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Vancouver Canucks new head coach John Tortorella, centre, shakes hands with Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis, right, next to Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, left, during a news conference in Vancouver on June 25. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
Vancouver Canucks new head coach John Tortorella, centre, shakes hands with Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis, right, next to Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, left, during a news conference in Vancouver on June 25. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

hockey

Turmoil in Vancouver: GM’s firing highlights pressures of being a Canadian NHL owner Add to ...

On Monday night in Vancouver, as the Canucks put on a woeful performance and were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in six years, fans brayed for the ouster of the team president and general manager, chanting: Fire Gillis.

On Tuesday morning, fans got what they wanted. After a downward spiral this year, with a roster of players assembled by Mike Gillis and overseen by new coach John Tortorella, the blame was pinned on Mr. Gillis, and he was fired. A “new voice is needed,” team chairman and co-owner Francesco Aquilini said.

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The declaration, which represented a dramatic disavowal of responsibility for what has gone wrong with the Vancouver Canucks, has forced the wealthy Aquilini family into a spotlight it has long tried to avoid. And it has thrown into sharp relief the enormous pressures of running a hockey team in a Canadian city – especially in one that recently came so close to winning the Stanley Cup.

Much of the distancing revolves around the hiring of Mr. Tortorella, whose reputation as a firebrand and penchant to coach defensive hockey made him a controversial choice last year. On Monday, Francesco Aquilini sent a Globe and Mail reporter a text message warning of legal action after the newspaper published a story discussing the family’s involvement in the hiring.

“I read your article today. You are a prick,” it said. Two hours later, a legal letter from the family’s counsel arrived by e-mail. It alleged defamation, sought a retraction and an apology, and threatened further action.

“The facts are that while the Aquilinis supported the decision of the General Manager, the hiring decision was his and not theirs,” lawyer Howard Shapray of Vancouver-based Shapray Cramer Fitterman Lamer LLP wrote in the legal letter to The Globe.

The legal push also took aim at The Province newspaper in Vancouver, which several weeks earlier in a column had mentioned the Aquilinis’ role in the Tortorella hiring. Mr. Shapray on Monday sent a legal letter to The Province and made similar demands as were made of The Globe.

The Aquilinis’ statements skirt how the hiring played out. Mr. Gillis last year had invited the Aquilinis into interviews with various coaches. The family, according to a person with direct knowledge of the events, was particularly taken with Mr. Tortorella, who had been fiery in the past. They saw a coach who could revive an underperforming hockey team. The Aquilinis wanted Mr. Tortorella, and Mr. Gillis and the other hockey executives came to the same conclusion.

The Globe sought Mr. Aquilini’s comment last week but did not hear back.

The Aquilini family’s vast wealth was started from nothing by patriarch Luigi, an immigrant from Italy in the 1950s. The money was made in construction and real estate, and as the fortune grew, the Aquilinis guarded their privacy. It was a desire they held fast to even after buying the hockey team in a hockey-mad city a decade ago.

The Aquilinis were always there, however. Occasionally, it was in public, court room battles, the locker room, or at a press conference – but mostly they operated in the background. Francesco Aquilini would often be on the telephone daily with Mr. Gillis. In March, as the team considered trading star player Ryan Kesler, Mr. Aquilini was closely involved.

When the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on home ice three years ago, Francesco Aquilini was with his players in the locker room after the defeat. There were tears on his face, and anger in his voice, cursing at a television reporter seeking his reaction.

On Wednesday, Francesco Aquilini will have a press conference at the arena at 10:30 a.m. It is hard to imagine he will sit there alone. Rumours swirl that former star Trevor Linden will become the new team president. Bob Nicholson, who just stepped down as head of Hockey Canada, is another candidate.

Through the fire, Mr. Tortorella may well survive. The owners backed him even after a confrontation in January involving the Calgary Flames that got the coach suspended by the league for 15 days. The owners were jarred, but still admired Mr. Tortorella.

Last June, Francesco Aquilini attended the press conference that announced the hiring of Mr. Tortorella, but stayed quiet in the back. Mr. Gillis was asked about the owners’ involvement and he said the new coach was among the biggest decisions the team had made in several years, and it would be unrealistic for the owners not to be involved.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Gillis said last June, “we were both unanimous in our selection and who we thought the best coach moving forward would be, and it was John Tortorella.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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