“Canucks losing starts now.” I didn’t write that headline in 2008, but Mike Gillis blames me, anyway.
The only problem with the headline, besides questionable punctuation, was its inaccuracy.
The Vancouver Canucks general manager, hired without National Hockey League managerial experience and from the one-man short list assembled by owner Francesco Aquilini, did few of the things others expected him to do.
Gillis didn’t fire coach Alain Vigneault or trade Daniel and Henrik Sedin or gut the scouting department or march any of previous GM Dave Nonis’s top hires to the guillotine.
He did none of the rabble-appeasing things new GMs are called by supporters — or employers — to do.
And so the Canucks didn’t start losing. Not then and not now, as Vancouver opens another season after the best year in their history.
In his first long interview with The Vancouver Sun 3½ years ago, Gillis pledged to be unconventional and sounded like he wanted to revolutionize how NHL teams are managed.
He talked about non-conforming Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane and Moneyball and sabermetrics — the reliance on statistical analysis over emotion and instinct.
“A lot of people tried to interpret that as us applying sabermetrics to hockey, which doesn’t work,” Gillis says now.
“But the idea that you are prepared to think differently and prepared to not be conventional in decision-making is the one thing I got out of reading Moneyball. I felt strongly all along there were different ways to try to win in the National Hockey League, and that book confirmed for me ... that thinking unconventionally is a good thing.”
The movie confirmed it, too.
Gillis saw Moneyball last week with his wife, Diane, and daughter Kate. It’s a terrific film.
If they ever make a movie about Gillis, Philip Seymour Hoffman is more likely to be cast as the protagonist than Brad Pitt. But Gillis and Beane are almost identical in this: Beane’s distrust of baseball’s conventions was fuelled largely by the failure of those conventions to serve him as a player, just as the hockey establishment failed Gillis.
“I really hadn’t thought of similarities between he and myself,” Gillis says.
“But I was a very high draft pick, too, who was hurt a lot – and hurt a lot early – in my career. I didn’t have the kind of career that I had projected for myself, for sure, and that others had for me. And when I watched the movie, those kind of similarities struck home.
“After my career ended, reflecting back, I was really disappointed how the system was then. There was little room for patience. There wasn’t any kind of working with people to get through issues. You were either ready to play or not ready to play and that was it. It was difficult.”
Bull in a china shop
Gillis was the middle of three children born in Toronto to Helen and Patrick. He has an older sister, Patricia, and a younger brother, Paul, who played 624 games in the NHL and coaches the Odessa Jackalopes of the Junior-A North American Hockey League.
Gillis left Toronto at 16 to play for the Kingston Canadians of the Ontario League. His parents imposed a minimum academic standard of 75 per cent “or I’d have to go home.”
His linemates in Kingston were Ken Linseman and Mike Simurda, a second-round NHL draft pick in 1978 who is one of Gillis’s oldest and closest friends.
“He was like a bull in a china shop,” Simurda, a portfolio manager with RBC in Toronto, says.
“He was skilled and had good hands. But he was the kind of player you didn’t want to get in front of because if it meant running you over to get where he needed to go, he was going to do that. He played that way all the time, even in practice. He wasn’t afraid to hit even his own teammates.”
Despite badly breaking his leg the season before, Gillis was chosen fifth overall by the Colorado Rockies in 1978. He was a 6-1 power forward who had 67 points and 86 penalty minutes in 43 games his final year in Kingston. In an intra-squad game at his first NHL training camp, Gillis injured his knee so badly he required surgery to repair the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, as well as the medial meniscus.
That injury today would cause a player to miss an entire season. Back in 1978, comparatively still the Dark Ages for knee operations, Gillis was playing three months later.
He was never the same. He hurt his knee again later in his rookie year and struggled through 1½ more seasons in Denver before the Rockies gave up on him, trading Gillis to the Boston Bruins in 1981.
“Back then, they really rushed you back to play,” Gillis says.
“You didn’t have a choice, but I wanted to play. It was a very different time. Really a very different time than what it is like today. The business was much smaller and teams were run in a very different way.”
One of Gillis’s coaches in Colorado was Don Cherry, who did not respond to an interview request for this story. Gillis’s general manager in Boston was Harry Sinden. There are dinosaurs who think Cherry and Sinden are old-fashioned.
“I don’t remember anyone ever asking us to be free thinkers and go out there and be imaginative,” Simurda, who quit hockey after two minor-league seasons, says of the culture. “[But] Mike was never one to be swayed by the system.”
Gillis says: “I remember getting sent to the minors one time after an arbitration hearing in which I was moderately successful. There wasn’t a lot of money involved. But just the fact you’d choose to go to arbitration, you were going to the minors. You could be made an example because you virtually had no rights.”
Gillis broke his leg again in Boston and spent his final three seasons in pro hockey shuttling between the NHL and the American League, where he had 113 points for the Baltimore Skipjacks in 1982-’83.
He retired in 1984, went back to Kingston and Queen’s University and became a lawyer.
His final NHL numbers: 246 games, 33 goals.
“I came out of [hockey] really disappointed,” Gillis says.
“I was disappointed in myself because I felt I should have done things differently. Players didn’t have much say in their careers. It was just a completely different time. I went along with it. I mean, you see a lot of things when you play hockey, especially in that era. The brawling and injuries and medical care and all sorts of different things you could see if you were observant. Everything about the game was highly adversarial.”
An unorthodox agent
More than a decade later, Gillis attacked the establishment as a take-no-prisoners player agent. In 1997, he successfully sued Alan Eagleson, hockey’s corrupt godfather, for $42,000. His former agent had skimmed off Gillis’s injury-insurance payout. Taking down the NHL’s most powerful figure was an unorthodox way to start a second career in hockey.
“The status-quo is not who Mike is,” former Turner Sports president Harvey Schiller says of his friend.
“He’s a risk-taker. He doesn’t suffer fools very well, or at all. He has broken the mould in a lot of ways.”
Most things about Gillis are unorthodox. He chose to operate his agency as a two-man business out of his home, limiting his client base. He didn’t socialize much with other agents and was unpopular among peers who lost clients when players reached their peak earning years and decided Gillis was the guy to get them the biggest payday.
“I didn’t care about being liked,” Gillis says.
“I cared about doing the best job I could with players and really tried to make a difference, which I didn’t feel I had when I was a player.”
Always, Gillis was innovative.
“He would often discuss with you your training techniques and your thought process heading into the next game,” says former client Dave Gagner, now the Canucks’ director of player development.
“He was a little different in that regard. As a player, and then being a player agent, he developed ideas on how to improve the environment for players to reach their full potential. He wanted an opportunity to create that environment.”
Aquilini gave him one.
The Canucks are 148-74-24 under Gillis and have played eight playoff rounds in three seasons. They had two chances to win one game for the Stanley Cup last season and are among the favourites again this year.
The success rate overshadows profound changes Gillis has orchestrated away from the ice. Every aspect of Canucks player development and performance is being addressed.
Millions of Aquilini’s money has been spent on player comfort. Some of Gillis’s ideas have been ridiculed.
“If you’re ever hanging out with scouts at a game,” Paul Gillis explains, “one guy has an opinion and everybody else has the same opinion. The thing in hockey is nobody wants to step out on a ledge and put a different opinion out there. Mike does have a lot of confidence in himself and puts a lot of thought into what he does. And if you feel confident about yourself, you don’t care what other people think.”
We know the Canucks have a Mind Room for mental preparation, sleep consultants, Gagner’s player-development program, a giant scouting staff, opulent facilities and their own chef. But Gillis claims the majority of his initiatives aren’t even in the public domain.
In every way Gillis felt let down as a player — development time, training tools, and technical and emotional support — the Canucks now offer their players assistance.
Canucks centre Manny Malhotra says it “speaks volumes” that Gillis and assistant GM Laurence Gilman were with him in New York for the eye surgery last March that saved his career.
“It really gives that sense that you’re not just a piece of meat on the team,” Malhotra says.
“We take care of our own here. They truly care about me as a person even more than as a hockey player.”
Gillis says: “My approach — and the way we’ve taken this organization — is to say: ‘OK, you may not be ready today. But we believe you’re going to be ready at some point and we’re going to do everything humanly possible to get you there. We’re going to provide you with every resource we can. So at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, it’s not because we didn’t try our hardest.’ I think that’s the fairest way to treat people. That’s not really a conventional way of thinking in this business. But your experiences do dictate your beliefs.”