Editor’s Note: January/February 2012

January 1, 2012

For many years, Vancouver had a mediocre NHL team. Since the Aquilini family bought the franchise, though, and hired Mike Gillis to run the hockey operation, the Canucks have been on
the upswing, evolving season by season into one of the league’s elite teams. In his article about Gillis in this issue, freelance writer Bruce Dowbiggin—whose career as a sportswriter, commentator, and author spans three decades—argues that a major reason for the Canucks’ success is that Gillis brings to the general manager’s role the sort of innovative thinking and independence of mind that enabled Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame), despite a very limited budget, to build a competitive major-league-baseball franchise in Oakland.

Dowbiggin has known Gillis since the mid 1990s, when each played a role in exposing Alan Eagleson’s corrupt dealings as a player agent, international hockey czar, and head of the NHL Players Association. Years later, in the summer of 2002, Dowbiggin spent many hours at the Gillis household in Kingston, Ontario, researching the book Money Players, about the battle between players and owners and the looming NHL lockout. The normally reticent Gillis, by then an agent himself, gave Dowbiggin extraordinary access as he negotiated with various NHL teams on behalf of several of his clients, including Tony Amonte and Mike Richter.

“Unlike a lot of agents, he’s a very private guy,” says Dowbiggin. “He loves solitary pursuits, like hunting and fishing, and now that he’s a GM he finds it a bit uncomfortable to be in the spotlight. It still unnerves him when, say, he goes into Cioffi’s on Hastings to buy beef and people recognize him. We first talked over the Eagleson thing, and it turned out we both love to golf and to collect wine. He’s got a wry sense of humour, but you’ve got to be around him for awhile before it comes out.”

Dowbiggin, who lives in Calgary, spent 10 years with the Herald and now writes a column for the Globe and Mail. He’s written several hockey books, including Of Ice and Men and The Stick. These days he’s working on a book for McClelland & Stewart that grew out of his profile of Gillis, “Built to Last.”

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