“No one has carte blanche. But he’s been placed in control of the hockey operations and I don’t think I’ve said no to him yet.”
— Francesco Aquilini in March 2011 on the subject of Mike Gillis.
Since he first reached three miles outside the box to make the organization’s most important hire, Francesco Aquilini has made it abundantly clear his confidence in Mike Gillis is unshakable.
More to the point, it’s the foundation on which the Vancouver Canucks have been built.
Want $20 million to sign Mats Sundin? Here you go. Want to bury some million-dollar contracts in the minors so the Canucks can get Christian Ehrhoff and David Booth? Not a problem. Sleep doctors, sports psychologists, nutritionists? Just give me the bill.
It hasn’t always worked but, in Gillis’s four years on the job, Aquilini has stood behind his man both philosophically and financially without once second-guessing, publicly at least, his decisions or the direction the franchise was heading.
Then came the Canucks five-game ouster from the first round of the playoffs this spring. And, for the first time in four years, cracks seemed to appear in the Aquilini-Gillis relationship; cracks which raised questions, not so much about Alain Vigneault’s future with the Canucks, as Gillis’s future.
“We’ve been successful in a lot of different ways,” the GM said on Monday, shortly after the puff of white smoke appeared from Rogers Arena. “We’ve accomplished 98 per cent of what we set out to do. In those circumstances most people continue with the plan and try to finish off the last two per cent.”
And now he’s back to look for that two-per-cent solution.
On Monday, Gillis went into his much publicized summit meeting with Canucks’ ownership — and let it be said Nixon met Mao with less fanfare — amid some uncertainty and emerged with a contract extension and, more importantly, a mandate to finish the job. His next order of business will be to extend Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness to contract extensions; and Gillis left little doubt that is his intention.
Beyond that, it will be a summer of Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Mason Raymond, and the other Canucks’ concerns which are well-known to every member of the faithful. In other words, it will be business as usual on Griffiths Way and, given everything that’s happened over the last four seasons, that’s the only way it could be.
“It was a quick end to the season we didn’t anticipate,” Gillis said of the three weeks between the Canucks’ elimination and his contract extension. “It just takes a while, which is not uncommon. It was my preference to wait a little longer to make sure everyone was level-headed.”
And that was an interesting comment.
The perception in the hockey world, of course, is Aquilini wanted Vigneault’s job after the loss to the Kings and Gillis wanted to stay the course. We can argue about that one all summer but, what is indisputable, is this franchise could not move forward with ownership telling Gillis how to run the team.
The mere suggestion of that, in fact, contradicts everything Aquilini has done since he hired the former player agent. The Canucks’ owner is many things — rash, emotional, demanding — but he wants to win as badly as any Canucks’ fan and he’s given Gillis every resource at his disposal to deliver the game’s biggest prize.
That doesn’t make him easy to work for and if Gillis didn’t understand that four years ago, he has a clearer idea of that now. But that’s between Gillis and Aquilini. For the faithful, the only thing that matters is ownership is committed to the current regime and they will return to find that missing two per cent.
Gillis, for his part, remains an interesting study. He swept into office on a reformer’s platform but, since assuming control, his bedrock principles have been patience, stability and loyalty. As luck would have it, those are the same principles every successful franchise has been built around and, in announcing Gillis’s extension, they’ve now taken root in Vancouver.
That means a number of things but, on the most basic level, it clarifies virtually every item of business in the organization. Any other announcement on Monday would have made things a tad more complicated.