Buffalo Sabres and during his three years, the team didn’t even get close to reaching the playoffs (in order to make the playoffs, the team needs to be in the top 8 of 16 teams). 

Near the end of his third year of losing with the Sabres, O’Reilly frustratedly said to reporters of the team, “I think we are stuck in the mindset of being OK with losing”. He also said, regarding his own relationship with hockey, “It’s sad, I feel throughout the year, I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times” 

In less than three months after those comments, O’Reilly was traded to the Blues. Part of the explanation as to why was that representatives of the Sabres said it was a move to improve the culture. 

It’s possible that O’Reilly wasn’t following the Sabres’ core values and was either consciously or unconsciously creating a counterculture in the locker room that the Sabres leadership was not happy with. However, it’s also possible that O’Reilly, playing the role of captain and voice of the team, was properly sharing his (and other players) concerns with team leadership behind closed doors. After many attempts, perhaps he felt that he wasn’t being heard and at a point where he wanted out, he finally decided to say it to the reporters with the hope of getting leaderships’ attention - and that he did. 

After being traded, within one years time, he becomes a Stanley Cup champion and the MVP. In other words, O’Reilly went from worst to first within one season. 

It’s easy to make the argument that this is anecdotal. However, the Sabres also released goalie Robin Lehner in 2018 only to watch him have the best year of his career and play a pivotal role in helping the New York Islanders make it to the second round of the NHL playoffs after the Islanders missing the playoffs for two years.

No matter who’s at fault, the Buffalo Sabres haven’t been good enough to even be considered average as they have failed to make the playoffs in the past 8 seasons. This many years of losing create three significant problems. First of all, it becomes extremely difficult to attract new talent. Secondly, losing and being “average” becomes accepted over time. Third, the most talented individuals leave while everyone who remains muddle through the day, uninspired as they count down the hours until they can go home.

Considering the average career length for an NHL player is 5 years, I can’t blame O'Reilly for speaking up and wanting to leave. He knew he was far better than average and considering he believed he was apart of a culture where losing was accepted, he decided to speak up knowing that he probably would be traded.

This problem is not all that dissimilar to what happens in small businesses. When a business owner does not invest the time to shape the culture around its core values, then the business owner fails to clarify the most basic rules all employees must follow. It also opens the door for others in the company to create their own version of the company culture and when this occurs, the culture tends to default to somewhere between dysfunctional and outright toxic. Regardless, it’s no longer the culture that you want it to be.

In everyone of my experiences, when a company had a dysfunctional or a toxic culture it was because the owner never created, shared, and/or followed the company core values. This point is so important because if a company does not have a strong, healthy culture, it operates far more inefficiently and is therefore much more expensive to operate. 

The only way to build a strong, healthy culture is to use company core values as the foundation for all decision making. In other words, the business owner should know their core values. Those values should be displayed on the walls, they should be discussed during company meetings and most importantly, all employees (starting with the owner) should be held accountable for their actions based upon them. 

A company with a healthy culture is a company with happy employees, a company with happy employees is a company with happy customers, a company with happy customers is a company that is incredibly successful - it really is that simple of a formula. 

At one time, Cellino plumbing was struggling with the same three problems as the Buffalo Sabres, they were having a difficult time attracting new talent, they had an existing culture where “below average” was acceptable and the most talented employees would eventually leave.  

About four years ago, to improve this dysfunctional culture, CEO, Luke Cellino and owners, Tony and Kim, decided to focus on core-value-style leadership. As part of the process, all of the employees were educated on the importance of using their company core values which are Commitment, Enthusiasm, Integrity, Professionalism, and Quality as part of every decision and interaction they have with each other and the customers.  As a way to keep it top of mind, they began sharing the core values at every weekly team meeting and selected one employee per week to share a story of another member of the team exemplifying one of the values. Most importantly, Luke, Tony, and Kim led by example using the core values as the basis for every business decision. 

At first, nothing changed because this process always starts slow. But the four years as the company continued to hire more employees that embodied the company core values and terminated those that did not, Cellino Plumbing created a more enjoyable work environment, with happier employees. 

Now don’t get me wrong, the gang at Cellino Plumbing still have their issues. However, as they continue to follow this core value style leadership and build a team that work and communicate well with each other, it has become far easier to resolve any issue no matter how difficult it may appear.  At one time, the company struggled to find quality plumbers and support staff. Now Cellino gets resumes for all positions without much trouble as they are making a name for themselves as the premier plumbing (and now HVAC) company to work for. It’s a good thing considering Cellino plumbing has been growing annually at a double digit pace over those four years. 

This brings us back to the Sabres and Ryan O’Reilly. Were the Buffalo Sabres merely ridding themselves of a person that failed to follow the company core values, or was O’Reilly stuck in a toxic environment and did what was needed to get out? Considering the Sabres have not been good enough to even reach 8th place, missing the playoffs for 8 straight years, followed by O’Reilly becoming the Stanley Cup champion MVP in less than one, it’s hard for me to believe that the Buffalo Sabres don’t have some form of a dysfunctional or toxic culture.

A recent Glassdoor survey said 56% of all workers value culture over salary. People want to work in an environment that offers purpose, potential and is a joy to come to each day. Happy employees make a winning team. Regardless, if you are the owner of the Buffalo Sabres or of a small business, a healthy company culture is always first built upon a foundation of company core value leadership. 

Begin the process today - write out your Company Core Values, share them with your staff, hang them on the wall, place them on your website, remind everyone what they are and most importantly, live and lead by them. In doing so, you will create a healthy culture, a happy staff and a Stanley Cup-like winning team. 

Go Sabres!