For much of the past three decades, Trevor Linden has been as close to Vancouver royalty as anyone you’re likely to meet. Well, aside from Canada’s actual queen, some 7500 kilometers away.
While the real monarch is effectively a figurehead, Linden’s reign is not. Queen Elizabeth II’s arms-length distance from the decision-making process is not a luxury afforded to the Canucks’ president and longtime former captain.
12 short months ago, Linden’s legacy was limited to his playing days; the 1994 Stanley Cup run, and everyone knowing he’d play; that time he smashed Jeff Norton through the glass; and his triumphant return in a midseason trade that galvanized the club in 2001.
Things are more complicated now. Murkier.
In addition to Linden’s successes and legendary likability as a Canucks player, his legacy will now include some of the difficult and polarizing decisions the Canucks organization has made this summer – and will continue to make in the future – under his watch.
The realities of managing a team in an occasionally-rabid hockey market dictate that Linden’s ledger is now blemished in the eyes of some segments of the Canucks fanbase.
Linden’s club is going through a transition period. They’ve lost a playoff series in which they were favoured. Wildly popular players like Eddie Lack and Kevin Bieksa were dealt. Longstanding and highly-regarded front office executives were jettisoned. The team completed a trade and then a lucrative contract extension for a big centreman, Brandon Sutter, who has never surpassed 40 points in a campaign.
And perhaps most controversially: the Canucks have stuck with their plan to retool incrementally — even as the city openly clamoured for a more dramatic tear-down and rebuild.
“Last summer was a freebie,” Linden told Sportsnet ahead of the final game at the Penticton Young Stars tournament on Monday. “We hadn’t played a game. We’d made decisions but there was no result from those decisions.”
He’s noticed a change in the way he’s received and regarded by Canucks fans this summer. How could he not?
“I often say I was like the backup quarterback (last summer),” Linden said. “The most popular guy around because I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Obviously you make decisions,” Linden continued. “You make them with the best intentions. Sometimes they may be the wrong decisions. If you look at even the brightest minds in hockey, they’ve made some decisions they probably want back.”
We’ll have to wait before we know which of this summer’s controversial decisions Linden and this new Canucks management team want a mulligan on. In the meantime, everyone in the city has an opinion.
“We knew that coming in,” Linden said. “Everyone forgets when we came in and what that looks like. We have to move ahead with that same plan of getting younger, and trying to bring those players in, in a competitive environment.
“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve played in this market, I care about Vancouver, I care about the fans, I care about the Province of B.C. and I know this is B.C.’s team — and I carry that weight every day,” he said. “I have bosses, obviously the Aquilini family, but I feel the pressure comes from our fans more than anything. That’s what drives me everyday.”
This isn’t the first time Linden has experienced the harsh criticism that comes with being in a decision-maker’s spotlight.
“When I look at my career, too, I’ve been in situations that have been unpopular,” Linden said. “Whether it was the lockout in 1994 or in 04, but I think at the end of the day people have always identified with the fact that I’ve been honest and tried to do the right thing.”
Still he admits that some elements of the gig do wear on him.
“I’ve really enjoyed the hockey part, the development process,” Linden said. “I really enjoy that. There are other parts that are more challenging — the people part, the decisions I had to make this summer — but like anyone, there’s things about the job I like, and things I don’t like.”
It’s been said the head that wears the crown lies uneasily — and that’s surely true to some extent for Linden.
Yet as he left the South Okanagan Sports and Events Centre on Monday evening, following a dramatic game-winning goal in overtime by his administration’s first ever draft pick, Jake Virtanen, Linden was only momentarily visible to the throngs of jersey-clad fans as he passed between the arena’s service exit and the Canucks’ team bus.
“Trevor Linden!” came the shrill, excited shout from several eagle-eyed fans. “Trevor Linden!” they repeated, trying in vain to induce an autograph.
He’s still got it. For now.