October 6, 2014
Once hired, Mike Gillis and the Aquilini family quickly plotted a course that would defy hockey convention. The goal, says Gillis, was “to make Vancouver a destination for players around the league. A place where players tell their agent they want to go.” If you could attract the best players, the thinking went, the winning would naturally follow. While other sports had been opening up to new possibilities of doing business, the concept of a hockey version of the Moneyball revolution — so called after Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, which documented how the small-market Oakland A’s had dramatically rethought player evaluation via computer models — was unthinkable that spring. But Gillis had absorbed the fundamental message of Lewis’s book.
“The message I got was, in such a tight market for talent, you needed to look beyond the conventional means of thinking,” he says. “In hockey, people have not wanted to go beyond their experience to find new solutions. Some hockey people dismissed Moneyball because Oakland never won using it. But the A’s were a small market, and when they taught the big guys how it works, their advantage was gone. The Red Sox did adopt those principles and won two World Series. Being a small market who can’t compete is not a problem we have here in Vancouver.”
The progressive model in hockey was embodied by the Detroit Red Wings, and the end goal was to do the same for Vancouver, a team hobbled by its onerous travel schedule. As an agent, Gillis knew what players really wanted in a market, and so the team consulted sleep experts about travel, dietitians about better eating, sports psychologists about stress.
Continuity would also be a hallmark of the team Gillis and his management wanted to build. “If you look around at successful sports franchises, the most successful, by and large, have stability and continuity over a long period of time,” assistant GM Laurence Gilman told the Vancouver Province. “The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three coaches over the last forty years [Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin]. That’s the way we’ve modelled ourselves.” Gillis wanted players to talk that way about Vancouver and set about doing it from day one.
Still, as Gillis assumed office, there was a deep psychosis among Canuck fans. A longing unfulfilled. “There was no great era of Canuck hockey,” says hockey commentator Ray Ferraro. “Now is the best time ever for hockey in this city.”
Excerpt from Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever by Bruce Dowbiggin, published by Greystone Books, 2014. Available Sept. 27
Related Reading: Inside the Mind of Vancouver Canuck GM Mike Gillis.