Facing a fan revolt that threatened to deal a costly blow to his organization’s bottom line, Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini turned to icon Trevor Linden to reverse his team’s sliding fortunes.
Mr. Linden was named president of hockey operations on Wednesday and will assume complete responsibility for the on-ice performance of the slumping team for which he played 16 of his 19 NHL seasons. Despite his enduring popularity with the Canucks’ fan base, the move is not without risk: The former team captain comes to the rescue with zero front office experience. His learning curve will be steep.
“Trevor Linden is back where he belongs,” said Mr. Aquilini, in introducing the man he hopes will help quell the dissent that led to the firing of the team’s general manager earlier this week.
The Canucks will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, this after a stretch of unparalleled success that saw the team get to within one win of the Stanley Cup in 2011. But this year was a disaster, with fans unhappy with the direction that GM Mike Gillis was taking the team and the manner in which John Tortorella was coaching it.
Season-ticket renewals were going poorly. And, of course, missing the playoffs costs an NHL team millions in potential revenue. The Aquilinis did not make their billions allowing faltering business models to persist, so getting rid of an unpopular GM and replacing him with the most popular player in the franchise’s 42-year history was a move designed to arrest widespread disenchantment and get fans believing in the future again.
Mr. Linden had to begin his news conference by admitting that he misled the co-hosts of a television show he appeared on Tuesday morning while promoting his fitness chain. The interview occurred as reports were bursting out on Twitter and elsewhere that he was destined to be named the new president of the team. He denied it and said he had not talked to the Aquilinis about any job with the club; this while knowing he would be introduced as the new team president the following day. He said he phoned the hosts Wednesday to apologize, telling them he was caught in an impossible position.
“I absolutely had to do what I did,” said Mr. Linden, 43.
After that awkward beginning, however, his opening news conference was handled with the genial aplomb for which he is widely known and appreciated. Many of the reporters chronicling the moment covered Mr. Linden during his playing days. Some referred to him as “Trev” before asking a question. It is a cozy relationship that will certainly be tested in the months and years to come.
As may be the relationship between president and owner.
The role that Mr. Aquilini plays in personnel decisions has been much discussed in Vancouver. He describes himself as merely a fan. Others, however, suggest he is an owner who likes to meddle. Mr. Aquilini fiercely denies this and has said he is obviously apprised of pending hockey-related decisions but does not get into detailed discussions with his general manager about the pros and cons of them. Mr. Linden was asked about the autonomy he has been promised; he said he is satisfied he will be free to make all decisions he believes are in the best interests of the team. Mr. Aquilini confirmed his new charge is in “full control.” That assurance is certain to be scrutinized and re-evaluated in the months ahead.
Mr. Linden’s appointment was generally cheered by Canucks fans who remember the new president as one of the team’s greatest leaders, known more for his work ethic and tenacity than high-end skill. One of the most enduring images of him remains the scene on the ice at Madison Square Garden after the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. After the final siren sounded, Mr. Linden knelt on one knee, his face a bruised and battered portrait of playoff pain and disappointment.
As much as he was respected for his grit and determination on the ice, Mr. Linden was perhaps more admired for the work he did off it. His visits to see sick children in hospitals were legendary. The charitable causes to which he lent his name and time were many. When he hung up his skates six seasons ago, people urged him to run for public office. He demurred.
When he left hockey he left the Canucks too, in part because he didn’t want to be that player that hung around the rink after retiring, in part because he did not enjoy a good relationship with Mike Gillis. That enmity between the two men prevented Mr. Linden from taking on any kind of meaningful role with the team, something most everyone thought was a fait accompli after his playing days were over. His absence never seemed right. His destiny always seemed to include a future in which he ran the team whose colours he bled.
Now he has that role. He will no doubt enjoy a lengthy honeymoon but then face the inevitable criticism that comes with the job. He says he’s ready and in for the long haul.
“I’d love to be sitting here in 20 years still doing this,” he said.
That optimism may come in handy.
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