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‘I think you can rebuild in that market’: Ex-GM Dave Nonis weighs in on the Canucks

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Lachlan Irvine
2 months ago
Not many people understand the issues the Vancouver Canucks are dealing with better than Dave Nonis.
Nonis — who spent ten seasons with the organization, including serving as general manager from 2004 to 2007 — appeared on Sportsnet 650 on Friday to talk about his time with the organization, dealings with ownership, and the overall look of the current team.
Nonis joined the Canucks as director of hockey operations under Brian Burke in 1998-99. The team he and Burke inherited was in complete turmoil, having finished last in the Western Conference the season before while dealing with a toxic locker room environment created by then-head coach Mike Keenan.
Besides the off-ice drama, Nonis felt the team had fallen into playing an uninspired brand of hockey that fans weren’t interested in watching.
“I think the fans of Vancouver are some of the best in the game, but they had become tired. There were empty seats in that building and there were reasons for it,” Nonis said. “And I think the losing was difficult, but the style of play was not what they wanted to see.
“We wanted to open it up and actually entertain people a little bit as well in hockey games. And I think that was an important part of bringing the fanbase back.”
Nonis helped set the table for the 2011 Canucks team that Mike Gillis delivered, thanks to moves that brought Roberto Luongo to town and helped make the Sedins the focal point of Alain Vigneault’s offence. But in the legends of Canucks’ lore, there’s one player that got away late in Nonis’ tenure: Tampa Bay Lightning star Brad Richards.
Before Richards was eventually dealt to the Dallas Stars at the 2008 trade deadline, Nonis had attempted to bring the 2004 Stanley Cup champion to Vancouver with a package that included goalie Cory Schneider, defenseman Luc Bourdon, and a pair of high draft picks.
But when the Lightning tried to convince the Canucks to part with a package that included Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler instead, Nonis refused. It’s since been widely speculated that his inability to close the Richards deal heavily contributed to Nonis’ eventual firing in the 2008 offseason.
Nonis didn’t exactly confirm the rumours, but he didn’t shy away from explaining his decision-making at the time.
“As I said earlier on, you have to make decisions that are the best for the team, not the best for yourself. If you do, you’re gonna hurt the franchise,” Nonis said. “Every team I’ve ever worked for, or even consulted for, I think that’s the principle you have to build upon, which is do what’s right for the team going forward.
“The team that went on in Vancouver after I left, I was proud of them. I was glad that they were all there and I would watch them pretty much every night because I felt I had a big part of putting them there and I enjoyed them. So that’s all I’ll say there.”
Questions around ownership’s involvement in on-ice decisions have been swirling since the Aquilini family took control of the team in the mid-2000s.
Nonis, who had worked for the Canucks under both the Aquilinis and the team’s previous owner, Seattle-based billionaire John McCaw Jr., noted there were understandable differences between dealing with both.
“I think when you have owners that are in town, living in the city, I think there’s always going to be a little bit more contact. With John McCaw I had contact with him, but not on a regular basis,” Nonis said. “I don’t think it impacted any deals I made or did not make. I think you have to put the good of the team ahead of anything that you do, or else you’re not going to ever be successful.
“Yes, maybe there were more contacts with local ownership, but you always have to make those moves or decisions based upon what’s right or wrong for the team.”
As for today’s Canucks, Nonis sees all the same issues that people outside the organization have: they have the offensive weapons to succeed, but lack the will to win on defence.
“Well, obviously they don’t have any problem scoring goals,” Nonis said. “They have a great deal of offensive ability. But, as you know, part of winning games and being really successful in the league today is keeping the puck out of your net.
“I think you could play an exciting upbeat brand of hockey, but I think you have to have a real commitment to play strong team defence. You have to be hard to play against. From what I’ve seen of Vancouver this year, they have had some difficulty in that area.”
But one thing Nonis was quick to refute was the notion that the Canucks fanbase wouldn’t accept a rebuild.
“I think you can rebuild in that market,” Nonis said. “I think the fans understand it as long as you’re able to tell them why and how and paint a bit of a roadmap for them. Because there’s a difference between a rebuilding in, I’ll call it a non-traditional market, where people only look at wins and losses. Vancouver’s not that market.
“Vancouver is a market where people do understand and if you do paint the picture for them and you’re honest, I think that they’ll accept it.”

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