Winning has a funny way of changing perceptions. When you win, all of a sudden everything you do turns to gold. You can stumble, you can make mistakes, but those get swept quickly under the rug under the bright lights of winning. Likewise when you lose, all of a sudden everything you do is seen as yet another sign of your incompetence. Anything you do can and will be used against you in the Court of Fan Opinion Law.
Mike Gillis enjoyed both sides of this equation during his time with Vancouver. Despite initial concerns about an agent with no previous front office experience running the team, Gillis quickly turned those criticisms aside by not only simply being different than his predecessor Dave Nonis (anything you do to differentiate yourself from the old losing regime is a bonus, which is probably why Dave Nonis, a Burke protege, was never really embraced in Vancouver), but more importantly, just by winning.
When Mike Gillis was enjoying the upswing of his time in Vancouver, riding Luongo, the Sedins and Kesler in their primes and winning President Trophies left and right (sweet, sweet President Trophies), he was viewed as a great GM. He was cold, he was calculating, he was an assassin who always got his man. Patrick White for Ehrhoff? My god, Gillis is a genius using the cap situation to his advantage. Picking up Higgins and Lapierre at low prices? Gillis strikes again!
Even the weird things like sleep doctors and personal chefs for Kyle Wellwood were viewed as amusing side stories and just another example of Gillis doing anything possible to gain an edge over his opponents. He was thinking outside the box, people would exclaim!
Then came the losing. After the Canucks failed to win the Cup in 2011, and Mike Gillis began having his midlife Canucks crisis (“I should buy a David Booth”), the Canucks began to lose in the playoffs. And not just lose, mind you; they tanked out in the first round, putting up about as much fight as Kyle Wellwood resisting seconds at the buffet table (I own a Wellwood jersey so I’m allowed to make two outdated Wellwood references in one post. It was either that or a Sundin getting tired joke.) Then came the ultimate losing season in 2014, in which if you didn’t know any better, you would have sworn it was done on purpose because there is no way someone stumbles by accident into a season that bad.
(Inserting a picture break to relax your eyes. Plus it’s Wellwood with freaking frosted tips. That’s amazing.)
Alas, Torts and Gillis somehow managed to make the Jeff Cowan-led Canucks seem like a real barn burner of an offensive team, which as we know ended in Torts and Gillis being fired. In the resulting autopsy of Mike Gillis’ reign, all of the things that initially made Gillis seem awesome (cold, calculating, shrewd, thinks outside the box) became really bad negatives (never acts quickly enough, always over values his assets, wastes time on stupid things like sleep doctors, his cold attitude makes other GMs hate him).
As Harvey Dent once astutely said “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”, and that was certainly the case with Mike Gillis. Had the Canucks won the Cup in 2011, his best move probably would have been to retire right away. Hell, even though they lost he was probably better served jumping ship at that point.
Which brings us back around to Trevor Linden and Jim Benning. So far, they have done a remarkable job of winning the PR battle with the fans. As has been documented this off-season the Canucks season ticket waiting list dried up after last year, and ticket renewals are struggling. It has gotten so bad that the Canucks are actually advertising season tickets again. Joe Average is pissed off and the Canucks have noticed. This is why the new happy friendly regime is working all of the angles to make sure you know they’re different than the last regime.
Mike Gillis seemed distant and cold? Don’t worry, Jim Benning talks to the fans in the stands at prospect camp and Trevor Linden is taking pictures of fans with Stan Smyl.
The Canucks seemed to take their fans for granted? Gone are the season ticket summits where Grimm’s finest disgusting hot dogs were the food of choice, and now enter the lobster rolls and lamb chops.
The Canucks never draft local kids? Don’t worry, Jake Virtanen is from BC! He’s a local boy and he’s coming home!
You might think this is a silly game of PR, but the fact is, it’s working. Take a look at a poll I held recently, asking people’s thoughts on the Canucks:
Now it’s only 1,330 votes, but it does go to show that almost 50% of the people polled thought Linden and company had done enough to win them back. The die hards who never leave were at 26%, and 19% were still undecided, but that is still a good chunk of people coming back on board due to the changes made.
So if you look at the new regime as a two-phase project – with part 1 being “win back the fans”, and part 2 being “winning the Cup” – the new management team has aced phase one. The problem is phase two. As much good will as they have generated by their actions, as much good will they have sucked out of the Trevor Linden name, that all goes down the drain if the Canucks keep losing.
That’s what it comes down to in sports at the end of the day. Winning. So while I applaud the Canucks for their remarkable job of changing the atmosphere around the team (and let’s face it, a little effort goes a long way, especially compared to the end of Gillis regime, when he was basically angrily yelling at Blake Price on the radio every other interview), I cannot wait to see if the changes they made effect them positively on the ice. If they win the Cup during the new regimes time in power, Trevor Linden basically becomes a man-God in Vancouver. Jim Benning will get some free cars, and Willie Desjardins will get to do some radio commercials talking about car insurance.
If they lose, however, it will be really interesting to see how quickly the city turns on Trevor Linden and Jim Benning. All of a sudden they might become “too nice” in their approach to hockey and not ruthless enough. Maybe they become too old school in their ways of thinking and they get hammered for drafting with too much meat and potatoes in mind.
Either way, the next season should be one of the most intriguing seasons we’ve seen in years. And if you do win a Cup Trevor? Retire right away. Go out on top.