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Inside the Mind of Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis - continued

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Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis
Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis Brian Howell
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Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis has taken an unconventional approach to creating a model sports franchise

Ever since, general managers, owners, and commissioners have found themselves up against a smart, learned, calculating adversary who, for good reason, feels zero loyalty to the old-boys network and the NHL crest. “Mike’s reputation as an agent was that of an extremely hard bargainer,” says Laurence Gilman, who met him across the table when Gilman worked for the Phoenix Coyotes. “He implicitly understood his clients’ leverage and maximized it in every negotiation. He was viewed as a staunch supporter of players’ rights. And of course his reputation with the hockey establishment had been impacted by his legal pursuit of Eagleson. There were many agents and club executives who hoped he’d go away.”

He did not. He worked tirelessly, alone, from his Kingston home. The house wasn’t adorned with the usual hockey memorabilia; it was better known for gourmet dinners, vintage wines, and tasteful art. Craig Button, one-time general manager in Calgary, says of dealing with Gillis: “When it came to business, there wasn’t a lot of time wasted on pleasantries. It was, ‘What are we going to talk about? How are we going to do this?’” Without an assistant, Gillis negotiated rich contracts for clients like Tony Amonte, Mike Richter, Pat Verbeek, and Bobby Holik (whose extraordinary five-year, $45-million deal with the Rangers led, some believe, to the 2004-05 lockout and resulting salary cap).

Laurence Gilman, now Gillis’s assistant GM, sees in his boss a sophisticated and unique hockey mind: “He understands how players and agents think, and he knows what they look for in teams. He developed this insight from having watched and studied many organizations over the years. Mike’s great advantage is that he’s an independent thinker.”

Upon taking the reins in Vancouver, Gillis assessed the talent, on and off the ice. The 2008-09 Canucks had a solid core in goalie Roberto Luongo, the Sedin twins, emerging centre Ryan Kesler, and veteran defencemen Mattias Ohlund, Willie Mitchell, and Sami Salo. The farm system, however, was felt to be bereft of emerging NHLers after Brian Burke’s bumptious tenure as GM.

Gillis wanted to adapt the methods of the successful franchises he’d studied, particularly Detroit and New Jersey. He felt the team needed to put emphasis on skill, speed, and a progressive approach to player development. In a major surprise, he kept Alain Vigneault as head coach. Noted as a defensive specialist, Vigneault quickly bought into Gillis’s attacking system. “Alain’s a very smart guy,” says Gillis. “When we explained what we wanted to do, he came onboard.” Gillis believed that turnover was needed but that a total rebuild was unnecessary. He instructed Gilman, Lorne Henning (his player personnel head), and former client Dave Gagner (director of player development) that they’d have, in effect, an extra draft every two years by combing the ranks of undrafted and unsigned college and junior players.

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