Canucks’ Linden talks GM search, Kesler, Quinn

New Vancouver Canucks president seems to have inherited a mess from Mike Gillis, but says he's just going through the issues and positive spots and figuring out where to start.

“Why did I ever sign up for this?”

Just 19 days prior to uttering that question, Trevor Linden had been hired as the Vancouver Canucks’ new president of hockey operations.

But, no, the 44-year-old hockey star–turned–businessman wasn’t referring to his daunting new role as an NHL executive. Rather, he was recalling the doubt that crept into his mind as he pushed through a seven-day multi-stage bicycle race from Geneva to France. Or the chronic uncertainty he fought during the 10 punishing days he spent on two wheels riding through Portugal. These life-swallowing recreational pursuits—including a 600-kilometre trek across the Alps—is what Linden threw himself into after popping the kickstand on a 20-year NHL ride.

He’d spend nine hours in one day on a bicycle only to wake up and face a treacherous mountain climb the next morning.

“The heat is cranked; the sun is baking you. It’s 38 degrees, and you’re thinking, Why did I ever sign up for this? That’s part of the journey,” Linden said in a phone interview Tuesday from Vancouver. “You look back at day’s end and say, ‘Boy, I got through it.’ And it’s on to the next day. It’s that focus on achieving a goal that keeps us all driving to take on these challenges.”

The metaphor is as obvious as a Tour leader’s yellow jersey. And Linden is happy to sketch the parallel for us.

“Part of what really attracts me to multi-day bike races is that each day is another step closer to your goal,” he said. “Since I’ve joined the [Canucks] organization, every day is one step closer to figuring things out and moving the ball down the field. There are a lot of similarities.”

Both challenges appear too arduous for most mortals. In the first 19 days since Linden was hired, the Panthers and Predators fired their head coach; the Jets recommitted to theirs; the Capitals cleaned house; the Hurricanes promoted a promising GM; and the Flames ended their general manager search. Could you blame a Canucks fan—a supporter of team without a GM, a head coach in limbo, and a star player reportedly seeking a trade—for asking, “Are we there yet?”

Linden said he’s in the process of going through his list of candidates to replace fired GM Mike Gillis and getting permission to speak with those currently employed by other organizations.

“The interview process,” he assured, “will commence shortly.”

Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning has been mentioned as a frontrunner for the gig, but Linden won’t confirm or deny the candidates we throw at him.

So, what is he looking for in his GM?

“Someone who has a strong ability to evaluate talent combined with someone who has experience with an organization in a general manager’s role for several years is important,” Linden said. “And someone who is a really strong communicator.”

They also need to improve at the draft table. Thin on top prospects, Linden said the Canucks, who will pick sixth this June at the draft, will take the best player available.

“In this particular draft, [the Barrie Colts’ Aaron] Ekblad looks like he’ll be a top pick—one, two, three—and he’s the only real defenceman. It’s kind of all forwards from there on down. It would appear we’re going to take a forward, but it’s hard to say at this point,” he said, not ruling out a trade up to the top five. “We’d be open to looking at any situation.”

We asked Linden about some of the other balls he’s juggling this off-season.

On Ryan Kesler, the 25-goal scorer who reportedly wants a trade out of town: “I have a lot of respect for Ryan, as I do all the players. It was a good, healthy conversation,” Linden said of his exit interview with him. “There’s many decisions that will unfold here in the next several months, and for me it’s important that I strategically assess every decision. They all have significant ripple effects throughout the organization. That’s an important decision, and it will play out as we move along here.”

On his goal to implement his vision for a specific brand of hockey this summer: “You have to be sound fundamentally in all areas. Being a team that makes the proper decisions—when to hold the puck, when to put the puck in areas that make it effective to forecheck. It’s about tailoring your game to the personality you have.”

On the possibility of adding Canucks Ring of Honour inductee Pat Quinn to the Canucks’ front office: “Pat’s someone who’s been a real mentor to me, someone who’s been important to my development as a person and as a player. That’s certainly a possibility.”

On the most eye-opening aspect of the new job: “I was surprised actually how many people I did know in the business: Doug Wilson, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Cam Neely. Many managers reaching out to me and touching base.”

Linden’s days at the office begins at 9 a.m., but are often preceded by a 5:30 a.m. bike ride, he said. There are also speaking engagements, overseeing Trevor Linden Fitness and side projects like the upcoming Stay in the Play pickup hockey tournament, for which he is the face alongside Curtis Joseph.

With the Canucks, Linden has no shortage of experienced colleagues to lean on for advice. He credits assistant GMs Lorne Henning and Laurence Gillman, senior advisor Stan Smyl, and player personnel director Eric Crawford as helping him execute a tight-lipped plan that is forever lapping in his brain.

“Basically, my mind doesn’t stop considering options” he said. “It’s all-encompassing, 24/7. Long days at the office for sure, but it’s been rewarding. I’m excited.”

In Canuksland, Linden has already felt the off-season heat. This will be a multi-stage endurance test, not a sprint. In that respect, Vancouver has hired a guy with the right mind-set. Let’s be clear: Linden knows why he signed up for this.

“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is addictive,” he said. “Having the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup is something we dream of as kids, and the Vancouver Canucks organization has always meant so much to me and the city. Having an opportunity to bring a championship to the city is attractive.”