Arthur Griffiths was at the helm of the Vancouver Canucks in 1994-95 when the National Hockey League locked out its players. Back then, as now, the league and players struck a deal in January, in time to play an abbreviated 48-game regular season. Griffiths’s tenure as owner, however, did not last much longer. His father, the broadcasting entrepreneur Frank Griffiths, bought the team in 1974. But Arthur was forced to sell in the 1996-97 season, after debts piled up in the wake of construction of a new downtown arena, now called Rogers Arena, and buying into the National Basketball Association with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies, who relocated to Memphis in 2001.
His last local public foray was an unsuccessful run for provincial politics in 2008 as a Liberal. For the past several years, he has been based in London, where he works as manager of the British operations of Bosco, a Russian sportswear company.
Looking back at the Canucks, Griffiths remembers a difficult season on the ice for the team in 1995, after the squad nearly won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1994. The current version of the team is in a similar position, with the heady expectations of fans.
How did you manage coming out of the lockout in 1995?
It was very difficult because we had that magnificent run in ’94 and expectations were very high and unfortunately the expectations, both by the fans and by the players, was that we were going to pick up right where we left off. And the players, and the agents of those players, wanted more money. It was a bit of a storm. We had to pay for success, we had the franchise, we had a building opening, and we had the lockout. It was a costly period. The building was built for a reasonable dollar and it’s a pretty profitable venture now – my timing might not have been perfect.
How did the short season affect the team?
The team struggled. It was one of those difficult times. We didn’t have the luxury of a full training camp. We were supposed to come out and be the same team we were in the seven-game series against the [New York] Rangers and we weren’t. We’ll see this time. Less than one week for training camp is going to be a very interesting adjustment. You don’t need to lose many games before whatever good you did the year before is gone.
What advice would you give to current NHL owners, Francesco Aquilini in Vancouver and otherwise?
The owners didn’t do as good a job this time of explaining why the [labour] agreement needed to be modified and why the lockout lasted as long as it did. Their communication wasn’t as good as the players in this lockout. The owners really need to be humble and respectful. The fans will come back. I don’t think that will be an issue. I just think the owners have to focus on how lucky they are to have those fans that love them even when they cancel half a season.
It seems like fans, especially in Canada will be supportive, even if they are still somewhat angry at the league – what’s your thinking?
One, fans are relieved and, two, they’re excited. Other than making sure the communications is respectful, if you will, and humble, I don’t think the Canucks will have a single issue at all. The only issue the fans are concerned about is where’s [goaltender Roberto] Luongo going?
Any advice for future labour relations?
The league needs to find a way to get a regular dialogue with players. It doesn’t have to be [NHL commissioner Gary] Bettman. It does need to have some ongoing dialogue. I look at baskeball and football, they have that in place. Everything from the simplest to the biggest issues are in regular discussion and it’s something hockey has to find a way to do.
What do you remember of the 1994 lockout?
We were adamant that we needed to put a mechanism in place to control the salaries, namely a salary cap, even back then. We were making progress. We were getting the attention of the players. But our negotiating position as the [NHL] board of governors was leaked to the players and we lost our whole window of opportunity. It cost a lot of franchises – and eventually myself – their existence in Canada. And the Canadian dollar, and a terrible tax structure – and no spending cap – was a nightmare. It was a very, very tumultuous time.