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Vancouver Canucks' general manager Mike Gillis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)
Vancouver Canucks' general manager Mike Gillis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)

Gary Mason

Mike Gillis sticks to the plan Add to ...

It is the mid-1980s and Mike Gillis, former NHL first-round draft choice, has entered law school at Queen's University. He's more unnerved and intimidated than he was at any training camp he attended.

His academic preparation had amounted to a few university courses he took while playing hockey. Crude jokes and riotous stories told by teammates have passed for intellectual discussions in the lead-up to his law-school debut. And suddenly he is sharing classrooms with MBAs and philosophy majors, and he's wondering how to compete against peers who have years of rigorous scholastic training. He decides that meticulous planning, a strong work ethic and unrelenting attention to detail might help him prevail.

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"It's how I coped," Gillis recalled in an interview. "And those things really formed the basis of the philosophy I brought to the Canucks. I built a game plan and I decided there was no detail too small to worry about because it might give us an edge. But it really has its origins at Queen's where I had to come up with a survival strategy."

There is no person singularly responsible for the magnificent season the now Stanley Cup-final bound Canucks have experienced. But it is Gillis who is largely responsible for establishing the winning conditions that have helped his team flourish. Following a successful stint as an agent, Gillis, as the Vancouver Canucks general manager, has persuaded core players to join and stay with a team in the far-flung geographical outskirts of the NHL, managed the salary cap with precision sometimes by convincing players to take a discount against salaries available elsewhere, and created a work environment with support that ranges from nutritional plans to sleep counselling.

In some ways, the daunting prospects he faced at law school helped prepare him for the challenge he assumed in April 2008 with the Canucks. Up until then he had no previous experience inside an NHL operation, only from the outside as an agent. Many predicted he would fail. Some fellow GMs hoped he would.

Instead, Gillis has spent the last few seasons building one of the elite operations in the NHL. Besides law school, he traces the roots of his successful game plan back to a teaching stint at Queen's in the mid-1990s, after he'd been called to the bar. The course was called Sports and Entertainment and it involved talking about things like collective bargaining rights and salary arbitration.

"It forced me to look at teams in the NHL to see how they were run and why certain teams were good all the time and why certain teams were never good," Gillis explained.

"In Detroit, I realized it stemmed in large part to how they treated their players. How thoughtful they were. The atmosphere they created in the organization allowed them to knock on the [Stanley Cup]door every season. After that it's often just luck. Sometimes the puck hits the post and goes in and sometimes it hits the post and stays out. But it's the opportunities you get that counts."

There are several key decisions that Gillis made to get the Canucks to where they are today. But he is quick to add that the team's success would not have been possible were it not for the complete commitment from ownership. At Gillis's urging, the Aquilini family has happily signed cheques totalling hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We're not here without the ownership we have," Gillis said.

And the Canucks aren't in the Cup final without some of the savvy moves that Gillis made early on in his tenure. Some of them have been previously documented. For instance, he made an intensive effort to sign the core group of players he would build his team around - at discount prices.

He was able get the Sedins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler to ink deals that paid them less than what they could have fetched elsewhere by persuading them that the savings would be used to get players that would help them win the Stanley Cup. Players such as defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and centreman Manny Malhotra, both from San Jose.

Signing Roberto Luongo to a somewhat rich long-term deal allowed Gillis to show potential free agents the team had a world-class netminder who was Cup worthy.

But signing the Sedins, who could have easily made a couple million more a year elsewhere, was crucial. If Gillis had failed and they had fled, the Canucks would be in a rebuilding mode right now.

"It was key," said Gillis. "Once we had them a lot of the other pieces fell together much easier. Our plan worked perfectly. But obviously we had contingencies had it not."

But to create an organization like Detroit, one that is always challenging for the Cup, Gillis needed to build his pool of good young talent. And once he signed these players he needed to develop them. To learn more about the best way of doing that he looked to Europe and the sport of soccer.

"When I looked at all the sports there is only one which can actually sell players," Gillis said. "In soccer you're building an asset for potential sale and that's different than building an asset that could leave your team and go somewhere else.

"In soccer, you sign a 15- or 16-year-old and at 24 you may sell him for 60,000 euros."

Gillis was unable to accompany team owner Francesco Aquilini to England to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Manchester United developed its players using, among other things, advances in modern sports science. But it wasn't long after the Canucks were employing dieticians to devise meal plans for the players, and sleep doctors to advise the team on everything from when players should be taking naps to whether they should immediately fly home after a road game or leave the next morning.

While these initiatives were initially met with some skepticism by the coaches and mocked in the media, they have paid off. The Canucks had the best record in back-to-back games in the NHL this season, a fact Gillis attributes to the attention to detail honed at Queen's. "We have people whose job it is to monitor the player's energy levels and build them up for certain segments of the schedule that are particular demanding," he said.

Many thought Gillis would fire the Canucks scouting staff when he arrived. He did not. Instead he gave them more resources to succeed. In his top-to-bottom evaluation of the organization after arriving, he realized there were people in key roles that didn't necessarily suit them.

The team's legendary captain Stan Smyl, for instance, was in player development. Meantime, one area the organization was completely ignoring was young, undrafted players in college or junior hockey in North America or Europe. Players who might have developed late in their young careers but had a huge upside. There were diamonds in the rough to be found and Gillis put a reluctant Smyl in charge of searching for them.

In short order, the move paid huge dividends. Players such as Chris Tanev, who was found playing hockey in upstate New York for a little known college, were signed. Thanks to Smyl the team found Aaron Volpatti from Brown University and Darren Archibald, an undrafted player from the Barrie Colts. The 21-year-old Tanev, meantime, played in the Western Conference final and will likely find a spot in the lineup next season.

Most of all, Gillis's plan allowed the team to stockpile good young talent that will push other players in the organization. It also allowed the team to keep potential stars like Cody Hodgson down on the farm for much of the season without rushing them into the lineup - just like Detroit does with its young players.

Gillis bolstered the pro talent on his team with some shrewd trade deadline acquisitions - Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre - that were made possible because of the reputation around the team he helped develop and the new standard of scrutiny he and assistant GM Lorne Henning set at the pro scouting level.

This is not all to say that Gillis doesn't have his critics. Many believe the 12-year Luongo deal could become an albatross. Keith Ballard doesn't look worth the first round draft choice-plus Gillis gave up for him. Many in the media find him aloof and arrogant.

What's indisputable, however, is that Mike Gillis has emerged as one of the most methodical, well organized general managers in the NHL. He leaves nothing to chance. He knows his peer group has more experience than he does but he learned long ago that can be overcome.

All it takes is a plan.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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