At a quiet bar at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, Trevor Linden sits down on a late-summer afternoon. An older woman rushes to him. "My daughter, she just loves you," the woman gushes, and proffers something to sign. Linden does, and smiles. "Awesome," says the rookie president of the Vancouver Canucks. "Well," he adds, "say hi for me." The woman appears almost dizzy with delight.
A few weeks later, in Vancouver at Rogers Arena at a Toronto Raptors exhibition game where Linden sat courtside, he lingers long after the final buzzer. Fans – young, boisterous, multicultural – flock to him, like pilgrims to a deity.
Trevor John Linden is adored in British Columbia. Before last spring, the 44-year-old had been happily retired from hockey, six years removed from the singularly iconic career in Vancouver Canucks history. Linden was not the best hockey player to ever put on the team's uniform, but he is far and away the most beloved.
In spring, Linden was drawn back into the fray. Into the soup, as he puts it. He is the Canucks president of hockey operations now, and has his hands mucky with problems, particularly a roster heavy with players in their 30s and light on young prospects. Also, the city may love Linden, but the ardour for the hockey team has waned.
Then there is Linden's new boss, hands-on owner Francesco Aquilini, who is deeply involved in the hockey team, who pushed for the disastrous hiring of coach John Tortorella last year and one Saturday at training camp this September sat for hours chatting with new general manager Jim Benning.
Linden, on the job six months as of Thursday, has accomplished a lot in a short time. He has a new GM and a new coach, and he blew in some fresh air at Canucks HQ, leveraging his considerable reputation and charm to make it enjoyable, insiders say, to work at Rogers Arena.
This is a key pillar of the Linden magic, say his business associates, fitness-club entrepreneur Chuck Lawson and online-retail entrepreneur Roger Hardy. "He is a powerful speaker," Hardy said of Linden's rally-the-troops ability.
"People love Trevor," Lawson said.
Linden has always been driven to lead, since growing up in Medicine Hat, Alta., and helping the local junior team to two Memorial Cup victories.
"I was the guy who wanted to be looked upon to lead the way," said Linden last week at Rogers Arena, sitting 20 rows up as the Canucks practised.
Still, this new gig sounds a little less like a good-times party. Until last spring, Linden's life after hockey was a joy. He became a backcountry skier, soaking in solitude and climbing and skiing remote mountains. He biked the surreal landscape of Moab in Utah. He toured Africa and Europe. He got involved in businesses, and became a public speaker. He was doing what the stars of that first generation of big-money hockey players were expected to do: dabble and luxuriate.
But as the Canucks disintegrated last season, Linden answered a call of duty. It is one that has proved a siren's call for many of the elite names of the 1990s era. Comb the roster of Canada's first all-NHL Olympic team from 1998, and more than a third of the names hold, or have held, big jobs running NHL teams, either as a top executives or coaches.
In the longer-ago past, the great front-office minds weren't hockey stars at all. Sam Pollock, who built the dominant Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1960s and 1970s, never played pro hockey. Bill Torrey, the architect of the New York Islanders dynasty, played briefly in the minors.
This generation is different. Even as a revolution is under way in hockey, led by the likes of lawyer and analytics guru Dean Lombardi, GM of the Los Angeles Kings, there has been a surge of recently retired hockey heroes turned front-office bosses. The four most prominent are Linden in Vancouver, Brendan Shanahan in Toronto, Joe Sakic in Colorado (where Patrick Roy coaches and is VP of hockey ops) and Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay.
Only one former big-name player, however, has reached the pinnacle – the Stanley Cup – as front-office chieftain: Cam Neely in Boston (he retired prior to the 1998 Olympics).
"You have to be all-in," Neely said of the principal consideration for a retired player taking a top management job. The life of a player is markedly different from that of someone like Neely, who runs all aspects of the Bruins, business and hockey. It is a physical grind to play. It's less bruising but much, much busier to be team president.
Neely offered counsel to Linden before Linden signed on in Vancouver, and the two worked together afterward, as Linden hired Benning, a long-time Boston exec, to be GM of the Canucks.
Neely spent time away from the game after his career was truncated by injury. He first signed on for only one year in Boston, uncertain whether it was what he truly wanted. But he had watched a great hockey city grow frustrated by and disinterested in the struggling Bruins, so Neely was quickly hooked.
These days, he sees old rivals such as Linden and Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille around the table at NHL board of governors meetings, like last week in New York. There is a new camaraderie.
"We're all still competitive," said Neely, "but it's fun to get to know them better. And we're still all learning, which is a fun part of it too."
Yzerman in Tampa Bay has a bit of a different job, directly hands-on as a GM rather than CEO. Yzerman is a roster-builder, including the gold-medal-winning Olympic teams of 2010 and 2014. The game is different off the ice, noted Yzerman. Decisions are more carefully considered. "As a player," he said, "you rely on your instincts."
Another challenge for Linden will be his lack of apprenticeship. Yzerman was schooled in his new career in the ideal incubator of Detroit's front office. Neely, Sakic, Shanahan and Roy all had hockey jobs before their current roles. Yzerman said Linden has wisely built a strong staff.
"Trevor's a very bright guy," said Yzerman. "He'll figure it out along the way."
Linden, even if he doesn't have NHL front-office experience, has always been a behind-the-scenes guy. He was involved in the players' association, and was president of the union for eight years, including through the fracturing lost season of 2004-05. Linden led the push to end the lockout and accept a salary cap. Chris Chelios, in 2005, fired a shot at Linden in The New York Times about deposed boss Bob Goodenow's ample severance package and the hiring of new union executive director Ted Saskin, saying Linden "isn't properly trained to negotiate contracts."
In Vancouver, Linden has the final say on all big decisions, and is the buffer between the team's staff and Aquilini.
"They'll cut him some slack, because they love him," said Barry Melrose, the ESPN commentator who coached Linden in junior. "But, you know, pretty soon there'll be some tough love from the press. It's a media-crazed market. That makes your job 100 times tougher. And British Columbia fans aren't very patient."
Linden is ready. There is a sense of mission, and a frisson of unfinished business. He was a champion in junior, but as a pro he fell short, coming so close. He captained the Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 1994, scoring both of Vancouver's goals in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers. In 1998, Linden scored the stirring tying goal for Canada against Czech Republic in the Olympic semi-final, with a minute left in regulation, before it ended in the gutting shootout loss.
He's not haunted. But boyhood dreams of winning Lord Stanley's Cup do not ever fade completely.
"When you feel you did everything you could …" said Linden of the almost-glory of his playing days. "But," he added about his new job, "having the opportunity to win is unique. And I value that."