VANCOUVER – From the day Mike Gillis was hired as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks he’s done things differently.
The status quo isn’t good enough for Gillis. He believes just because something has worked in the past, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
In his three years in Vancouver Gillis has ruffled feathers and his ideas have been mocked. But with the Canucks preparing to play the Boston Bruins in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup final in 17 years it’s hard to argue with the results.
“We’ve tried to be as scientific in the approach of developing and interacting with players as we could be,” Gillis said while watching a recent Canuck practice from the stands at Rogers Arena.
“I have no idea how much that has influenced the outcome. I think there is some influence for sure.”
Gillis talks about the plan he devised for the Canucks. He won’t give specific details of the plan, but points at the team on the ice as its product.
“We had a plan that we stuck to no matter what was going on around us, no matter what the speculation was around us,” Gillis said.
“We knew we were going to have a good team. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to add parts that would make us a really good team. When those parts began to occur, we got progressively better.”
The Stanley Cup final begins Wednesday at Rogers Arena. Game 2 will be Saturday.
Gillis and his staff have managed to work within the confines of the NHL salary cap to build a Canuck team full of skill and deep in talent.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo was signed to a 12-year, US$64-million deal. It was a contract that satisfied Luongo while counting as a US$5.33 hit on the Canuck books each year.
Gillis convinced other players like Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler to re-sign for less money than what they might have got from other teams.
The Canucks reputation as an organization that wants to win while caring for its players resulted in free agents like defenceman Dan Hamhuis and centre Manny Malhotra picking Vancouver over teams willing to pay them more.
“People have focused on the idea that players are taking less,” said Gillis. “Our commitment to them is we are going to spend every cent to make this team better.
“If we didn’t follow through on that, we wouldn’t be able to get players to buy into that kind of idea. I think the guys here understand we are committed heavily to winning, no matter what it takes.”
It’s some of Gillis’s off-ice innovations that have raised eyebrows.
A sleep doctor advises players on when they should nap and even helps determine who should room together on the road. Gillis has tinkered with the travel schedule, having the team stay over night after some road games instead of immediately flying home.
“That has been one of the reasons we have a high energy level still now,” said Gillis.
The team has a nutritionist. The Canucks dressing room has even been renovated.
Henrik Sedin said it’s all made a difference.
“They way they treat us in the room, the travel, everything, it’s a matter of guys really wanting to play here,” said the Canucks captain.
“You want to give back. We enjoy being around each other. Guys are in here three of four hours before practice, just to hang out.”
Detractors point out Gillis inherited a Canucks team with a nucleus built by previous general managers Brian Burke and Dave Nonis.
“There was every equal opportunity to screw this up rather than make it better,” Gillis said, showing a rare smile.
“We made the choices that were right for this organization, not with ego or oneupmanship. That didn’t enter into the equation.”
Rick Bowness, Vancouver’s associate coach, said Gillis has added key players like Hamhuis, Malhotra, Raffi Torres and Maxim Lapierre to fill holes in the Canuck lineup.
“The most important job of a GM is to identify what your team needs to take it to the next level in terms of players,” said Bowness.
“He has filled the holes that we all saw in the last couple of years. Everything he has done has had a very positive impact.”
Gillis followed a different path to become a general manager.
The 58-year-old Sudbury, Ont., native was picked fifth overall by the Colorado Rockies in the 1978 draft. He played 246 NHL games with Colorado and Boston before retiring due to injury.
Gillis earned a law degree at Queen’s University where he acted as a professor of sports law, then went on to a 15-year career as a player agent.
When hired by the Canucks in April 2008, Gillis had no experience as a general manager, but plenty of ideas of how things could be done.
As an agent, Gillis used to conduct training camps to teach young players what was expected of them. He came to understand that players needed the proper tools and environment to excel.
“It was all born out of experience,” Gillis said. “One of the things I realized was the old ideas that players did it on their own and got there on their own probably weren’t as applicable any longer.
“I formulated that opinion as an agent for a long time.”
Gillis has put a different face on the Canuck organization. He’s not as outspoken as Burke or maybe as approachable as Nonis.
In dealing with the media Gillis is reserved. He picks his words carefully and sometimes seems distant.
“I don’t think he likes you guys too much,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa said with a laugh. “He likes us a little bit more.
“Mike is a little more internal. When you get to know him, he’s a funny guy.”
When Gillis took over the Canucks they were a good team that often failed to reach their potential. They now have a chance to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“I think it’s recognition of a lot of hard work,” said Gillis.
“You can’t get ahead of yourself. We are looking forward to the next round and being focused on doing everything humanly possible to win it. We are happy we are here, but we still have a lot left to go.”