Mike Gillis presided over the best years in the history of the Vancouver Canucks, but when someone had to pay the price for the team’s astounding downward spiral, it was Gillis who was shown the door.
Six years ago, when the owners of the team, the Aquilini family, hired Gillis, the choice was radical: Gillis was a long-time player agent who was unpopular with some people in the National Hockey League, and he had no front-office experience on his resume.
However, he charmed the Aquilinis with a vision of what the Canucks could be: smarter and better-run, a team that could rise from mediocrity to win the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup.
They almost made it. Instead, the Canucks came up 60 minutes short of the ultimate goal, shut out on home ice in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, a failing that sparked a riot, police cars burning on West Georgia Street. The deep wounds from that near-miss never fully healed. Two subsequent first-round playoff drubbings cost coach Alain Vigneault, the most successful bench boss in the history of the team, his job.
Now, as the failings have worsened, Gillis is gone, fired Tuesday, the day after the Canucks were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in his tenure. The Canucks embarrassed themselves on the ice Monday night, and fans brayed “Fire Gillis!” The Aquilinis, seeing empty seats at Rogers Arena and significant potential declines at the box office next year, delivered.
“We have reached a point where a change in leadership and new voice is needed,” said team chairman Francesco Aquilini in a statement on Tuesday.
Beyond the team’s stumbles this year, Gillis’s handling of his goaltenders the past few seasons will be a dark mark on his record. A year ago, the Canucks had two of the best goaltenders in the league, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, and now they have Eddie Lack, a rookie, and not a whole lot else to show for it.
The firing of Gillis, who had also lost fans’ support, came a day before the deadline for season-ticket-holders to renew their expensive investment in the team for the 2014-15 campaign. The business of the Canucks is teetering after years of being unshakeable. A decade-plus run of sellouts at Rogers Arena is in jeopardy, and revenue from pricey luxury suites looks like it might slide next year.
Last Thursday, Gillis used a weekly radio address to speak candidly, saying the team’s style of play had deviated from his vision. It was something of a last stand. He said he didn’t know if he would be back next season. He was right.
His assistants, however, survive, led by assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, widely respected for his expertise in contracts and the salary cap, his general personal demeanour, and his two decades of NHL experience.
The public job of team president is open – and it is Trevor Linden, the revered former Canucks star, who is the leading candidate. On Tuesday, Linden said he hadn’t been approached. He did, however, say he was interested in the right opportunity. The installation of Linden would be a gambit to revive fans’ interest – and spending – but betting on old hockey heroes is a gamble, one that has worked in Colorado but failed in Edmonton.
Francesco Aquilini plans a press conference on Wednesday morning at Rogers Arena. It will surprise no one if Linden is there by his side.
The future of coach John Tortorella remains a question. Many of the problems on the ice can fairly be blamed on him. The Aquilinis were closely involved in his hiring last June, though Gillis made the final decision. The Aquilinis continued to support Tortorella this year even after his outburst in January in a game against Calgary that led to a 15-day suspension. But they have been quietly critical of his overuse of his star players, which many think has led to subpar seasons from the likes Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Gillis, meanwhile, had tired of the coach and wanted him out. The removal of Gillis may indicate the Aquilinis will keep Tortorella in place.
In the family’s release, Aquilini spoke directly to fans on Tuesday. They know Vancouverites are losing interest in the flailing hockey team. They know the team slogan, We are all Canucks, is ringing hollow.“We haven’t met their expectations or ours,” said Aquilini. “We are committed to bringing the Stanley Cup to Vancouver for our fans, and we will continue to do everything possible to reach that goal.”