Glued to Channel 38 on a 19-inch black-and-white television that had an enormous antenna.
That’s how Paul Fenton fell in love with hockey, by watching Bobby Orr and the Bruins from the living room of his childhood home in Springfield, Mass.
“There’s not a better way to be introduced to the game,” Fenton said. “I think he’s the most influential and best player to ever play in the National Hockey League.”
Fenton developed his own aspirations to suit up, telling his teachers as a youngster that he was going to be a pro. And he was, for 10 years.
Eventually, though, another dream emerged and that, too, became a reality when Fenton was hired in May to become the Wild’s third general manager.
And while this challenge is new for the 58-year-old, the motivation behind it isn’t, since the passion for the game that captivated Fenton as a child is still guiding him, days before the start of his inaugural season at the helm of the Wild.
“We all have the desire more than anything else to win championships,” Fenton said. “I grew up with the Bruins winning in ’70 and ’72. There’s no one involved in hockey that does not remember Bobby Orr flying through the air, so talk about a selling point to lodge in your memory.
“That’s what drives you is to win a Stanley Cup.”
The son of a police chief, Fenton started playing when he was 3; his dad, Paul Fenton Sr., had heard from a friend that hockey was an up-and-coming sport in the area, so he enlisted young Paul.
“I just took to it in a big way and just never stopped,” Fenton said.
It was the speed of the game that hooked him, along with the intensity and competitiveness, and when he was 16, the seeds of his future were sowed after impressing during a summer junior league.
Jack Ferreira was the coach and not only did he recommend Fenton to then-Boston University coach Jack Parker, who ultimately added Fenton, but Ferreira hired Fenton as a scout once Fenton stopped playing.
“The thing that always struck me with him was his determination,” said Ferreira, whom Fenton brought on as a senior adviser for the Wild. “He had a lot of get-up-and-go, and he’d never take no for an answer.”
Once he retired as a player, Fenton figured he would pursue coaching. But he never looked back once he got on the management track with Ferreira in Anaheim.
He came off as a natural in some ways to Ferreira because of his perseverance to follow through on an observation in a player, and that tenacity became his calling card. And when he moved on to Nashville, spending 20 seasons as an executive before joining the Wild, he banked the experience there to further cultivate his vision.
“We developed a staff that was family, that really understood the way that we wanted to look at a player, to really look under the hood and see how these guys perform day in, day out,” Fenton said. “What is his competitiveness? What is his character? To me, it’s the hockey sense and character that separates guys. We add skill level into that because that’s the nature of our game.
“[But] if they don’t have the passion to help your team excel, then it just makes it very difficult.”
This is the approach Fenton is bringing to the Wild, an outlook in which hockey and a commitment to it are synonymous with family. Cohesiveness is important, and it’s the contributions from the role players — such as Greg Pateryn as the fifth defenseman — that have made Fenton feel encouraged.
Even so, Fenton is constantly evaluating the team. He was conservative in the summer, opting to keep the current group intact to make a better assessment after it started to play again, but he’s continued to monitor opportunities for improvement.
“It’s not like I haven’t looked at certain things, talked about things,” he said. “That’s the cool thing. That’s what we do every day, talk about what changes we could possibly make that will make us take another step. It is a building process. It is brick by brick.”
Step by step
Ferreira actually believes it will take a year or two before Fenton has completely molded the Wild to his liking, and that patience is another part of Fenton’s makeup; it was the influence of his dad, who everyone called “Chief” — even Fenton.
“Just a wonderful man, an incredible disposition that didn’t lose perspective on a lot of things,” Fenton said. “Even though I have some different, outgoing passion to me, I think I take a lot of his perspective and don’t lose reality.”
So on the brink of Thursday’s season opener in Colorado against the Avalanche, Fenton is excited but also preparing to keep a level-headed, long-term view of the process — one that analyzes the Wild from period to period and game to game.
“Your goal is to make the playoffs and then advance from there and see how far you’re going,” he said. “You can’t get too far ahead. You have to look in segments. You have to look at every single night, and then you have to look at how the patches kind of mesh together as you go along.”
Paying attention to the journey is key, especially since Fenton was brought in to help direct it to a tough-to-reach destination. But that’s also exactly why Fenton cares because chasing the Stanley Cup is what inspires him.
“It’s his nature,” Ferreira said. “It’s what he loves, and he’s going to give it 110 percent.”