The Rise and fall of the greatest Vancouver Canucks team ever
Innovation is a question of perspective and turning the tables. In such a tight market for talent, you needed to look beyond the conventional means of thinking. In hockey, people have not wanted to go beyond their experience to find new solutions.
Ice Storm is the story of Mike Gillis, ex-NHL winger with the Boston Bruins who cut his teeth in the business side of hockey as an agent, and his 6-year tenure as the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. Gillis is a fascinating character that leaves no one uninterested. Some perceive him as a heretic in the church of hockey. Others have crowned him the league’s GM of the Year in the 2010-2011 season. That year, the fortieth-anniversary campaign of the Vancouver Canucks, under Gillis leadership, proved to be the franchise greatest season in history to date.
Ice Storm is all about this paradox, the space between two extreme perceptions and the innovative mindset Mike Gillis brought to the game of hockey.
Lessons on the rise, preventing the storm
It all starts at the top
In the Canucks context, the top is Francesco Aquilini, the eldest son of three boys, the public face of the family that represents the Italian face of Vancouver. The Aquilini Investment Group has become very wealthy with successful real estate developments across Canada. Francesco is a hard-nosed negotiator and a force not to be crossed. He thinks of the franchise brand as a system and the key to the strategy is having a winning team to sell. To create a winner was going to take a new approach. It's about leadership. Someone who's willing to step up, take a chance, that's the kind of person you want. You don't want someone who takes the safe route.
Mike Gillis and Francesco Aquilini
I am not doing this job to get another job in hockey. I'm going to do it the way I think is right, or I'm not going to do it all.
Mike Gillis believes that safe is death in pro sports. The one thing that Mike Gillis brings is a real progressive outlook. He's looking for new, creative and innovative ways to give himself a competitive advantage. Mike is very sure of his vision. I played on a lot of teams that had the 'No Plan Plan'. We're going to be big this year. Next year, we're going to be skilled. If you jump around like that, you have no chance. You can't win. You can adjust, but at the core you have to believe in one way to play.
The epitome of that thinking is Billy Beane, the Oakland A's GM and the star of Moneyball, the famous Michael Lewis book. He is often referenced as well as an inspiration in Ice Storm. Gillis constantly re-evaluated the state of play in his sport and business, asking, "Can we do better?"
Their willingness to open new windows in a dark room made them a big target. Even when his critics in the Vancouver and Toronto media mocked him for exploring new concepts, he put his faith in the unconventional concept called Canucktivity.
Mike Gillis, NHL General Manager of the Year in 2011
You used to know how other teams operated. Now you have to reverse-engineer what they did to see how they do it. Mark Cuban
Canucktivity took years of crafting, leveraging knowledge, insights and insider data from his career as a player and as an agent, notably representing ex-Canuck super star Pavel Bure. Gillis knew what players really wanted in the Vancouver market. He knew the needs, the pains. The team consulted sleep experts about travel, dietitians about better eating, sports psychologists about stress, they redid the dressing room. The team also experimented with yoga, fight or flight patterns, endorphins and consulted with the Nike evaluation camp in Oregon. Francesco Aquilini even hired Bruno Demichelis away from Chelsea FC in 2012. Gillis used the team as a laboratory to challenge the conventional. Players understood the franchise was investing in them as well as in the team.
Gillis created a program of understanding, built a database of research, previously not applied to hockey, that could give it a significant and dramatic advantage over its opponents. If all went well, the Canucks could then assemble the research and market their techniques while remaining ahead of the opposition. The objective of Canucktivity was for Vancouver to become a destination for hockey players choosing teams in both conditions the players had, but also in the style they played.
Establish your benchmark
The best teams discovered innovation and spent accordingly.
In the almost twenty years that he represented players, Gillis swore that, if given a chance to run a team, he'd use Detroit's example of skill at the expense of brawling and physical play.
Lidstrom and Holland, pillars in Detroit
The Detroit Red Wings probably spend about seven dollars on the offices says TSN analyst Ray Ferraro. They put all the money into scouting and development. I played in Atlanta, and man, we had great offices. Our team stunk. Where are you going to place your resources? You've got a relatively deep-pocketed owner who's giving you the resources to do things.
Change the culture
Gillis changed the culture inside the Vancouver franchise first. Hope doesn't work in this business. You have to be very in tune of where you are in the curve of winning. It's up to us to create a culture that allows us to continue the process. Neglect drafting and player development, and you'd be forced to go into the expensive free-agent market to get the pieces you need. Rely too heavily on trades - always a 50-50 proposition- and lack the stability in the clubhouse that develops a winning chemistry. It is a balancing act that only the best franchises manage.
The Sedin twins
The Canucks were to trade heavyweight fighters, a norm in the western conference known for its physicality, for skill and speed. No better players would illustrate that philosophy then the Sedin twins, the cornerstones of the team and foundation of Gillis's financial plan. They were the most important players on the team to establish a culture. I had to be sure they wanted to be the go-to guys who'd lead the team. The Sedin contract allowed us to create a culture about the team, not the individuals. We live in a salary cap world. My position with every player is we're going to pay you the most we can within this context. If it gets beyond a context that doesn't let us win, we may have to take a step sideways, but we're determined to have this plan.
Gillis started to change the culture in the league next. His former client Mike Cammalleri puts it best: There's a deep anti-intellectualism in hockey. There's still an establishment, an old guard in our game. I'm not saying it's bad, but you see his team reflect a newer guard, a newer persona among players. That's probably why they're hated in some quarters.
Lessons on the fall, managing the storm
Resiliency in the face of adversity
Ice Storm's turning point strikes when the Canucks lose in the spring of 2011, in the Stanley Cup Finals, facing the Boston Bruins. I think he just got off the road after Game 7 in 2011. He went from leading with his system to chasing the way other teams, like Boston, do it.
The Boston Bruins win game 7
From that instant, they started compromising on their core philosophy and differentiating concept, Canucktivity. From banking on speed and talent, they morphed to “we need to be tougher to play against.” Despite the fact that the Canucks were just sixty minutes from the Cup, savants were declaring their skill and offensive thrust a failure. The Bruins, went the thinking, had exposed the flaws in the system favoured by Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault. Brawn was in and brainpower was out.
The last compromise was the curious hiring of John Tortorella to replace Vigneault in 2013. Tortorella is the kind of knee-jerk decision that other organizations make, not the Canucks. He represents a personality type diametrically opposed to Gillis’s core values. He is loud and profane; narcissistic and temperamental. He is emotional to the point of irrationality. Tortorella is so far removed from Gillis and his methods that his hire had to originate from somewhere else, like Canucks ownership.
Adapt to your environment
Some may say Gillis was too ambitious and did not know when to compromise. In hindsight, it is clear his organization wasn’t agile enough to avoid or weather the storm. They were not prepared to adapt to the new rules under the CBA post lock-out in 2012-13 where the cap had to go down from 70M$ to 63.4M$. The team was being forced to pare its payroll by almost 7M$ before the 2013-14 season. Trading Luongo’s ten-year contract would be next to impossible. It would become a major crisis for the Canucks. Ultimately, Canucktivity was doomed by the interminable Roberto Luongo saga.
Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, Gillis's Achilles heel, winning the Jennings Trophy during the 2011 NHL Awards
The ultimate sign of distress and perhaps the lowest point for Gillis happened when hockey publications were rating the prospects in Vancouver’s development system twenty-ninth out of thirty. The “window of opportunity” for the Canucks to win the Cup was closing. The combination of Luongo and the franchise inability to develop elite young players made for a perfect storm.
Mike Gillis first round picks in 2013, his last draft, Bo Horvat (7th), and Hunter Shinkaruk (24th)
Ice Storm is a page-turner. Bruce Dowbiggin offers a unique insider of Canucktivity and the profile of a human performance pioneer. Mike Gillis is a corporate strategic designer ahead of his time. While numbers can be manipulated in many ways, you could argue that in fact the Canucks have gone from seventh to second in the NHL in revenues during his time here. Yes, second.
Unfortunately, Canucktivity was dismissed, like Money Ball at first, because the Canucks never won using it. It can be fairly suggested that their attempt to reimagine what works in the NHL was largely dismissed because they lost a single contest in an otherwise superb season. Since the Stanley Cup final in 2011, the Canucks have not won a playoff game and have since been stuck in rebuild mode.
They fired Gillis in 2014 and hired former NHLer Jim Benning to replace him. After years of trying to be different, the Aquilinis had settled on being like everyone else again. In its latest philosophical lurch, the team was rejecting Gillis’s lab coat in favour of a man who’d helped defeat the 2011 miracle team. The Aquilini’s are now counting on predictable and proven being the answer.
Aquilini (left) and Jim Benning (right) picked the electrifying Quinn Hughes 7th overall last June
Mike Gillis had said that he’s not a serial GM, someone parlaying one hockey job into the next. He stands true to his word, teaching sports law at the University of Victoria since the spring of 2016. Should he accept another opportunity in hockey, you can assume he has his plan in place for how to act. Next time, he won’t be deterred from it.
By Jean-Philippe Gagnon