It’s official: it’s over.
And yet, for the Vancouver Canucks, the story feels like it’s just begun.
On the ice, it ended ugly, embarrassing, pockmarked with mistakes, sullied by a lax effort.
On Monday night, the Vancouver Canucks, with John Tortorella behind the bench and a roster of under performers on the ice, were beat up by the Anaheim Ducks 3-0. The buzzer sounded at 9:30 p.m. PT, marking the official elimination of the Canucks from postseason play, missing the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time in six years.
As the game clock ticked towards zero, a chant emerged from the upper bowl of Rogers Arena: “Fire Gillis.” The refrain to remove president and general manager Mike Gillis from his office was repeated a half-dozen times.
Off the ice, on Tuesday morning, a new swirl of drama emerged from the soap-opera hockey team that never fails to deliver a story. Roberto Luongo may be home in Florida but the drama in Vancouver does not cease.
Reports on Twitter from TSN pundits suggested Gillis could be fired as soon as Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday, with former Canucks hero Trevor Linden to step into the breach as the team’s new president. Linden on Tuesday morning, by chance, appeared on Global television in Vancouver to promote a new fitness club his company has opened, and he parried speculation. He said he had not been approached about the job by the Aquilini family, the owners of the Canucks, but said he has always been interested in the right hockey opportunity.
“When teams struggle,” said Linden, “there’s lots of speculation.”
Gillis, meanwhile, was silent on Tuesday. He was jarred Monday night by the cheers against him at the arena but has been girding himself, last week saying on radio that he wasn’t sure if he’d be back next season and expressing regret about the change in the team’s style of play. Some people believe that stand displeased the Aquilinis.
The rumours of significant change – and bringing back a man adored by hockey fans in Vancouver – comes a day before season ticket holders have to renew for the 2014-15 season. The Linden gambit, if soon or eventually true, is a gamble. Bringing in past hockey heroes is working right now for the Colorado Avalanche but has badly failed for the Edmonton Oilers.
A lot of money is at stake. It would be expensive to fire Gillis, who has four years left on his contract, but the Canucks box office is in trouble. The team has a sellout streak of longer than a decade at Rogers Arena but the many empty seats at recent games suggest the team will have trouble filling the building next year. Luxury suites, too, may not deliver what they previously have, since the Canucks have gone from a hot ticket three years ago to one not many people care about.
Initial payments for ticket packages will be processed on Wednesday, April 9, according to e-mails sent on March 22 to season ticket holders – a group that numbers 17,000 out of an arena capacity of 18,910. There are several thousand people on the waiting list but experts believe that list could be quickly chewed through.
“Your fan base wants something to happen,” said Frank Provenzano, former assistant general manager in Dallas and Washington. “It might not be the right thing but they want something. Especially in Vancouver. ‘We are all Canucks’” – echoing the team’s slogan. “We are all angry Canucks.”
Back on Monday night, elimination came at 9:30 p.m. PT, when the buzzer sounded to conclude a contest between the Canucks and the visiting Ducks. The home team was shut out by a 20-year-old goalie, John Gibson, playing his first NHL game.
While fans chanted for Gillis to be removed from his office, there were no similar expressions about the coach. Take it for what you will.
The recriminations over what went wrong will reverberate around this hockey team until fans feel suitably action has been taken. Fans bray for change. Pundits in the press seem certain the coach is done for after a single season. A smaller faction of observers – sensing the conservative business style of the team owners, the Aquilinis – would not be shocked to see both Gillis and Tortorella back for next season. Another thesis is a Linden hire would install a new GM but the two new faces would keep the coach, who has been strongly supported by the owners.
Given how things unravelled in the past three months, something needs to be reconfigured.
“It’s not fun,” said team captain Henrik Sedin after the game Monday. It was Sedin’s own mistake early in the first period led to the night’s opening goal. “This is not where we want to be.” Then, addressing the question of the fire-Gillis chorus, the leader of the team on the ice said: “A lot of things have gone wrong.”
Nearby in the locker room, there was Ryan Kesler, who turns 30 in August, with two years left on his contract. He wanted out at the trade deadline because he can see the obvious, that the prospects for winning here, for contending, are slim. He is a player who wears his emotions on his face. Speaking to reporters, his eyes down cast, his mood sullen, he was asked if it had been absorbed, missing the postseason.
“It’s already sunk in,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling.”
The loss to Anaheim makes official what had been a high probability since the same Ducks punched up the Canucks 5-1 in this same arena two weekends ago.
The latest defeat to the Ducks, while its marks the end of hope in the 2013-14 campaign, also highlights the challenge that will greet the Canucks, in whatever reconstituted form, for 2014-15. In the Canucks greatest years, 2009 through 2012, they were among the best in the league, and were buoyed by playing in the feeble Northwest Division. It is something more than bad luck to be thrust into the hypercompetitive Pacific Division just as the team has faded to mediocrity.
In four games against Anaheim this year, the Canucks lost them all and managed a single point, an overtime loss. In sum they were outscored 24-6. More broadly, against the three California teams that dominate the Pacific, Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose, the Canucks won just two of 14 games this year – 2-9-3.
How the Canucks alter this reality next year is unclear. Given that the Canucks do not seem set to compete for the top three in the division, next year will, at best, be about scrapping for seventh or eighth in the Western Conference, and opening the playoffs on the road. And that’s the best-case scenario.
The fate of the coach is likely the immediate question. The Aquilini family was closely involved in Tortorella’s hiring last June, even as the hockey executives, led by Gillis, made the final decision. And while the Aquilinis like Tortorella’s hard-driving style, they have wondered about some decisions the coach has made, such as overplaying the team’s stars. The strategy – which Tortorella has said was decided because of a lack of roster depth – unduly wore down the key players – and it showed in the results.
When the Canucks trail after one period – with two-thirds of the game to go – they are terrible, losing 23 of 27 games. And when it gets late, the Canucks’ weak offence vanishes completely: the team has the fewest goals scored in the third period in the entire league this year, 58. Out of gas, when it counts.
Tortorella retreats to Point Roberts when each night’s game is done. Point Roberts is a peculiar corner of the United States, located about a 45-minute drive south of Vancouver and inaccessible by land from anywhere else in the U.S. It is small, about a dozen square kilometres, and forested, rural. Point Roberts is home to about 1,200 people – and an estimated five per cent are in Witness Protection.
Tortorella’s choice of home has had him dubbed by some as the Commuter Coach, though he is hardly the first Canuck to make it home. Former general manager Dave Nonis lived there, as did star skater Alex Mogilny. And the quarterback of the B.C. Lions, Travis Lulay, lives in Blaine, south of the nearby primary border crossing, Peace Arch.
Still, the choice was always odd, this distance, two bridges, one tunnel, and an international border, between the coach, and his hockey team.
“It’s never about one guy,” said Ron Hughes last week. The 52-year-old hockey fan from Vancouver Island has lived in Point Roberts for years and spoke over coffee at the new business he owns, Caffe Capanna, near the water and, by chance, across from Mogilny’s old place.
“The game is won with passion,” said Hughes. “It’ll be sad to see him go, if he goes.”