The books do not suggest this room is the helm of a hockey team. There’s Good to Great, and Great by Choice, the management staples by guru Jim Collins, resident in most corporate corner offices. Alongside is an eclectic selection: Sebastian Junger’s War, about soldiers in Afghanistan, Adapt by Tim Harford, whose subtitle is Why Success Always Starts with Failure, and The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey.
The space belongs to Mike Gillis, his office at Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks, where Gillis begins his fifth regular season in charge as president and general manager. A long-time player agent, Gillis had never held an executive job with an NHL team and was hired to be a different thinker, a mocked, initially, gamble by Francesco Aquilini, whose billionaire family has made money in everything from commercial and residential real estate to cranberries and Pizza Huts. The bet has yet to produce a Stanley Cup – even as there has been regular-season brilliance – and Aquilini doubled down last May, extending Gillis’s contract even after the Canucks were trounced in the first round of the playoffs.
When Gillis first arrived, the biggest thing he did was what he didn’t do: gut the roster. Instead, he kept the core – led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin – intact, and focused on building an edge. His work on sleep science is well known and copied, given it helped turn a mediocre road team into one of the league’s best. But that effort is just a small part of a much bigger idea Gillis has put together, one he calls the “human performance plan,” which marshals an array of science and is for the first time fully installed as the truncated season begins.
“What we’re concentrating on is methods to bring a more scientific and objective approach to how players are treated, how they compete, how they prepare, to give us any advantage we can possibly get with respect to performance,” Gillis said in an interview. “Every element that would go into human performance, we try to analyze, get a grip on, and create a more objective standard.”
Gillis doesn’t want to talk about details, but hints that parts of the puzzle have percolated over the past year or two. Some pieces: the deal (exclusive in hockey to the Canucks) with Fatigue Science, a sleep-management company that uses technology created by the U.S. military; a radical on-ice deployment strategy of certain players, such as the Sedins, who start an inordinate number of shifts in the offensive zone; the use of advanced statistics, far beyond plus-minus and goals for and against, to assess potential player acquisitions; the analysis of fatigue through games, using data and academic research from sports such as soccer; a special juice for players formulated by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles; compression machines to flush lactic acid from tired legs; psychological counselling from MindRoom Sports Science Inc.
Many of the pieces – the compression machines, the psychological work – are not unique. It is the combination of elements, and how aggressively they are employed.
One root of the strategy stretches back to 1978, when the Colorado Rockies took the 19-year-old Gillis fifth overall in the NHL draft. Early on he suffered a knee injury and it wasn’t handled well. Gillis managed six seasons in the NHL on left wing, 76 points in 246 games. He then went to Queen’s University law school before becoming a successful player agent. Gillis’s life in hockey is the philosophical underpinning of the human performance plan – doing right by players, who are so often treated as disposable and easily replaceable commodities.
“Our objectives are to put players in the absolutely best position they can be in, competitively, to extend their careers, particularly the part of their career where they are very productive players, which helps both them and us,” Gillis said.
This idea will be paramount this season, as the team’s aging stars – starting with the 32-year-old Sedins – try to grasp the trophy they were 60 minutes away from lifting 18 months ago. People talk about a window to win, and critics say the Canucks’ window is nearly closed. Gillis’s work, entwined with coach Alain Vigneault, aims to keep that window open longer than people might predict.
One major effort is player deployment, where the Canucks take a different tack, best seen with the Sedins and faceoff specialist Manny Malhotra. As the Sedins age, Vigneault puts them on the ice in offensive situations more than any other players in hockey. According to statistics analyst Paul Kukla, using behindthenet.com, the Sedins took about four out of five of their faceoffs in the offensive zone at even strength last season. This is far more than anyone else in the league, and statistics analyst Cam Charron has ventured it is “more than any other players perhaps in the history of the league.”
Malhotra, who was nearly half-blinded by a puck to the eye in March of 2011, is deployed likewise but in the opposite end. His career might have been over had Gillis and Vigneault not found a new place for him. Last season, Malhotra took seven out of eight his faceoffs in the Canucks’ end.
Such unconventional thinking is “part of our identity,” Vigneault said, adding that the Canucks plan more of the same this season.
Deployment may evolve. The Canucks have looked at soccer research that shows players fade during games and during seasons. Studies from Liverpool John Moores University argue that better success – more goals – can be achieved if teams use more innovative substitutions. Vigneault has talked about this for the shortened season, resisting the temptation to use the Sedins more and instead giving the third line upward of 15 minutes a night, and even the fourth line eight to nine minutes, instead of five to seven.
For players like the Sedins, it makes a difference. Henrik averaged 19 minutes 5 seconds of ice time a game last season, about a minute less than Brad Richards in New York or Patrick Marleau in San Jose. A minute sounds like nothing, but multiply it by even 48 games and it means Richards or Marleau play 2.5 more games than the Sedins – before the playoffs.
Gillis won’t talk about managing an early emotional crescendo, which is what happened last year. After the gutting Stanley Cup final loss in Game 7, at home, to the Boston Bruins in June of 2011, the Canucks were primed for a rematch in Boston in January of 2012. Vancouver won 4-3 in a cracker of a contest that felt like Game 8. Problem was, the Canucks never got close to that fever pitch again, not even in the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings, when Vancouver went down in five games, losing all three at home.
Gillis says the experience revealed “five or six different things” to change so that the team is more resilient and readier for the end of the season and the playoffs. He says he has strategies in place as part of the human-performance plan.
“We’ve learned a lot from what’s happened with this particular team, and how to address some of things we faced, and how to be better,” Gillis said.
Whether it works can only be measured by hockey played in June, and winning the Stanley Cup.
“It gives you confidence,” team captain Henrik Sedin said. “It doesn’t have to be one certain thing. That’s been the biggest thing about this team. If you’ve prepared the best way you can, you’re going to have an advantage toward other teams. You know other teams are not doing the things we are. It gives you that extra.”