Canucks’ First Off-Season Move: Gillis Stays

Inexperienced in the realm of general managers, Mike Gillis arrived in Vancouver five years ago, and has since made a large impact on the Canucks’ organization, setting standards for other NHL franchises in money management and player development. Now Gillis will continue to make his mark on the city of Vancouver, signing a contract extension on May 7.

“This is a significant announcement for our hockey club,” Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini told CBC. “These past four years have been the most successful in Canucks history. Mike and his management team have done an excellent job to position us for long term success on and off the ice.”

The length of the contract extension is still unknown, but Gillis is already at work. He has indicated the highly possible return of head coach Alain Vigneault, stating that Vigneault wants to return. However, there is no timeline on when the decision will be made, and Gillis has stated that the decision will ultimately be his.

“I have every bit of confidence in Alain,” Gillis told the Toronto Sun. “It gets exasperating sometimes. This is the winningest coach in the team’s history and we just won two President’s Trophies and lost the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final. Is that when you’re going to decide to start getting rid of people?”

It’s certainly not when Aquilini will start to get rid of people. In Gillis’ time with the Canucks, they have won the Northwest Division each year, won two President’s Trophies, competed in nine playoff rounds, were named Western Conference champions and set a franchise record in points. Oh, and Gillis was named the NHL GM of the year in 2011. No big deal.

But before his time with the Canucks, Gillis had nothing to do with running an NHL hockey team. He was a player agent before Aquilini hired him, and studied law at Queen’s University after a shortened NHL career. Drafted fifth overall by the Colorado Rockies in 1978, Gillis played 246 games for the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Bruins before retiring due to a fractured ankle.

After dealing with NHL players for 17 years as an agent, Gillis came to Vancouver partly because of his daughter Kate, who plays for Canada’s National field hockey team. But when he was appointed as general manager, he had a plan and a purpose.

“I’m hoping to bring a different perspective,” Gillis told CBC in 2008 after the Canucks missed the playoffs and posted a 39-33-10 record. “I’m hoping to bring different ideas to the draft table and to player development. I’m hoping to be able to attract players here because, in dealing with them for the last 17 years, I understand the message they want to hear and what is important to them…I think this team needs to get faster. It needs more grit, it needs to be more competitive.”

With a reputation of a hard bargainer, Gillis did just that. An independent thinker, he watched and studied many different successful organizations such as Detroit and New Jersey and put what he learned to use. Understanding how players think and what they want, he worked hard towards making Vancouver a destination for players. Gillis hired sleep experts from the US Air Force to help the team cope with travel demands, used chefs and nutritionists to give the athletes optimal diets and psychologists for personal and professional stresses and reorganized the dressing room into a circle shape.

Gillis also brought with him his attacking and offensive-minded system, even buying Vigneault, a typically defensive-minded coach into it.

“Mike’s unconventional, but he has the same goal we do: to win. That’s why you get into this business,” Aquilini told Vancouver Magazine.

There have been frustrating and difficult moments for Gillis as well. He had to deal with the recent passings of Rick Rypien and Pavol Demitra, both of which he handled very well, but he also lost two close friends to cancer this past year. Of course, the media has not been much help either, and Gillis is constantly frustrated by them.

“There have been moments where I have reflected back and wondered if the amount of energy … is the right thing for me,” Gillis told the Vancouver Sun. “I feel we have unfinished business, for sure, and this team is on the right track…I feel very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s the right thing to carry on and try to accomplish our goals.”

So what now? First off, there’s Vigneault’s highly likely extension and then of course, the goaltending “issue.” Those are the two biggest items Gillis needs to address during the off-season.

“We have an awfully busy summer ahead of us. We have a number of situations that we need to resolve,” Gillis told canucks.com. “Now that I’ve resolved my situation we should be able to act on opportunities in front of us.”

Stay tuned – with Gillis as general manager, this off-season could be a fun one.

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