As Roberto Luongo and Daniel and Henrik Sedin prepare to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, this weekend provides a chance for the hockey world to celebrate all their accomplishments, which peaked during their shared time as Vancouver Canucks. And the person who put together their unforgettable supporting cast made a rare public appearance earlier this week on Sportsnet 650 to talk about the magic they created.
Former Canucks general manager Mike Gillis joined Thomas Drance on Thursday to discuss the Sedins and Luongo’s impact on the Canucks franchise, as well as everything it took to build their dominant Cup-contending team. As expected, Gillis had nothing but kind things to say about his three biggest superstars.
“I’m extremely proud to have had the opportunity to work with those guys. I think that the three of them were, you know, ultra-competitive, great leaders, great teammates,” Gillis said. “It’s pretty difficult to complain about those three when it comes to running a hockey team, what they brought every day and how they conducted themselves.”
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Gillis’ tenure as GM centred entirely on building an elite team around Luongo and the Sedins, and his front office certainly accomplished that. Under his watch, the Canucks won over 260 games across six seasons, five division titles, two President’s Trophies and went to a Stanley Cup Final. But when he first arrived, people were quick to tell Gillis where they felt the team’s issues lay.
“It was a really interesting first year because when I took the job in Vancouver, there were a lot of people, both nationally and locally, who were of the opinion that you could never win with the Sedins. Not so much Roberto, but there was a real polarization around Daniel and Henrik. That was profound,” Gillis said of his earliest impressions of the twins.
“People were voicing their opinions about these two guys, and whether or not they were capable of being truly elite-level players in the National Hockey League. There were hard decisions, but the hardest one was to tune out the noise around Daniel and Henrik in particular, and evaluate them as the people that they were, what they were capable of currently, and then what we thought they could be capable of in the future.”
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That call turned out to be franchise-altering in the best way possible. And while Gillis is best known as one of the NHL’s most forward-thinking and innovative GMs, what made the difference for him when it came to the Sedins was a far more traditional scouting metric: character.
“They were upper-level players, for sure. But if we wanted to truly build what we thought could be a championship team, we had to evaluate character before we evaluated anything else,” Gillis said. “So our biggest assessment was understanding who they were as people and whether or not they were prepared to really take on a leadership role. And we got more and more comfortable during the course of the year that they were the type of people that would embrace being leaders on the team.”
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“We had to do our part to win. Everyone had to make a sacrifice to make it happen, and it started with those two.”
As for Luongo, Gillis immediately understood his value to the Canucks. The goaltender’s consistently incredible play and leadership made it possible for the front office to take risks and stack the roster with as much skill and hockey IQ as they could fit.
“When you have a player like Roberto, you talk about character and leadership and all of the ingredients that go into making great players and teammates, he had it all. You go into every game knowing that your goalie has a chance to be the best player on the ice every game you play. It’s an incredible luxury,” Gillis said.
“It allowed the style of play to become more upbeat, more transitional. It allowed us to take chances with how the team played and, most particularly, transition from defence to offence as quickly as possible. It made that so much easier because you had a guy that was that reliable and consistent and could soak up a ton of minutes without breaking down. It gave us a chance to think differently about how to improve the team. So when you can point to one player on your roster that allows you that luxury, it’s pretty unique.”
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That luxury is one of the few aspects that the current rendition of the Canucks can somewhat relate to. Up until this season, goaltender Thatcher Demko had been far and away the team’s most reliable workhorse. But that’s where most of the comparisons stop, especially when you look at the team’s huge struggles in transition.
Outside of Quinn Hughes and newcomer Ethan Bear, the Canucks are in desperate need for strong puck-moving defenders. And in Gillis’ mind, that element of roster construction wasn’t just “absolutely critical.”
It also helped supporting cast forwards graduate into bonafide offensive weapons.
“When we got Christian Ehrhoff, that transformed that team. We understood the importance of puck-moving defencemen, and perhaps the biggest beneficiary was Alex Burrows. He was such a smart player that he understood the transition game as well as anybody and he was constantly in a position where he was an outlet for quick transition and quick movement in the offensive zone,” Gillis said.
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“We were constantly searching for puck-moving defencemen who were reliable defensively, but who had the skating ability to get out of trouble, not get hit, and move the puck. You can have the best forwards on the planet, but if they never get the puck in the right spot and are never creating odd-man rushes, it’s really difficult for them to generate offence on their own. We thought we had good offensive players, but they weren’t great at the time. When they started getting the puck in more situations where they could accomplish more, they just got better and better.”
And Gillis attributes a lot of that success to the locker room culture the Canucks cultivated. When asked what he thought about Kevin Bieksa’s pep talk to the current roster last week, one where the defenceman talked about his pride in helping create a great team culture, the former GM said he wasn’t surprised to hear it.
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“Kevin not only was a great player for the Canucks, but he was also one of those guys who truly cared about his teammates and played a major role in the culture that was in that room. And one of our objectives was we wanted to hand the workings of that dressing room over to the players, over to the leadership group that we had, because we were confident that they were going to make good decisions,” Gillis said.
“They weren’t selfish, they checked their egos at the door, and we knew they were going to make decisions that were in the best interests of the organization. And in doing so, I think they really felt empowered to be a much bigger part of a great opportunity than what usually happens.”
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It’s impossible not to compare and contrast the success of that team’s situation to the one unfolding in Vancouver now. As the Canucks’ have struggled to find sustainable success this season they’ve also earned a reputation of having a “country club atmosphere” in the process, where a lack of accountability for poor play has translated into a group seemingly content with being a “win one, lose one” kind of team.
Under the Sedins, Luongo, Bieksa and the rest of their core, Gillis saw a team where anything short of winning together was unacceptable.
“They had control of that room. When they had a problem, they would come to us and describe it. We would work our way through it and we would come to a reasonable conclusion. They were always trying to do the right thing, and they knew we were going to try and do the right thing, whatever that meant at that particular time,” Gillis said.
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“It’s a tribute to them as a group that they felt comfortable enough in those roles for the good of the organization. And it took a lot of pressure off of us as a management group because we knew those players cared and they were going to do what was necessary to make the team as good as it could be.”
Hopefully once the Hall of Fame festivities are all said and done, Gillis’ message isn’t lost on the people who currently need to hear it most.