Here we go again. With Vancouver clinching their second straight Presidents’ Trophy over the weekend as the NHL’s best team, and every other Canadian franchise failing to earn a playoff berth save for Ottawa—in by the skin of its teeth—the Canucks are the country’s best hope to repatriate the Stanley Cup. The painful drought that has kept the Cup on U.S. soil since ’93 was made worse this year by an especially grim season for Canadian hockey. Half the country’s franchises—Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton—rounded out the season as bottom-five clubs.
If it were the Winnipeg Jets or Calgary Flames sitting cozy at No. 1, they would surely be embraced as Canada’s team, the country’s hopes and dreams resting on their shoulder pads. The spring before last, when Montreal made it to the final four, almost 70 per cent of Canadians were pulling for the Habs, according to pollster Angus Reid. Last June, however, the Canucks were cast as arrogant, classless, even un-Canadian—and that’s just what Canadian media dubbed them. Things aren’t looking any better this spring.
At this stage, 35 per cent of Canadians tell Angus Reid they’ll root for Vancouver. That sounds okay until you consider that nearly half the country, 45 per cent, would prefer to see an American team take home the Cup over the Canucks, with Boston and Pittsburgh the most popular choices. “They whine. They turtle. They want referees to fight their battles,” Edmonton Sun columnist Robert Tychkowski wrote this week. “They are arrogant, they bite people, and their fans set fire to police cars.”
In Calgary this playoff season, an “anyone-but-the-Canucks” movement is well under way, says Kent Wilson, managing editor of the popular sports blog Flames Nation. At a local Jersey City store, Boston Bruins jerseys are the top sellers. The Calgary outlet has never carried L.A. Kings gear. “But this week,” says sales associate Caitlyn Blain, when it became clear Vancouver would meet the Kings in the first round, “people started coming in left and right, asking if we’ve got any L.A. stuff. Everyone wants to see Vancouver choke again.”
This disdain for Vancouver is not confined to fans. This winter, the Chicago Blackhawks centre Dave Bolland labelled the Sedins “sisters,” lacing in once more to a team he called out for “pulling hair and biting people—sort of like a little girl.” The Oilers’ Ryan Whitney once said “90 per cent of the guys in the league want nothing to do with seeing them win.” Partly the venom stems from some of the players they employ. “I don’t know if he has an ounce of man in him,” Florida’s Krys Barch once said of Max Lapierre, who has a reputation for diving, and yapping after the whistle. “I’d be embarrassed to be his father.” No surprise, a recent anonymous poll of NHL players named Vancouver the league’s most overrated team.
It’s absurd, and insulting for a team so good, so skilled, so adept at everything we want from hockey—cunning, hard work, ingenuity, persistence—to be met with nothing but hatred and derision. And yet the Vancouver Canucks, even after clawing their way back to first, have yet to be greeted as anything but. Even with Ryan Kesler, one of the toughest players in the game, even after playing a whole season with a target on their backs, Canadians write them off as pansies.
Long before the riot, long before the puck even dropped on the Stanley Cup finals, it was clear the team would not get any love east of British Columbia. A perfect storm of regional rivalries, petty jealousies and a culture clash pitting the Canucks’ skillful, hands-off approach against old-fashioned blue-collar hockey seemed to be to blame. A finesse squad known for jaw-dropping plays, the Canucks lack the kind of blind aggression that makes hockey hockey. Until they met Boston, the Canucks’ approach was winning. Hockey hated them for it. And still does. “They’ve got a bunch of idiots over there,” Detroit’s goaltender Jimmy Howard sneered last month. Of course, he said it after losing to the Canucks.
The hostility began building late last season, when Vancouver was absolutely dominant, running away with the Presidents’ Trophy, finishing first in nearly every important NHL statistic. No underdogs, they were never going to get the kind of cheery coverage that greeted Calgary’s and Edmonton’s plucky, come-from-behind Stanley Cup runs. Columnists began weighing in from across the country, suggesting Canadians support the Bruins. The Toronto Star claimed a Canucks win would give the Cup to the “least deserving champions in NHL history.” Edmonton sportswriter Dave Staples called them “the most loathsome team since the thuggish Philadelphia Flyers of the early 1970s.” The National Post’s Joe O’Connor claimed he’d rather starve than support them. “Canada’s team? No thanks,” blared the front page of the Post. Its curious main thrust? They weren’t Canadian enough. Amidst it all, the New York Times actually ran: “Some in Canada see Vancouver as foreign.” The team’s “foreign” approach to the game goes a long way to explaining the hostility they stir up from the tradition-bound world of hockey.
The story begins with Mike Gillis. Last season’s NHL general manager of the year has never been one of hockey’s favourite sons. As an agent, the too-clever-by-half lawyer took on the league’s general managers, talking them into the kind of bloated contracts that led directly to 2005’s lockout. As a GM, he’s done it all over again, creating a destination franchise in what once was the league’s left coast laughingstock, where the game’s stars are practically begging to be underpaid. Before he was installed in Vancouver, Gillis had never drafted a player or orchestrated a trade, never worked in management, balanced a budget or built a hockey department. But he waltzed into Vancouver and immediately started working miracles.
Humble is not Gillis’s strong suit. In his maiden press conference in 2008, the rookie GM took a shot at the powerful Brian Burke-Dave Nonis duumvirate—the pair were fired by the Canucks ahead of his arrival, both moving on to the Maple Leafs organization—calling out their woeful recent drafting record, spotty player development and a lack of competitiveness. Like so many GMs before him, Gillis was promising a revolution. He actually delivered.
Gillis is a student in fact of baseball’s legendary Billy Beane, and set out to do to the NHL what Beane’s Oakland A’s did to Major League ball. Untainted by establishment thinking, wielding data and detached analysis to weed out inefficiencies and dim the game’s uncertainties, Vancouver’s phlegmatic general manager is willing to test-run rare and often strange approaches. Sleep experts, proprietary training programs, laptops and biorhythm bracelets for every player are all part of his arsenal.
His skepticism of hockey brass comes naturally. He was the man, after all, who took down Alan Eagleson. The game wasn’t kind to Mike Gillis. The hockey prodigy went fifth overall in the ’78 draft, but his dreams of NHL glory were derailed by a series of injuries. When in the early ’90s rumours began circulating that Eagleson, his former manager, had been bilking his clients, Gillis’s wife, Diane Coffey, an Olympic-calibre long-jumper, went down to the basement and dug up his old contract. Sure enough, he’d been cheated out of $41,250. Mightily offended, he decided to sue. It was hockey’s version of David and Goliath. “The Eagle,” at the time, was a titan: a lion of the hockey business, a friend of prime ministers and Bay Street icons. In the other corner, Gillis: a hockey wash-up from Sudbury, Ont., not yet out of university, with a new baby to support. Eagleson counter-sued for a quarter of a million dollars. “It was scary,” Gillis’s lawyer, Charles F. Scott, admits. The contentious, high-profile trial dragged out over six weeks, with lawyers’ bills mounting by the hour. In the end, Gillis was vindicated. But hockey’s biggest names had testified for Eagleson, and the episode cast Gillis as a pariah. “People in the NHL were so angry,” Gillis told Maclean’s, allowing a rare flash of emotion to cross his grey-blue eyes. “But there comes a point,” he said, “where you either stand up for yourself or you don’t.”
His life in hockey had given him a clear-eyed view of the game, and of the NHL’s power structure. He isn’t the type to kibitz over the good old days or get caught up in the romance of the game. This, more than anything, gives him a managerial edge: the ability to see through the hokum about the limits of European players and the merit of a Prairie birth certificate that still permeate front offices across the league. He is a fitting choice for Vancouver: an outsider leading a team of outsiders.
Vancouver’s stars can be hard to warm to. They’re led by the Sedins, a pair of Swedes “too bland” to get behind, according to the Post—the kind of players who stood in their wet shorts for an hour after losing the Cup, answering endless questions while fighting back tears. The brothers, who pass the puck nine times out of 10, play with artistry, creativity and beauty, don’t subscribe to hockey’s “code,” and set the tone for a style of play seen as, well, too Swedish. Honest, straight-up types like the Bruins, Vancouver’s mirror opposites, meanwhile, are exalted for their hard-nosed “Canadian” style of play.
Disgust for Vancouver crystallized in a single moment last June, when Daniel Sedin allowed Brad Marchand—generously listed at five foot nine—to smack him in the face again and again like an inflatable clown. Marchand landed no less than six punches. Sedin just stood there as the Boston rookie speed-bagged his face. Questions about the team’s toughness have only escalated since. This spring, the Sedins, along with Toronto’s Phil Kessel, were labelled hockey’s “most easily intimidated” players in a Sports Illustrated poll. The Canucks aren’t quite the pushovers they’re made out to be, but they were one of the league’s least penalized teams this season, and the only NHL squad that didn’t receive supplementary discipline. Neither stat is considered an honour. The Canucks, “gutless” and “unwilling to drop their sticks,” according to Chicago Daily Herald columnist Barry Rozner, are a “disgrace to the game.” New hire Sammy Pahlsson, about the closest thing they’ve got to a bruiser, is . . . also Swedish.
For years, everyone in hockey has lambasted Gillis for refusing to add enforcers to the lineup, widely seen as Vancouver’s gaping flaw. Gillis, however, sees hockey “evolving to a more highly skilled game.” There’s no room in Vancouver for “one-dimensional” players who “can’t contribute.” Indeed, this year, several teams, including Toronto, followed his lead, dumping their enforcers, fourth-line fighters who log seven minutes a night. T
he Canucks are written off as too pretty—like Vancouver itself. Life is better in Lotusland, with its booming economy, world’s No. 1 city status and year-round kayaking; and let’s face it, that rankles. The regional rivalry that cleaves the country from east to west has meanwhile been aggravated with the upstart West flipping the balance of power on its head. The country’s new economic engine and now, a hockey powerhouse, too? Partly because of the perception that its success has come at the cost of Ontario, the West has become an easy target for resentment. This makes it easy for Canadians to hate a hockey team from their own country. These reasons don’t stand up to scrutiny—but the prettiest girl in school is also a target of hatred, and it all boils down to jealousy.
like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Canucks have come to be seen as pampered. It isn’t long after a new player is traded to Vancouver before he realizes the place is very different from the club he left behind. “Just look at the locker room,” says former Bruin Andrew Alberts. “Personalized computers have players’ shifts broken down, so you can watch your shifts alone, or with the coach. There’s food every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s a hot tub, cold tub, couches, TVs everywhere. There’s somebody you can call at all hours of the night, whatever you need. If your family’s coming to town for a visit, they’ll book hotels and flights. If it’s your birthday, Easter, they send you stuff.” Sure, other clubs are doing “some of this,” says Alberts. “But no one’s doing it all.”
Owner Francesco Aquilini opened up the bank for Gillis, giving him a $3-million dressing room overhaul, a top-line audio-visual system and the expanded scouting staff he’d wanted. A $50-million waterfront practice facility on False Creek is in the works. A team of military sleep experts oversees the players’ rest patterns, advising the front office on everything from when individual players should be napping to whether the team—whose gruelling travel schedule criss-crosses multiple time zones—flies home immediately after a road game, or spends the night, maximizing rest. “When it comes to innovation and creativity,” says agent Anton Thun, “Vancouver has taken it to a whole new level.” Nutritionists and chefs fine-tune three-square-a-day meal plans, and after games, players down a pink recovery drink blending electrolytes, carbs, proteins and amino acids developed specially for them and lab-tested at UCLA. The team doesn’t want for anything. This, too, gets hockey’s back up.
Maybe it actually comes down to this. No one likes the smartest person in the room. Nobody likes change. The Canucks deliver both in spades.
Vancouver’s faithful know what is coming their way. For months, fans have promoted the idea that they should laugh off the loathing and caterwauling, “embrace the hate,” and feed off all the negativity. But they may not have to. Hockey narratives are a moving target. Last week, New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella and TV analyst Mike Milbury crowned Pittsburgh the most arrogant team in the league. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, not the Sedin brothers, are being called out for “diving” and “whining” and “cheap, dirty” play this playoff season. And according to Angus Reid, Vancouver isn’t even Canada’s most hated team. The Leafs are.