The President’s Man: On Benning, cautionary tales, and the Boston model

When he was hired as the president of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks in early April, Trevor Linden was viewed in some circles with trepidation, particularly because he lacked any type of executive experience in hockey. Linden had business experience, but being the top hockey executive of a team like the Vancouver Canucks is an intense, demanding position unsuited to the inexperienced or the faint of heart. If it’s not your life, if you’re not going to get in early and obsess over every facet of the organization, if you can’t sacrifice month-long biking excursions (or commute in from Point Roberts) – you’re unlikely to have success.

In his first month on the job, Linden has already put most of these concerns to rest. He passed his first wisdom test, which admittedly was a tap-in (albeit a tap-in shanked by another inexperienced president of hockey operations in a major Canadian market), by firing John Tortorella. He’s been extraordinarily available, amiable and frank in conversations with the media and in conversation with fans directly. Most importantly: he indirectly pitched his man to the Vancouver market and then went out and got him. On Wednesday, Linden hobnobbed with paying customers for half an hour before officially announcing the hire of new Canucks general manager Jim Benning at a season ticket holder event at the River Rock Casino.

Read on past the jump.

The optics of how Benning was hired this week, and how that hire was rolled out by Linden, are perhaps telling. You’ll recall that the Canucks, worried about an exodus of season ticket holders and wait-listers, have made their season ticket packages fully refundable for their every-game customers through July 11th this year. Essentially, in the midst of a consumer confidence crisis, the team is providing their most dependable customers a window, at the close of which – after the draft and free-agency – those customers can still decide not to renew their tickets. Rolling out the Benning hire at a fan event, after Linden worked the room expertly by all accounts, would strongly suggest that a primary feature of Linden’s focus is customer service.

Linden may not have previous experience as a hockey executive, but so far his job with the Canucks has included: assessing current personnel, executive head hunting, public relations and, once again, customer service. Linden’s background in business and as an iconic former Canucks captain seems well suited to that part of the job; he’s got a friendlier face than Mike Gillis does, and a face that a certain generation of fan wants to take a selfie with, because “1994, baby!”

Of course Linden still has “hockey operations” in his title, and it’ll be interesting to see how he balances his involvement in hockey decisions with his more obvious (so far) role as salesman-in-chief. In an interview that made waves for positive and negative reasons early in his tenure, Linden explicitly invoked the “Boston model” during an appearance on CBC. The focus of much of the criticism was on the hockey side, “yeah, the Boston model, it’s so easy! Just find an excellent goaltender, the best center in hockey, and a generational shutdown defenseman, and presto!”, but if Linden’s head was tied up in front office structure and customer service concerns, then the Boston model – from a front office perspective – is a sensible approach. 

Cam Neely, who Linden sought out for advice in May, is the Boston Bruins’ president, but it’s general manager Peter Chiarelli who makes the day-to-day hockey decisions. Admittedly Neely doesn’t have “hockey operations” in his title, but with the Bruins he seems to blunt the unending criticism of oft-caricatured Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, he answers tough questions at the end of the season (and will criticize players in a way you’ll never hear from Claude Julien), and is clearly involved in some “big decisions” on the hockey side. Mostly Neely acts as a fan-friendly ombudsman though, while Chiarelli assembles the roster (and a fine one at that). It’s a model that appears to be increasingly popular around the NHL – from Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic, to Jarmo Kekäläinen and John Davidson – but it comes with its own risks of dysfunction.

Sakic, Neely and Davidson, for example, seem somewhat removed from roster decisions (although of course they’re not entirely removed). In all three cases, the president’s focus is clearly client services and customer relations. Pat LaFontaine, however, was presented as a GM-in-training this fall before he made the ill-fated decision to hire Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray. LaFontaine, who – and stop me if this sounds familiar – consulted with Neely before taking the Sabres job, found himself marginalized quickly with the Sabres after the Murray-hire. His tenure as Sabres president didn’t even survive a single major roster decision and ultimately the iconic former Sabres captain resigned over a supposed disagreement with Murray over whether or not to trade Ryan Miller

There’s obviously some indirect links to this story and the one in Vancouver, but there’s also an explicit one in incoming Canucks general manager Benning. Benning, a long-time scout with the Sabres organization, was a finalist for the Buffalo job and was ultimately sort of a surprise snub when the Sabres chose Murray. I’d be very curious to hear Benning asked about the interview process with both Buffalo and Vancouver, and whether or not he sensed a substantive difference between Linden’s vision for his role in Vancouver, and LaFontaine’s vision for his in Buffalo.

As it stands, Benning is the 11th general manager in Canucks franchise history as of this week. He’ll have some serious work to do righting the ship with an aging roster that’s devoid of young talent, and has lost ground quickly in the uber-competitive Western Conference. Linden is the president, meanwhile, and he’s got a tough balancing act going forward. So long as Linden continues to draw rave reviews on the customer service side, can  co-exist with Benning, can insulate his general manager from ownership pressures, and do all of this while also avoiding the type of internecine front office infighting that sunk Pat “cautionary tale” LaFontaine in Buffalo; this could work out. 

Or not. I mean, it’s a tall order, and this is still the Vancouver Canucks we’re talking about. 

  • Lou Armadillo

    “Or not. I mean, it’s a tall order, and this is still the Vancouver Canucks we’re talking about.”

    Hahaha I’m thinking it’ll work better than in buffalo but its kinda sad that all us canuck fans are always slightly pessimistic but I guess it comes with the territory. Oh well, at least the weather is nice.

    • Lou Armadillo

      Bergeron might not have the offensive touch of Crosby, Getzlaf or Giroux, but he’s undoubtedly the best centerman in the league if you factor in the fact that the ice is made up of an O-zone AND a D-zone.

  • Lou Armadillo

    I gotta say, I won’t be doing the blue line pack again unless they overhaul a lot of this team. I guess we have that July 11 date to look at. If it’s the same core then I can’t see myself getting too into this team.

  • Spiel

    Linden needs to define what the “Canuck model” is before following another team’s style of play. Something the Boston Bruins have is a defined identity. The “Big Bad Bruins”. That has been their identity for years. Players that are brought in are immersed in to that identity, and players that don’t fit in, are moved along.

    Linden should look to other sports as well for examples of good management and development. One of the best and most successful farm systems belongs to the St.Louis Cardinals. A number of years ago, their president actually put together a manual that is given to all players and staff and is an outline of the organizations philosophy, expectations, and even procedures.

    Well this might be an extreme example, the point is that have well defined ideas and vision is important. I think that getting everyone in the organization behind a defined goal and vision for achieving that goal would go a long way to solving the long standing problems in the organization especially player development and scouting.