Mike Gillis feels underappreciated.
The president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks – starting his sixth season at the helm of the NHL team, a fresh, five-year contract kicking in – looks back at his tenure and sees a stretch of success, and looks at the reviews and sees undue criticism.
Vancouver has never been an easy town to run, or play on, a hockey team – but it’s not the shark-infested fishbowl that is Toronto or Montreal. Gillis says the negative talk doesn’t affect him much any more – yet in an interview this week, to look back and ahead, it is the first thing he brings up.
He starts with coverage over the past 18 months in The Globe and Mail, a period during which the team has been twice swiftly ejected from the playoffs, winning one of nine games.
“I think the insidious creep of negativity is working its way on you,” Gillis said in an interview last Monday. He then went on to say newspaper coverage of his team in general is marked by a “constant thread of negativity.”
Gillis, after years as a big-time player agent, arrived in Vancouver in mid-2008, a surprise and unconventional hire by billionaire owner Francesco Aquilini. Gillis promised a different way of doing things and delivered, with everything from a sleep doctor that has helped significantly bolster the team’s record on the road, to a much broader, and secret, “human performance plan.”
On the ice, Gillis’s biggest decision was to keep the team he inherited intact, even if on arrival he was a critic of the squad. Results followed: Five consecutive division titles, two regular-season titles, and one appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. And even with the playoff stumbles of the past two springs, Vancouver ranks fifth of 30 teams over the past five years in the NHL, in terms of playoff rounds and games played, standing behind Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
“This team has had the best five years in the history of the Canucks,” Gillis said. “Lots of media people in this city don’t bother to take a look around the league. I’d hazard [other teams] would not endure the same criticism that we endure most of the time.”
Beyond the media cacophony, Gillis feels good. He talked about a “reset” after last season ended, one some people took to mean a significant overhaul. “We have to reinvent ourselves,” he said in early May, on the day a reset was declared.
After everything, new head coach John Tortorella accounts for much of the reset, with the core of the players the same as through Gillis’s tenure.
“To change the culture of a place, it requires a change near the top,” the GM said. “We are invigorated by a new staff. Our team is responding to that. I’m really encouraged. I like where we sit. I like our roster. These guys are hungry. We’re looking at this season very optimistically.”
What the critics see, unduly negative, myopic or otherwise, is an aging team. They see a GM whose draft record is mixed and a team that did not add the hoped-for injection of youth. And on the biggest file on Gillis’s desk the past year-plus, they see an outright failure, where the Canucks ended up trading the goaltender the team wanted to keep.
On chatter that the Canucks asked for too much for Roberto Luongo, Gillis called it a “media urban myth,” saying such talk was an effort to “have us accept something less than what we felt was appropriate.” Offers came in but none the team considered right, and eventually decided their best move was to trade Cory Schneider (to the New Jersey Devils).
The captain on the ice knows there is only one way success in the NHL is counted.
“We haven’t won anything,” Henrik Sedin said Tuesday. “We’ve won the regular season, we won the scoring titles, but if you look back at our careers [here], I don’t think you’d read anywhere that we’ve won anything.”
The weight of expectations in Vancouver was quickly obvious to Tortorella.
“All you guys [media] talk about is the Stanley Cup,” the coach said. “Everybody I see on the streets talks about a Stanley Cup. It’s a tremendous challenge and I look forward to the opportunity.”
The team forges forward – and the fans appear to be on board with the latest iteration. Last spring, the Canucks sold out their two home playoff games, but tickets were much more easily available than in the past.
Few tickets are available for the six home games this month. The team has sold out 433 consecutive games going back more than a decade.