Inside the Mind of Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis

Like Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, Canucks GM Mike Gillis has taken an unconventional approach to creating a model sports franchise

January 1, 2012

By Bruce Dowbiggin

A July afternoon at UBC’s Thunderbird Park. Canada’s women’s field hockey team is hosting Japan, and things are not going well; the visitors are shutting out Canada 5-0. “Take it, take it up the field,” Mike Gillis urges his 22-year-old daughter, Kate, a forward on the team. Gillis understands the dynamic of attack, even if he’s a little fuzzy on the rules of field hockey. He shakes his head in that way of parents contemplating the car ride home.

Kate Gillis is, in part, the reason Mike Gillis is the president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. In 2007, he was an agent based in Kingston, Ontario; he and his wife, Diane, took a sabbatical in Vancouver while Kate (the second of their three children) tried out for the national team. In the spring of 2008, he sat down at the home of Francesco Aquilini, owner of the Canucks. The team had finished out of the playoffs, and Aquilini had requested the get-together.

Gillis thought Aquilini wanted to discuss Markus Naslund, a Gillis client. “At the time,” says Aquilini now, “we were looking for someone, so you always have that in the back of your mind. I wanted to get to know him personally: is he a person of integrity? That’s the first thing I look for when I hire someone. Mike struck me as someone with the utmost integrity.”

“I liked what I was doing,” Gillis recalls, relaxing at his Point Grey home after the field hockey game. “I was happy being an agent, had really good clients, was starting to slow down a bit.” At that time, Gillis’s only hockey connection to Vancouver was Naslund and, previously, another client, Pavel Bure. “When the conversation with Francesco took a turn, I needed to find out what the Aquilinis were all about. I put it to them: were they willing to do what it took to win?” Evidently he liked what he heard. Within three weeks, Gillis, despite having no experience in NHL management, was appointed general manager.

Reaction in the hockey community was swift. A Vancouver Sun headline read: “Now The Losing Begins.” “It’s hard to fathom fans here tolerating two or three years of grief and losing badly,” wrote the Province. Three-quarters of respondents to a poll on TEAM 1040 Radio opposed the move. Aquilini was unfazed: “If we’d hired Scotty Bowman, everyone would have gone, ‘Oh, he’s great.’ But I felt really good about it. Mike’s unconventional, but he has the same goal we do: to win. That’s why you get into this business.”

If Gillis is unconventional, he has good reason. A first-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies in 1978, he wound up in Boston. In 1984 he fractured his ankle so severely he was forced to retire. He’d pursued his education while playing, but as a husband (to Diane Coffey, a former Olympic-calibre long jumper) and new father he needed a long-term plan. His NHL disability insurance would provide a stake. Supported by his agent (and union head) Alan Eagleson, he was accepted into law school at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he’d played junior hockey.

A Sudbury native, used to competing with testosterone-choked boys from Sault Ste. Marie and the Pas, Gillis found himself surrounded by a different class of competition. He figured he wouldn’t survive on intellect alone, so he worked harder than everyone else. He’d be all about the details. Meanwhile, he helped players such as Geoff Courtnall, Craig Ludwig, and his own brother, Paul, with their NHL contracts.

Mike Simurda, a portfolio manager, played junior with Gillis. “I knew he’d make it after how he was embraced as a 16-year-old by the veterans on the junior team,” says Simurda, who handles the investments of some of Gillis’s former clients. “I’m uncertain what kind of a corporate or criminal lawyer he would have made, but it was clear that his NHL clients and their families were very happy with the work he did for them. I’m not sure the GMs he was up against were equally thrilled.”

In 1992, Gillis was contacted by a Massachusetts reporter, Russ Conway, who was working on a series about corruption in the NHL Players Association. Conway suggested that Eagleson had ripped Gillis off on the disability claim. Gillis refused to believe it until the day Diane, prompted by further revelations, re-examined the books in their basement. Sure enough, Eagleson had diverted $42,000 to a company he controlled on a disability claim that had already been approved.

Gillis, still a law student, sued for the rest of his insurance. Eagleson, friend to prime ministers and sports legends, countersued for a quarter-million dollars. A contentious, high-profile trial unfolded in Toronto, and for six weeks the expenses kept growing. If Gillis lost, he’d be broke and no one in the hockey world would side with him against the powerful Eagleson.

When the judge finally announced his verdict, it was complete vindication. Calling Eagleson a liar, Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph O’Brien awarded Gillis his full insurance money, damages, and court costs. (Eagleson eventually ended up in prison.) But victory came at considerable cost. Gillis had gone public with a “family squabble.” Abandoned by the cozy hockey fraternity, he was cast as a pariah.

Ever since, general managers, owners, and commissioners have found themselves up against a smart, learned, calculating adversary who, for good reason, feels zero loyalty to the old-boys network and the NHL crest. “Mike’s reputation as an agent was that of an extremely hard bargainer,” says Laurence Gilman, who met him across the table when Gilman worked for the Phoenix Coyotes. “He implicitly understood his clients’ leverage and maximized it in every negotiation. He was viewed as a staunch supporter of players’ rights. And of course his reputation with the hockey establishment had been impacted by his legal pursuit of Eagleson. There were many agents and club executives who hoped he’d go away.”

He did not. He worked tirelessly, alone, from his Kingston home. The house wasn’t adorned with the usual hockey memorabilia; it was better known for gourmet dinners, vintage wines, and tasteful art. Craig Button, one-time general manager in Calgary, says of dealing with Gillis: “When it came to business, there wasn’t a lot of time wasted on pleasantries. It was, ‘What are we going to talk about? How are we going to do this?’” Without an assistant, Gillis negotiated rich contracts for clients like Tony Amonte, Mike Richter, Pat Verbeek, and Bobby Holik (whose extraordinary five-year, $45-million deal with the Rangers led, some believe, to the 2004-05 lockout and resulting salary cap).

Laurence Gilman, now Gillis’s assistant GM, sees in his boss a sophisticated and unique hockey mind: “He understands how players and agents think, and he knows what they look for in teams. He developed this insight from having watched and studied many organizations over the years. Mike’s great advantage is that he’s an independent thinker.”

Upon taking the reins in Vancouver, Gillis assessed the talent, on and off the ice. The 2008-09 Canucks had a solid core in goalie Roberto Luongo, the Sedin twins, emerging centre Ryan Kesler, and veteran defencemen Mattias Ohlund, Willie Mitchell, and Sami Salo. The farm system, however, was felt to be bereft of emerging NHLers after Brian Burke’s bumptious tenure as GM.

Gillis wanted to adapt the methods of the successful franchises he’d studied, particularly Detroit and New Jersey. He felt the team needed to put emphasis on skill, speed, and a progressive approach to player development. In a major surprise, he kept Alain Vigneault as head coach. Noted as a defensive specialist, Vigneault quickly bought into Gillis’s attacking system. “Alain’s a very smart guy,” says Gillis. “When we explained what we wanted to do, he came onboard.” Gillis believed that turnover was needed but that a total rebuild was unnecessary. He instructed Gilman, Lorne Henning (his player personnel head), and former client Dave Gagner (director of player development) that they’d have, in effect, an extra draft every two years by combing the ranks of undrafted and unsigned college and junior players.

His longer-term goal was to turn Vancouver into a destination for NHL players—not easy for a team with an onerous travel schedule and a spotty playoff history. As an agent, though, he understood exactly what players wanted and valued. Sleep experts from the U.S. Air Force were consulted on ways to minimize the effects of the taxing travel demands. Chefs and nutritionists were engaged to prepare optimal diets for players whose default choice was McDonald’s. Psychologists were made available to deal with personal and professional stresses. The dressing room was reconfigured into a circle. The idea, says Gillis, was “to make Vancouver a place where players tell their agent they want to play.”

His biggest challenge was changing the culture of a team that hadn’t won a Stanley Cup in its four decades. “The one thing that surprised me is how focused the media is on negativity,” he told the Province in 2008. “Events that occurred long before I got here seem to have set a tone. We’ve made changes in literally every element of this organization. Yet I read where we haven’t done enough, that it’s been all talk and no action.”

Gillis’s rookie GM year was not without dire moments. The team lost eight straight at one point, and injuries wracked the lineup. “We had a good team—not a great team—and a plan we wanted to stick to,” Gillis recalls today. “We did. And in the second half of that season, we were the best team in the league.” That strong finish vaulted them past Calgary and Colorado to the Northwest Division title and a first-round playoff blitz against St. Louis. The new-look Canucks then faced Chicago in a bitter series that the Blackhawks won in six games.

“I felt we were probably two years ahead of where we thought we’d be,” says Gillis. “We had a chance to win that series but weren’t mature enough, experienced enough. We didn’t have the right mix to overcome the adversity we encountered in that series. We still had a lot of work to do.”

Part of that work was reversing an earlier decision to make goaltender Luongo captain and appointing Henrik Sedin instead. “Roberto was the captain for all the right reasons: a leader, highly respected, conservative,” Gillis says. “When you’re the last line of defence, though, it can appear you’re being critical of teammates when all you’re doing is answering the questions asked. In hindsight, it created too much pressure on him. It could work in another market, just not in a Canadian market with all the media demands.”

Gillis knew he needed to sign his core players at prices that allowed for the addition of depth so crucial in the meat grinder of the playoffs. From Day 1 he wanted to lock up his offensive catalysts, the Sedins. It was, he knew, a negotiation that would define his tenure in Vancouver. The brothers, consistent 70- to 80-point producers, were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2009. Their agent, J.P. Barry, though an old friend of Gillis’s, made it clear that there would be no friendly deals.

“He was a new GM trying to figure out his team and his team’s salary cap,” recalls the Kelowna-based Barry. “We tried to start off keeping it friendly. We’re both pretty intense, and we had some difficult meetings. We didn’t budge for a long time.”

“It was hard,” Gillis agrees. “J.P. and I did a lot of fighting. I have a lot of respect for him and the way he goes about his job. At the end of the day we all had to understand the external stuff. We asked them to take less money here to make the deal work.”

Negotiations proceeded through early 2009. Often it was as much a debate about the global economy as hockey. Barry, quoting his old classmate, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, was the bull; Gillis, the bear. Meanwhile, Vancouver’s media speculated endlessly about whether the Sedins were worth a long-term commitment; some still referred to them as “the sisters.” Gillis knew better; he viewed them as increasingly productive and remarkably durable, unintimidated by the NHL’s thug culture.

“We had our final meetings the weekend of the draft in June,” says Barry, “and it didn’t go well. We were feeling a lot of tension. I told Mike that weekend that we were done, and I was headed to Sweden to prepare for [the Sedins’] free agency.”

Leafs general manager Brian Burke—who’d originally drafted the Sedins for Vancouver—was already in Sweden, hoping the Canucks negotiations would fail. Gilman convinced Gillis to fly to Sweden on June 30, the day before free agency. In business class, they bumped into J.P. Barry.  “I told them they’d have to wait till I had a chance to talk to the guys and their wives,” Barry recalls. “We ended up going to dinner in Stockholm that first night and then meeting with the twins the next day. Mike spent a lot of time explaining why the Canucks wanted to keep them, that they were the most important part of the core. And the Canucks moved in their offer for the first time.”

“It came down to the last day,” Gillis recalls. “These were the most important players on the team to establish a culture. I had to be sure that they wanted to be the go-to guys who’d lead the team. That they wanted to be in that role, in the limelight.”

In the end, the Sedins left money on the table to stay with an emerging franchise in a city their families enjoyed. Their identical deals averaged $6.1 million per year for five years, allowing the Canucks to re-sign Luongo that September, along with other key members of the team. First Henrik, and then Daniel, went on to win the Art Ross title as the NHL’s leading scorer, and Henrik also won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Gillis’s assessment had been confirmed. “It would have been nice,” chuckles Barry, “if they’d done that the year leading into negotiations.”

The 2009-10 season, interrupted by the Olympics, was bittersweet. The Canucks repeated as Northwest champs but again succumbed to Chicago in the playoffs. It was clear, however, that the team was poised for a serious run at the Stanley Cup. That summer, Gillis brought defenceman Dan Hamhuis in from Nashville as a free agent and obtained Keith Ballard in a trade with Florida. He also sought to transform Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows from talented hotheads to more controlled presences on the ice. The pair responded beautifully: Kesler emerged as a 41-goal scorer and Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward, and Burrows bounced back from shoulder surgery to score important goals in the playoffs.

Last year, of course, the Canucks finished first overall in the regular season, and are seen around the league as a team that’s built to last. Off the ice, too, they’re considered a model organization. The franchise once ridiculed for hiring Gillis now sets the standard for money management, player development, and cultural transformation. The support the Canucks gave to the troubled Rick Rypien, and the way it handled the untimely deaths of Luc Bourdon (motorcycle accident), Rypien (suicide), and Pavol Demitra (plane crash), was exemplary. Their circular dressing room so impressed Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff during the 2010 Olympics that the Sabres have reconfigured their own room, and the progressive approach to diet, mental health, and travel is also being emulated by other teams. As Gillis intended, Vancouver has gone from being a franchise that players avoided to a place where they want to play. A new culture pervades the organization from top to bottom: first-rate people (and players), a tight-knit, clique-free group, and an ongoing commitment to get better. To that end, a rumour circulates after the Olympics that Gillis has his sights set on Nashville defenceman Shea Weber (a close friend of Dan Hamhuis), who’ll become a free agent in the summer.

It’s late October 2011 and the Canucks—as Gillis suspected—are in full hangover mode from the Stanley Cup drama. Ryan Kesler has only just got back in uniform after hip surgery, and his linemate, Mason Raymond, is still weeks away from returning to the lineup after a serious back injury. Some of the veterans have looked a bit disengaged, and the typically erratic early-season play of Roberto Luongo has prompted much media discussion.

At 11 o’clock on a Thursday night, after a victory over the Predators, as the cleaners make their way through the stands of Rogers Arena, Gillis and Gilman are huddled around the speakerphone in the GM’s office. On the other end of the line is Lorne Henning, the vice president of player personnel. Henning was not at the Predators game; he’s been watching David Booth, a 28-year-old Michigan-born winger who rose with Kesler through the ranks of USA Hockey. Booth is best known for his concussions, but he has speed and an instinct around the net. (He scored 30 goals for Florida a few seasons ago.)

Coach Alain Vigneault sticks his head in the door, eager to hear Henning’s appraisal of Booth. Henning sees this as a good opportunity for the Canucks. Kesler could help his old friend regain his scoring touch, and Booth could help Kesler reintegrate after his injury while adding speed to a line slowed by the absence of Raymond. In return for Booth, centre Steve Reinprecht (who’ll go to the Canucks’ farm team in Chicago), and a third-round draft pick, the Canucks would give up expensive veterans Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm, whom they signed as a free agent in the summer.

The next day, when the trade is announced, people in the sports media applaud it, figuring there’s a huge upside for the Canucks if Booth stays healthy. After the team’s sluggish start, the fans, too, are pleased to see management actively working to strengthen the lineup. Even the normally phlegmatic Gillis seems pleased. He knows Booth will be a good fit, but he also knows how many things need to go right for the team to return to the Stanley Cup final.

Asked if he’s happy, he allows a wan smile to cross his face. “Long way to go,” he says. “Long way to go.”

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