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Dejected fans sit in their seats shortly after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the San Jose Sharks during game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Vancouver May 1, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Dejected fans sit in their seats shortly after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the San Jose Sharks during game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Vancouver May 1, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

GARY MASON

Aquilini may need to spend money to make money – and save his franchise Add to ...

The biggest story on the West Coast is being played out on the hockey rink. The Vancouver Canucks are in free-fall and about to begin, it would seem, another dark chapter in the team’s checkered history.

As much as cities self-identify with the sports franchises that represent them, the mood of Vancouver and surrounding environs is often coloured by the performance of its National Hockey League team. And for more than a decade, the Canucks have enjoyed a run of, if not unparalleled greatness, determined competence and playoff appearances.

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A few years ago, the Canucks came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup. Not long ago, the team boasted the best record in the NHL two seasons in a row. It has had players voted the most valuable in the league and lines considered the most dangerous and entertaining. The sustained run of outstanding play allowed fans that have known epochs of undeniable embarrassment to be unabashedly proud.

Now, many Canucks fans are wondering if the team is preparing to revert to form, getting ready to become, if not the laughing stock it once was, the squad that is often in the news for the wrong reasons.

Owner Francesco Aquilini must be beside himself. He and his family have poured millions into the team (while making millions too, unquestionably) in an effort to make it a model NHL franchise. Mr. Aquilini has spared no expense for everything from dressing room makeovers to sleep doctors in a bid to give his team an edge over the competition. He has vowed to make the organization a modern facsimile of the Detroit Red Wings, a team that always seems to be in the playoff conversation, immune from the huge performance peaks and valleys to which others fall victim.

Not many are picking the Canucks to make the postseason this year, especially after a humiliating defeat at the hands of one of the teams they are fighting for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference – the Dallas Stars. Vancouver was pummelled 6-1, and the score flattered the losers. The Canucks look every bit like a team in disarray, that has either quit on the coach or is incapable of playing the system he has tried to install.

The continuing drama around goaltender Roberto Luongo is thankfully over, but it did its damage. It brought the circus back to town, when fans thought they had seen the last of it with the departure of coach Mike Keenan in the 1990s. That was the last especially gloomy period for the team, with fans deserting the stands in droves. Brian Burke came in as the new general manager, fired Mr. Keenan and began the slow process of rebuilding a franchise that would go on to enjoy the longest period of unceasing quality in its history.

The fans wore their Canucks colours proudly.

Today, Canucks Nation is in full panic mode, and this is not good news for the ownership. Canucks fans can be a fickle lot. If the team begins missing the playoffs regularly, those expensive seats at Rogers Arena would begin to go unoccupied. Fewer jerseys and other Canucks merchandise would fly off the shelves. An enormous amount is at stake financially for the team’s owners.

The Aquilinis are well aware of that well-worn business maxim: you need to spend money to make money. In this case, it may mean firing a coach who was brought in this season on a five-year contract to re-energize an experienced but aging team core. There were always risks associated with hiring John Tortorella, a bench boss known for his fiery outbursts and his prickly relationship with the media. But that passion made him a good coach.

Or so the theory went.

When Mr. Tortorella stormed an opposing team’s dressing room between periods of a game earlier this year, it alarmed everyone in the organization, including his players. If you want to chart the radical decline of the Canucks this season, you can begin at that moment. The team went into a nosedive after the incident, for which Mr. Tortorella was suspended six games. While he apologized profusely for his antics, it hasn’t changed the perception a loose cannon is in charge.

If the Canucks continue along the disastrous arc they are now travelling, Mr. Aquilini will have some major decisions to make. And the first may be whether he keeps a coach in the first year of an expensive five-year contract who has presided over one of the worst seasons in recent team history. Missing the playoffs costs a franchise buckets of money. Owners will not want that to become a habit.

In firing Mr. Tortorella, Mr. Aquilini might have to spend money to make money.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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