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You wrote so movingly about Mike Gillis’s commitment to the Canucks after he arrived. Which surprised you more, his hiring in the first place, or his eventual firing?
Because all GMs are hired to be fired I knew Gillis would be fired someday. Especially after the failure to win Game 7 in 2011 raised expectations in the community—and with ownership—to a ridiculous levels. No one could sustain such scrutiny. So I would have to say that I never thought a major Canadian market would give him a chance. He deserved a chance, but I never thought an owner would risk it.
Mike Gillis’s “Canucktivity” system was such a Renaissance within professional hockey. I was proud as a casual fan to watch a team on the ice that played smart, had trained, and (mostly) avoided brawling. It seemed like a reinvention; in fact, you compare it to Moneyball and the Oakland As. Am I right that Canucktivity was a brief flowering, which we’ve now turned our backs on, in favour of more brawn, more brawl?
The NHL is a copycat league. As bizarre as it sounds, the Game 7 matchup with Boston set the tone for the league for years. Had the Canucks won Game 7, teams and the league itself might have embraced Canucktivity. But because the injury-wracked Canucks lost one game — one game — the NHL’s culture took it as a signal that it couldn’t work. From then on, the Gillis plan was up against very long odds. It’s also why almost every team now plays basically the same style. Eventually the owner lost his nerve to continue the experiment— something that never happened in Moneyball to Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. Their owners backed him unquestioningly.
Can we win a cup that way?
Changing plans every five or six years, you’re on the road to Toronto Maple Leafs dead end. Vancouver fans and media embrace cynicism because it has served them in dealing with the many disappointments since 1969. Gills wanted to break that fallback response, but the club’s demise has only deepened the gloom and negativity about the team.
One thing I was — pleasantly — surprised by was how much of a business book you wrote. You were especially convincing on how fundamental salary negotiations within the cap are to a team’s wins and losses. Can you speak to the power of salary negotiations? And do you think most fans understand how defining an issue this is?
The salary cap has fundamentally changed the business. But the true impact is only now being understood. Within a few years you’ll see a lot of teams trying to lose to get the top draft picks that are the only road to a Stanley Cup in a cap system. Because the cap inadvertently dries up the free agent market, getting the top players in any other way is now extinct. Unfortunately the current CBA has eight years to run and no chance to redress what will be a huge challenge to the NHL’s integrity.
All over town there are bus stop ads and radio ads and newspaper ads promising, Change is coming. All new brass from Linden down: can rookies really make change?
The Canucks have three people learning how to do the job by doing the job for the first time. I defy you to show me a Stanley Cup team that succeeded with one green person in management, let alone three. Could it happen? Sure. But the odds are astronomical. It will take years and Vancouver has proved it has little patience.
I’m curious to know how hockey fans have responded to the book overall. What’s the biggest question you get, and the biggest pushback?
Some have said I was overly sympathetic to Gillis’s program. So be it. It will take years before the Vancouver market can separate the facts from their disappointment over what happened. As i say, the things that are important to Canucks fans aren’t necessarily important to winning hockey. But Alain Vigneault taking the Rangers to the final the year after being driven out of Vancouver is instructive. I’m sure Gillis will meet with similar success if he decides to run another club. (And he will have many offers.) The city had a superb, creative group running their team. Now the city finds out how the other half lives.
Finally, I’m curious to know how Vancouver seems to the world. What did the Canucks look like to the rest of North America during the Gillis years? And what do we look like now?
I tell people that after 25 years in Toronto and 17 years in Calgary, it looks like Vancouver is hysterical (not helped by the riots either). Leafs, Flames, Jets, Senators and Oilers fans look at Vancouver and say, You had one bad year after five division titles, two President’s Cups and a narrow loss in the final. And you lose your mind? Fire everyone? Incredible. If this is ownership’s resolve then count on a long time till another year like 2011 comes along.