The last Canadian team to come close to the Stanley Cup was the 2010–11 Vancouver Canucks. I wasn’t around that team on a daily basis, but loved my interactions with them. They were talented, bold and brash, with personality up and down the roster. After a dominant regular season and the most emotional victory in franchise history, they fell one win shy of the ultimate prize.
Where does their story start? The drafting of Daniel and Henrik Sedin? The growth of Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler? The trade for Roberto Luongo? Maybe the answer is “D” — none of the above. The nucleus grew from the ashes of the West Coast Express Canucks that, in 2003, won the franchise’s first playoff series in eight seasons. One year later, Vancouver became the first team to prevent the Avalanche from winning a division title since they’d moved from Quebec City. But the Canucks missed the playoffs the year after the 2004–05 lockout, ending the momentum.
The 2006–07 season marked the beginning of a new era for the franchise. And from Todd Bertuzzi to Brendan Morrison to Mattias Ohlund, the nuts and bolts of the previous one shared what they could before moving on.
MIKE BURNSTEIN (Athletic trainer, 1994–2015) That first group certainly helped build that second group.
MASON RAYMOND (LW, 2007–2013) Those guys shaped and molded that team and were very welcoming, even though they maybe felt their time was coming to an end. It wasn’t a dog-eat-dog world. It was a very much a let’s try to pull on the rope in the same direction, you help me and I can help you kind of deal.
TC CARLING (VP, communications & community partnerships, 1999–2013; VP, hockey administration, 2014–2018) That gave [the Sedins] some time to find their way. The brothers were then, what, six [or] seven years post-draft? Even if it was a slow passing of the baton, it really became their team. They were the best players.
DANIEL SEDIN (LW, 2000–2018; future Hall of Famer) We never looked at ourselves — so I’m talking for myself and Henrik — as great players. We always looked at the West Coast Express as being dominant, and we didn’t see ourselves in that same category. But they prepared us for how it would be.
ERIC CRAWFORD (Video coach, AHL assistant coach and executive, 1999–2015) I lived it all. I was there from Brian Burke to Jim Benning, so I saw the full arc of that group. Starting with Burkie drafting the Sedins, then that West Coast Express grow and become exciting and get hockey back in Vancouver. The fanbase there became disillusioned after being really close in 1994 with the [Kirk] McLean, [Trevor] Linden group and [Pavel] Bure. But when we were building that 2011 team, starting from Burke, transitioning to Dave Nonis, and then onto Mike Gillis, the one thing I will say about Nonis is that Dave was steadfast in his belief that this team was going to be built under Daniel and Henrik. They were going to be the leaders of the group.
As hard as it may be to remember, the Sedin brothers didn’t become stars overnight. And even as the West Coast Express faded from view, the jury was still out on them as franchise pillars.
RYAN KESLER (C, 2003–2014) I had so much respect for those [core West Coast Express] players. And to be honest, I always looked at the Sedins as, you know, second line. And then I still remember, there was one day where the lines are written up on the board, and the Sedins were up top, and I was like, “Huh. That’s weird.”
PAT O’NEILL (Equipment manager, 1988–present) When they first came here, I mean, they wouldn’t say, “Ouch,” if you hit them in the head with a hammer. They were all eyes. They kept their mouth shut and they learned.
STAN SMYL (Member of the organization since 1978) You see pictures of them of when they first came here — the baby faces that they had — and what they’ve grown into. But for me, the biggest thing, they knew they had to earn it. Players from junior hockey, college hockey, the American Hockey League, wherever they play, they always play big minutes. The hardest thing [transitioning to the NHL] is your minutes get adjusted. The first year was a real eye-opener for them because superstar players want to be out in every situation. And they weren’t. They knew they had to improve and get the respect from their teammates and their coaching staff. Their training off-ice from their first year to their second year was night-and-day. They pushed every year to get better. It never changed. They knew when they were having success that when the season ended, they’d have to push themselves off-ice even more to be better the following year. That made them be the elite players that they are.
MIKE KELLY (Assistant coach, 2006–2008) I remember our first year, it would have been our first month. We were trying to figure lines, and part of what we had to try and figure out was who should play with the twins. It was Markus Naslund, and it was terrible. Then it was different guys. So we were kind of stuck on who they’d find chemistry with. So I said, “Well boys, why don’t we just ask them?” So Alain [Vigneault] said, “You go ask them.” Well, I’m not asking them together cause they’ll just agree with each other. So I got them separate, and they each gave me the identical answer. They said, “Listen, we don’t care who we play with, and we don’t need a guy with skill. All we want is someone who’s going to work hard and compete.” And I thought, “Wow, what a great answer.”
MIKE GILLIS (GM, 2008–2014) You’re not going to win in the playoffs if your top players are not elite-level, top-five-per-cent-in-the-league players. Our first meeting went kind of along those lines: What can we do to make sure that you guys are going to be the best and most productive you can possibly be? Who could we find to play with them? … They were fairly adamant that it didn’t need to be a right-handed shot. It didn’t need to be a big, tough guy. It needed to be a guy who could think and retrieve pucks, recognize what they were trying to do, how they were trying to play, and be smart enough to play that style. And we resisted that, [which] was a mistake.
HENRIK SEDIN (C, 2000–2018; future Hall of Famer) That’s been the case throughout our career, except when Burrows came on…. We knew who we liked — the guys that we knew what to expect from them. There were never any surprises, you always knew what they’re going to do: be there every game, play hard, and win battles. That’s what we liked.
GILLIS We eventually turned to a more numbers-based analysis. So we began to look at turnovers and we began to look at where they got the puck to be successful. And we began to turn our attention to players that could turn pucks over in certain areas of the ice, players that were smart enough to read off what they were doing. Not get in the way, but actually participate. That’s how we eventually got to Alex Burrows.
LAURENCE GILMAN (VP of hockey operations, assistant GM, 2008–2015) It was early in my first year, I was in the press box watching our team play, and the twins had one of those shifts where they cycled the puck back and forth to each other — behind the net, in the corner, out front — for, like, 45 seconds. It led to a goal. I remember it being absolutely like I was being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. I was embarrassed for my analysis of those guys. They were so much better than I had ever thought. I watched them do this Sedinery, and I was like, “These guys are among the top players in the NHL.” When you have two players like that, it’s a game-changer. When I recognized that the twins were that skilled, that’s when I realized: Whoa, there’s something here. There’s building blocks to construct a team that could compete for the Stanley Cup.
As time went on and the Sedins grew into leaders, the way they handled themselves rubbed off on their teammates and became the blueprint for the entire franchise.
ALEX BURROWS (RW, 2005–2017) They’re the best role models I could have asked for.
KEITH BALLARD (D, 2010–2013) Those two and Shane Doan are as good as it gets (among guys) I’ve been around in the league.
ALAIN VIGNEAULT (Head coach, 2006–2013) Whenever a new guy came in, they’d take him out for lunch or bring them home for supper.
DANIEL We always tried to treat people the way that we wanted to be treated. I think that’s always been our mindset. For young guys not to be scared to talk to us.
BURNSTEIN I often tell people, “Everything that you hear about them is absolutely true and more.” The younger guys that we’d groom, I’d always say, “Those two guys that look the same over there? Do exactly what they’re doing. Everything that they do on and off the ice.” So when things would get out of hand in the dressing room, the trainers always used to have a motto: “What would the brothers do?”
CARLING I never saw them change as far as the way they carried themselves. The guys who may have had some difficult years early on were the same guys who won back-to-back Art Ross Trophies. They treated everybody that walked into the room the same way. But they took it beyond that. They respected everybody — they respected bus drivers, they respected hotel staff, they respected the support staff, the PR staff, the training staff. The funniest thing those guys did was that if they had a big game and if the team won, they would almost always go to the gym right away after because they wanted to let the other guys answer the questions. But as you know, after every single loss, no matter how difficult, they were always standing there. And you could say, “Well, they learned it from this person. They learned from that person.” No, I think it’s them, it’s what they were, how they were raised. You’re there to answer the tough questions and to be accountable.
SMYL I wasn’t coaching [in Vancouver] when they were starting here, so I really didn’t have a connection until they’re in the playoffs and I came up [from the minor-league staff]. It was always “Mr. Smyl.” Every year. Finally, one time we’re in our lounge and I said to Daniel and Henrik, “It’s either ‘Stan’ or ‘Steamer’ — that’s what everyone calls me.” They smiled and laughed, but they kept on doing it.
GILMAN When their contracts were expiring [in 2009], we went through a long and sometimes contentious negotiation. We had to get them to accept that we were going to spend to the cap, but if we were going to truly build something that was competitive, they needed to take a little bit less…. It wasn’t always easy, and we had a number of long discussions about it. They accepted the contracts of $6.1 million times five, where they could’ve gotten at least $7 million…. Within a week after their contracts were executed, they and their wives, Marinette [Daniel] and Johanna [Henrik], gave $1.5 million to BC Children’s Hospital. They never uttered a word about that during the contract negotiation. I’ve been involved with deals where players or an agent on behalf of players will say, “If you give my client X amount, he’ll turn around and buy a suite from you, donate it to charity.” It never entered the negotiation with these guys…. I feel they are to the Vancouver Canucks what Jean Béliveau was to the Montreal Canadiens — more than an ambassador, someone who personifies the dignity and grace of what you want your franchise icons to be and what you want them to represent.
CHRIS HIGGINS (LW, 2011–2016) There was no hidden agenda for them to score Twitter points with donating to the children’s hospital — you never heard them talk about stuff they did for the community.
O’NEILL They are the two toughest guys I’ve ever seen. They would get beat up or chopped… they wouldn’t say a word, just get up and go. “I’m going to get two more goals and stick it right up your ass” was their comeback. There is no way anyone can tell me they weren’t two of the toughest players that ever played. Not fighting-wise, but what they took to keep going.
ROBERTO LUONGO (G, 2006–2014; future Hall of Famer) Emotionally, they’re always in the right spot. When people were all over them — because, let’s say, they were not producing — you never saw that on them. They were the same and they were awesome to be around. That’s the [biggest] thing I learned from them.
DAN HAMHUIS (D, 2010–2016) They would come to the rink every day and it would be hard to tell if we were on a 10-game losing streak or a 10-game winning streak. That was probably why we were so good in those years because we were on 10-game winning streaks, but they worked as if we were .500. It wouldn’t be, you know, throwing things against the wall.
CARLING I know they’d get angry, but I never saw one smash anything, and I think sometimes that’s a way people show that they really care. I never saw it from them, ever. I would say they’d get more disappointed than angry. Probably first and foremost with themselves, not with others.
BURNSTEIN Less than a handful of times on the bench I saw them get frustrated with each other. And if they did, they would separate themselves, they’d speak Swedish, nobody really knew. Honestly, we’re talking three to five times in over 1,000 games.
One Canuck joked the only time he ever saw Henrik swear was when confetti fell from the ceiling upon winning the 2011 Western Conference Final. “What the f— is that? No one can skate!”
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t mix it up in the dressing room.
O’NEILL Hank was a touch more outspoken, but Danny was the joker.
CARLING They have a great sense of humour most people don’t get to see.
O’NEILL They’d give it to each other mostly in the medical room. I think we were in Nashville [one] time, they’re sitting there talking. Daniel says to Henrik, “I’d trade you for Ryan Johansen in a heartbeat.” [Henrik] goes, “What?” Daniel goes, “You’re old and fat.” That’s where most of their stuff was done, the medical room, because they used to have trivia every game night with Jon Sanderson and everybody got drawn into it.
KESLER They weren’t off-limits at all. Kevin went at them hardest, as you saw in the [Sedins’] retirement ceremony. That was just a tip of the iceberg.
KELLY We had that  playoff series against Dallas. It was Game 1 that went into four overtimes. So, I remember the comment that the twins weren’t very good in the game. Finally, between periods, Trevor [Linden] looked at them and said, “You know, this game is slowing down enough, you guys are actually starting to look pretty good.” So they laughed and went out and scored.
If the Sedins were the brains and soul of these Canucks, three others combined to form the heart. Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler first played together on the 2003–04 Manitoba Moose. When they debuted in Vancouver in 2005–06, the organization would never be the same.
CRAWFORD [In Manitoba], we would do skits and things like that. [Bieksa, Burrows and Kesler] were rookies, but we had veterans on that team that were really good about letting their personalities grow…. These three took over [the] informal things we would do to poke fun at [then head coach] Randy Carlyle. Randy was very good-natured about it — he took the ribbing. I would put out a Whose Line Is It Anyway? skit like, “Okay, this is Randy Carlyle going to his first high school dance” or something. And they’d do a little skit about it before a game, just to take the edge off, you know? Those guys were always the stars of those things we did.
HENRIK They decided down there they were going to make it, and do it their way.
SMYL Those three were winners. If anyone around them wasn’t on board, they’d better get on board.
GILMAN They had their teammates’ backs and they were fun. They brought a huge amount of life to the dressing room.
CHRISTIAN EHRHOFF (D, 2009–2011) There was never a dull day.
RAYMOND I remember Bieksa being like, “Don’t be so sensitive.” That resonated with me. I learned you had to be like a duck. You know, water off the back because they weren’t necessarily meant to hurt you as it was to push you to get you better. I miss that more than anything. The guys, sitting around chirping. Keeping guys accountable or calling guys out. “Burrows, take the marbles out of your mouth!” Simple things like that.
BURROWS It wasn’t to bully anyone. It was mostly to keep everybody on their guard. It can be a long year in the NHL.
The harshest commentary was saved for the opposition. Opponents say the Canucks were known for doing their research, delivering lines tailored to select individuals. They talked nasty, and they played nasty. But those who came to Vancouver from elsewhere in the NHL quickly became close with their previously despised rivals.
HAMHUIS Oh, I was in that category. I hated the Canucks. I think a lot of it was because I’m from B.C. — grew up watching them then played against them, but friends and family and everybody back home still cheered for them. And it bugged me to no end, because they had a lot of players on those teams that were easy to love as a fan and as a teammate, but easy to hate when [playing] against. Alex Burrows and I, we fought in Nashville the year before I signed.
BALLARD I hated Burrows. I hated Kesler. They’re unbelievable teammates.
AARON ROME (D, 2009–2012) I remember having exchanges in the American League, maybe not so much with Kesler, but with Bieksa and Burrows. Burrows was more annoying…. Well, I mean, they’re both annoying, but Burrows is like a little mosquito out there. You know, I want to swat him. Of course, great guys.
O’NEILL Oh, I had to laugh. [When] we got knocked out [in 2012], Burr got asked to go to the World Championships, and some Chicago guys were there. I said, “Good luck with that!” Because they hated each other. It was a free-for-all a lot of times we played Chicago. So they came back, and I know a few of them, and I said, “Hey, how was Burr?” and they said, “What a great guy.” Yeah, he is, isn’t he?
As tough as they were on opponents, these ‘Three Amigos’ were just as hard on each other. But it didn’t start that way.
KEVIN BIEKSA (D, 2005–2015) I wouldn’t say we were close friends at first because of all the different situations we were in. I was living in Winnipeg by myself. My wife was finishing her Masters, so I was hanging out with Josh Green and Jeff Heerema. Burrows came up, I think, a month into the season from the East Coast League, so he hung out with his ex-teammates: Jesse Schultz and Brandon Nolan. And Kesler was married — he was with his wife. We had success on the ice, going far in the playoffs, which makes you closer and tighter. Kes and I ran the second power-play unit. Then once we came up, I think we realized that the three of us were going to be together for a while, and we got closer and closer every year.
BURROWS We were all passionate about the game — that was probably our biggest strength. We all love to compete. We love to play hockey. We love to get better every day. We never really had days off as young guys, and there’s not much to do in Winnipeg besides be at the rink. We were lucky to have the brand-new MTS Centre. We were able to stay there after practice, go back into the gym, have lunch and then go back again just to shoot some pucks or play some games. So that’s where our friendship slowly grew. Well, we were sometimes best friends and sometimes we hated each other. And, the coaching staff used it to make sure everyone would be ready to practice. They’d send us as the first guys in line, we’d set the pace competition-wise and we’d get better every day by doing so.
BIEKSA I’d say Kes and I would feud more, whereas Burr would say some offside things but he wouldn’t really take it over the line. But Kes and I were two stubborn guys, so we would get into it, especially things that would start on the ice during practice — we had a lot of fights and arguments in practice back then. And I try to explain to the kids at my academy that the best team I ever played on was the most competitive during practices, where there would be fights or arguments almost to the point where we’re dropping our gloves and wanting to kill each other. We were so competitive and had so much pride in wanting to beat each other, every single drill. This is just the way that it went for us for 10 years.
KESLER Kevin’s told this story about a thousand times. So, I broke my foot. And they had this little Cracker Jack box X-Ray machine that could only tell if your bone was displaced. Nothing showed up, obviously. And then like two weeks go by, and Juice [Bieksa] is just giving it to me every day.
BURROWS Kevin was mocking him, coming out of the tunnel limping.
BIEKSA He played through a lot of injuries — I’ll definitely give him credit for that — but this one I felt like he was really milking it where he would limp onto the ice and then skate around 100 mph. He just wanted people to know that he was in pain, which he probably was. Anyways, he ended up finding out his foot was broken. So you know, joke’s on me, but I mocked him.
KESLER Finally, I snapped. Then: silent treatment. I wouldn’t even say it was going too far. It was just, I was sick of the bullshit.
BIEKSA It was a week before Burrows caved because he had to sit beside Kesler in the dressing room. He goes, “Aw, man, it’s not worth it. I’m just gonna apologize.” And I’m like, “Don’t do it.” And I got so mad at Burr: “Don’t do that. We gotta teach him a lesson.” Then it It went on a couple of weeks with Kes and I, where he would walk right by me and not say a single word to me. And my wife finally said, “How old are you guys? Be the bigger person. Just go apologize.” So that was probably one of the longest fights we had, and it was over something so stupid.
KESLER That’s the thing about the three of us — we’re all brothers. We have that kind of relationship where we fight, but we make up. And even when we fight, we’re still best of friends.
RICK BOWNESS (Assistant coach, 2006–2013) I do remember almost breaking up a practice fight with Kevin and Kesler. They were fooling around the ice and then it got a little too serious. Someone yelled, ‘Bones, you can’t leave the ice, they’re going to have a fight!’ I looked back and sure enough, they were just about ready to go at it. By the time we got them in the locker room, it was forgotten. That’s how competitive they were.
KELLY We were on the bench once before practice. Trevor Linden was there. I can’t remember exactly how it all happened, but right around then, 8 Mile was a big movie. Kesler was saying something, and Bieksa replied, “Okay, 4 Mile.” I thought Trevor and I were going to fall off the bench.
BURROWS I remember Kevin cutting the sleeves off one of my favourite sweaters. After practice I got dressed and the sleeves were cut off. Obviously he’s saying it’s not him, and then Kesler is saying it’s not him, and you don’t really know who did it. I think that’s the angriest I got. We went to Columbus and in one of these restaurants, there was a vending machine where you could scoop up a lobster and bring it back home and cook it yourself. We took it back and threw it in Ryan’s bed. He wasn’t too happy having a lobster in his bed.
We interrupt all of this craziness to remind you these three could really play. Kesler, taken 23rd overall in the 2003 NHL Draft, won the Selke Trophy in 2011. He is seventh all-time among Canucks in shorthanded goals, 10th in game-winners.
KELLY You could tell he was going to be an NHL guy. There was no doubt. It was just a matter of time.
SMYL I remember him early on [with the Moose], his first leg was always over the boards. Like, “I want this, I want this.” And it’s kind of, “Take your time. You’re going to get your time.”
CRAWFORD I remember him struggling with offence that first year he spent in the American League. But he played a very mature game for a young player, defensively. My brother [Marc], who was coaching in Vancouver at the time, liked and respected how he played. We were a little concerned that offence was going to be problematic for him if he didn’t follow the proper steps. But he proved us wrong. Peter Sarno was our highest-scoring player [in 2004-05], and he was kind of our half-wall guy on the power play, but Kesler was a very dominant two-way power forward. And he scored 30 that year.
NEWELL BROWN (Assistant coach, 2010–2013, 2017–present) Kesler in front of the net on the power play was fantastic. A lot of guys don’t want to do that job, because they want to play on the half-wall, which is more of a prestigious role. But Kes just really bought into that. He ended up scoring 41 goals and 15 power-play goals [in 2010–11].
HIGGINS I played on a line with Kesler pretty much my entire time in Vancouver. We felt we matched up well against the other team’s best players. We would talk before the game and say, “We’re going to win this matchup.” And we would tell the rest of the team, “We’re winning this matchup, so if you guys win your matchups, we’ll win the game.”
JEFF TAMBELLINI (LW, 2010–2011) He played at Ohio State. I played at Michigan. So, coming up, the first time I met him, it was in such a heated NCAA rivalry that of course we didn’t like each other. Once I got into the room with him, I had more respect for the way this guy played. He played it so hard.
Bieksa was taken 151st overall in the 2001 draft. His improvement the next two seasons at NCAA Bowling Green was noticeable. Upon turning pro, he was involved in a legendary off-ice incident where Fedor Fedorov challenged him to a fight, only to be flattened by one of Bieksa’s patented punches. Ninth all-time on the Canucks’ penalty minutes list, he competed fiercely in everything he did.
CRAWFORD He came to Manitoba at the end of [2003–04]. The issue he had coming in, his agility laterally was kind of… we weren’t quite sure, as a mid-size guy, how effective he was going to be in closing plays off the rush and things like that, quickly. We knew that he had the physicality and the junkyard dog mentality to him. But we needed him to handle rushes better and those types of things. And I remember him picking up that study very quickly, and he was always a guy that kept himself in great shape. That’s where he got the nickname ‘Juice’ from, because the guys used to tease him about how hard he used to work out, and he got really strong that off-season. The guys were teasing him about the juice, and clearly it was not at all the juice. He put in the work and did it.
KELLY He’s old school in that he didn’t mind doing it the hard way. He ended up bringing a lot of people into the battle with him. That’s very important for a team.
GILLIS Kevin was one guy who regularly reached out and then made his opinions and feelings known. Which I really appreciate. I love that aspect about Kevin. He’s not hiding behind anything. He’s a super-smart guy who got it and still gets it.
CARLING I believe there’s two people: There’s Kevin and there’s Juice. Kevin is the kind of guy that would try to save Rick Rypien’s life. Kevin is the kind of guy who would do anything he could to help a friend or his community. I spent a lot of time with Kevin in the mental-health space and going to schools and talking to kids. And then there’s Juice. Juice is the guy with the funny smirk and the wisecrack, the guy that’s really good on your TV and at Daniel and Henrik’s retirement night. And he was awesome, right? Didn’t miss a line, wise-cracked everybody. I think Kevin needed Juice to make it to the NHL. The swagger, the bravado, the toughness, that sort of attitude…. So there would be times where I’d have to pull Juice aside and it’d be like, “Oh my God, you can’t say that.” Kevin connected with Vancouver like few have because of the way he cared about Rick and his teammates. Juice scored one of the five biggest goals in the Canucks’ 50-year history. He left a legacy on and off of the ice that won’t be forgotten.
Alex Burrows was the longest of long shots. A two-time gold medalist for Canada at the World Ball Hockey Championships, he is in that sport’s Hall of Fame. Never drafted, he started in the ECHL, scratching and clawing his way to the world’s top league.
BURROWS There [were] a few camps I thought I did really well, especially my first one [in 2003]. I get a hat trick in my first intra-squad game. I fought in another one. Then we played the UBC team, and I scored two goals. I thought I would move to main camp after those three games. The next thing I knew, I was on my way back home so I could get my car to go to Manitoba. I didn’t really understand why. But as you get older, you understand that draft picks go to main camp and the invites are probably going back to the American League. You don’t really have a shot for the main team. I would have done anything to be a Canuck.
SMYL Burrows was a walk-on and did so well, but we were in a numbers game. I remember talking to Scott White, now with Dallas. He was our coach in the ECHL. [He told us] Burrows was very upset and had tears in his eyes that he was getting sent down because he didn’t deserve it.
CRAWFORD I remember Craig Heisinger [Manitoba’s GM] and others in our boardroom speaking about the injustices of why are we sending this guy down. He was the best player in this rookie format…. Randy Carlyle quickly figured out that this guy made lines go, because he was really strong on the puck. That allowed him to play with good players. His game took off because the hockey sense and the compete were high-end.
BURROWS There’s one game [in November 2005] where Heisinger called my parents, told them to come to Cleveland because that was my last game. I was getting called up the next day. They drove down, and then late in the game, I broke my nose. My face shattered. I came out of the tunnel after getting undressed and bleeding everywhere, and then I saw my parents. I didn’t know what they were doing there, but they told me that Zinger had called them and I was getting called up. But now because of my broken nose, I wasn’t getting called up anymore. So I was crushed that day. I had to get surgery and I wasn’t getting my first-ever call-up. I thought that was my last kick at the can. But it was probably the best thing for me. A few months later in January when they made the call, I was fit, I was ready to go and able to carve myself an NHL career.
O’NEILL When he signed his first big contract, we were at the practice rink and had to drive him back right then and there to get this thing signed. He’s on the phone and he’s saying, “I started playing ball hockey, for Christ’s sake. This is a dream come true.” We just said to him, “Listen, you’ve earned every nickel in that paycheque you’re going to get.”
HENRIK He wasn’t the fastest skater, didn’t have a great shot, but he was a student of the game. Maybe he didn’t think he was going to play with us, but he learned what he needed to do if he ever got the chance. That says a lot about him and the way he approached the game.
GILLIS The other part of his game that got him into the league was as more of an agitating, in-your-face, distraction type of player, which was fine because he tended to take some attention away from the twins when it was needed. As we began to look at how he played and what the numbers were, he propelled himself into that role because his puck-retrieval skills were really good. He could kill penalties, didn’t have to play on the power play, so we had a seamless transition from power play to penalty kill, and he wasn’t missing shifts, sitting on the bench for extended periods. The player we were looking for was sitting there all the time. It was fortuitous for us.
VIGNEAULT He basically saved my job twice. One of those years, I think we’re on a nine-game losing streak or something. [This was Feb. 4, 2009. The Canucks had lost eight in a row.] It’s against Carolina. He scored with a couple of minutes left, a shorthanded goal. And then we won 16 of our next 20.
We’ll get to the second example in Part II of this story.
Dave Nonis’s 2006 trade brought the backbone to Vancouver. Although league rules prevent goalies from actually wearing the letter, the Canucks made Luongo their captain before the 2008–09 season — the first goalie in 60 years to have the role. Teammates loved Luongo because they recognized how much responsibility he felt to the group. More than one said they wished Luongo could have enjoyed that time of his career more in the moment, like he learned to later in Florida.
LUONGO I agree with them, and it’s unfortunate I only learned that later on in my career, you know? Once I went through all that stuff, I figured it out too late. And I always said that one of my biggest regrets is in the Final, where I was so worried about stuff on the outside that I enjoyed it… but not as much as I should have.
CORY SCHNEIDER (G, 2008–2013) He carried a heavy burden. What that team meant to that city and how intense it was. It’s a great city. It’s a passionate fan base. It’s an awesome place to live and play. But there are a lot of expectations and a lot of pressures, like you can’t go anywhere without somebody talking to you about it or bringing it up…. There was a grocery store in Yaletown by the rink, and I was in there and it was my first year. People sort of knew me, but not really. And I saw somebody pushing a cart around the store with a hood and a hat and sunglasses on. I thought it looked really suspicious. I look closely and thought it was Lou — and it was. And I was like, “Roberto, is that you?” And he was like, “Shut up! Get away, Schneids, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Don’t bring any attention, you know?
VIGNEAULT For Roberto, it was his first time in Canada. It was my second. After going through Montreal, I told myself that I would enjoy Vancouver and I did.… Vancouver is going to be some of the best memories of my life. Now, I did say a couple of times there that if the players who play for the Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys can handle the scrutiny, a Canadian market shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Well, I had no f—ing idea what I was talking about. Because after coaching in New York and seeing the scrutiny that the Yankees … and the Giants [get], both those teams together do not compare to the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Vancouver Canucks…. In Canada, you’re talking hockey 24-7, and it takes a special kind of individual. That’s where the organizations have to come in. We had TC Carling — coaching from him — and Ben Brown, who was there at the time. I remember Mike bringing in a couple of guys to help our players express themselves better, but also make them understand their role. It’s a different environment.
CARLING In the 20 years I was with the team, I professionally spent more time with Roberto than anybody else, because he was the most scrutinized. He was in the media spotlight more than any of the other guys. The ultimate professional, incredibly passionate. I remember a game against Colorado fairly early on in his tenure. They scored late to tie the game. They went into overtime and Colorado wins, and he said something like, “Well, I made the first three saves. I’m not sure what else I was supposed to do.” And you can imagine how that was interpreted. So he and I learned that if the team lost in an emotional way, he would take 10 minutes at least before he would talk to the media because it just wasn’t going to serve him or anybody else.
SCHNEIDER I think early he might’ve taken some crap in Vancouver, especially for maybe not being responsible enough, and he went the other way with that, where he took so much responsibility. He was our best player. He was our rock.
BALLARD Didn’t blame anybody. Nobody else’s fault. If the puck goes in, that’s his job. Sometimes you see goalies who look for excuses. Louie looked for ways to get better and work harder. Schneider was the same way.
BOWNESS During timeouts, if he let in a bad goal, he would come right to the bench and say, “That’s on me. I’ll stop the rest of them,” and he would. He was the first goalie I coached to do that. The guys had so much confidence in him. Did he put a lot of pressure on himself to be the best every night? He did. But that’s what made him great.
ROLLIE MELANSON (Goalie coach, 2010–2017) Louie always went out with the belief that he can win a 1–0, 2–1 game. He really thought he could dominate every game.
VIGNEAULT You don’t have goaltending, you have no chance. When Roberto arrived in Vancouver, he gave us a chance every game. And he also [helped] Schneider … become a pretty good goaltender, too.
Luongo played 76 games his first season in Vancouver, including 39 of the first 41.
HENRIK There were times he played 10 games in a row, and we had an optional morning skate. He would still be out there trying to get better.
CARLING One game he wasn’t starting, he was late back to the team meal because he’d stayed after practice to take shots from the extra skaters and injured guys. And I said, “What’s the difference between starting and knowing you’re going to back up?” And he goes, “Well, the difference is I won’t feel like throwing up the entire day.” It was such a telling statement, right? This guy that’s in total control and all the preparation, and his career, what — he’s third all-time in wins? This is how he felt every single day he would play. He played every night and he wanted to play every night…. He took losing very, very hard.
LUONGO From my first game all the way to my last year, whether it was pre-season, regular season or playoffs, I was nervous. It didn’t matter even after I’ve played 18 years. I was nervous because I wanted to play well, every game. I wanted to be on top of my game. That’s putting pressure on myself. That’s what brought the nerves. And I never threw up before a game, but my nerves got in my stomach. That’s why I was in the bathroom four or five times (laughs). I wanted to always be the best, right? To be the best, I wanted to play well every game — build that name for myself to be known as one of the best goalies in the league.
MELANSON I’d been fortunate in my career to play with some really good ones. Patrick Roy was one. But Roberto’s work ethic was equally as good, if not better than Patrick’s. You had to scrape them off the ice to get them off the ice. Sometimes, it was more about, “Don’t overdo it. That’s all you need. Let’s get off now.” When you look at an 82-game schedule and you’ve got to do it another 20-plus times in the playoffs, you’ve got to make sure you take care of the fuel tank. He literally didn’t want to give up the net.
CARLING Roberto would keep to himself a lot throughout the year, too, on the road. Playing poker and just room service, getting his rest and taking care of his body so that he could be ready to play each and every night.
Before the @strombone1 Twitter account revealed Luongo’s true hilarity, teammates loved when he let down his guard. Fantasy football was a big opportunity; he ran the Canucks’ pool. There were others, some at surprising moments.
SCHNEIDER I was a rookie, and Lou and I had a great relationship. He’d come to the bench and laugh about something in the middle of the game. “Did you see that save? Holy shit, how’d I save that one?” That was his personality, too.
BURROWS Poker on the plane. Roberto used to read books. He used to play online. He used to play in big tournaments, World Series events. Every time we’d play on the plane and someone would go in with bad cards and get lucky, Lou would always lose it because that wasn’t the right way to play. The odds would tell you that you should probably lose more than you should win, but that’s the one time that you’d be able to win against him. He’d get upset and that would ruin his entire flight.
GILMAN Roberto Luongo was truly loved by his teammates more than any goalie that I’ve ever been associated with. I mean, we made him captain.
BURROWS Roberto was an unreal teammate, the best competitor at anything. We’d play ping pong, we’d play cards, we’d play any game, he’d want to win, and it was the same thing on the ice.
LUONGO I wasn’t the best ping-pong player. I was probably fourth- or fifth-best, but I wanted to be the best. So, when I played against the twins, the best on the team, I would always go all out and try to beat them. I’d probably only win one game, but that game, I wasn’t afraid to throw it in their face.
BOWNESS When we got Luongo, you could see the building blocks in place. They just needed time.
Alain Vigneault coached the Manitoba Moose to 44 wins in 2005–06, the year Bieksa and Burrows graduated to the NHL. On June 20, 2006 — almost six years after being fired from his first NHL job in Montreal — he replaced Marc Crawford as head coach of the Canucks.
VIGNEAULT Honestly, I walked into a good spot at the right time. [Crawford] had been there six years. I walk in my first year and we get 49 wins. We win in the first round against Dallas. The twins were only 26. Kevin was only 25. Kes was 22. Burr was a young man. [Alex] Edler was coming. Jannik Hansen was coming. We still had great leadership with Trevor Linden. So I came in at the right time. We needed to get some other pieces to get better, but we were on the right track.
KELLY Alain would give guys lots of opportunities. When it wasn’t working, he’d lay it on the table. I remember one time the twins got really upset at practice and it wasn’t like them at all. We had no idea why. We were looking at each other and wondering what’s going on. Henrik came to the end of the line and I said, “How’s it going?” And he said, “He’s gotta be more positive, this is f—ing bullshit. We never hear anything good.” And you never heard the twins say anything like that. Then at the end of practice, I saw Daniel talking to [Bowness]. Then he and Alain talked, and Alain said, “Whoa. My positive reinforcement is the ice time,” because the twins were getting lots of ice. So he had a talk with them to explain that: “Listen, every time I throw you over the boards, to me that’s a compliment.” When they got a handle on that, they settled in nicely.
HENRIK I remember it. I think we were playing pretty good at the time. He was always on us (laughs) about things we didn’t do right. We didn’t realize it until then, when he trusted us to play 20 minutes, it was because we played well. He really gave us a chance to become the players we became. It’s not easy when you come in as a new coach and you have these guys that are good players, but they haven’t really showed they can be No. 1 players. He gave us a chance to be those guys.
DANIEL That’s AV for you — we really enjoyed that about him. He came to the rink, showed a lot of video, made us prepared, didn’t say too much. During games, he didn’t criticize — didn’t give too much positive feedback, either. He came to the rink every day the same. He made you realize you played a good game by putting you out there each and every shift.
VIGNEAULT There’s not a lot of grey area in what I expect. When I don’t get it, it doesn’t take a long time for them to know it. It’s for the benefit of the team. I could be real demanding. As a coach, you’re always trying to get guys to give more. If you’d get more, you have a better chance of winning. I was pretty demanding on those guys.
DARRYL WILLIAMS (Assistant coach, 2008–2013) One thing that AV always says is, “There’s one way to play.” It doesn’t matter if it’s the beginning of the season, the end of the season, if you’re on the road or if you’re at home — there’s one way that you play.
BROWN He’s basically a CEO. He wants to give ownership to the players. That team was a group of guys that could really stay accountable to themselves within the room. AV promoted that. The guys fed on that. That’s what they wanted. I think AV knew just the right amount of coaching to bring to the team.
BALLARD There was no micromanaging, which I really enjoyed. Alain had such a good read on the group, knew when to push, knew when not to push.
RAFFI TORRES (LW, 2010–11) There were so many games we’d be up by two or three and Alain would start rolling the lines, which I loved. Giving guys that might not necessarily get more minutes, like ourselves, a chance to get some confidence, power-play time. It’s amazing when a coach knows to get everybody involved.
KESLER Our relationship started rocky. His first year was the year I signed the offer sheet [with Philadelphia]. And I was supposed to have a meeting with him that day. Obviously, I didn’t come in. He wasn’t happy with me, let’s just say that.
VIGNEAULT I do remember that offer sheet and him not telling me. I was a little upset with him, and … in our first meeting when he came back, I let him know.
KESLER But he believed in me. He trusted me. He knew how to coach me. If you just let me play, you put me on the ice, you know what you’re going to get from me. But if you’re always on me and you’re over-coaching me, I’ll go into a shell. But he allowed me to play. I didn’t agree sometimes when he would call me out or certain guys out in the media, but that’s his style. And I got used to it after a while. I like him as a guy — he really cared about my family.
VIGNEAULT Kes had bite, he had fire, he wanted to play against the big boys. Having Hank and then having him, it was a great one-two punch. He was pretty easy to handle in the sense that some guys you’ve got to poke a little bit, and you got a pretty big response. That’s usually what happened with Kes.
BIEKSA My first or second year in the league, I was having a coffee with Trevor Linden. And he was recently healthy scratched by Vigneault for the first time in his career. And we were kind of venting a little bit. He said to me, “Kevin, by the end of your career, I guarantee you will say that Vigneault is one of the best coaches you’ve ever had.” And I remember saying, “You’re crazy, man. Are you kidding me? There’s got to be better coaches than him.” And he said, “No. I’ve been around. Trust me, you’re going to really think he’s one of your best coaches.” And here I sit today thinking he was probably the best head coach I’ve ever had. So it just shows you, you’re not always going to love your head coach, and you’re not always going to agree with them. But the way he ran the ship, how he made everybody accountable and aware of where they stood with no mind games. I really enjoyed my time with him.
LUONGO I feel like he doesn’t get enough credit as a coach. The thing me and AV battled the most about was I always wanted to take morning skate. I needed that to feel good at night, and he would, especially early on, want me to take morning skates off. I would have to battle with him to get the ice time. The couple of times I didn’t skate, I had bad games. After that, he left me alone with that.
BURROWS Alain was great for me. After my first full year, I wasn’t really good. I remember him meeting me at the end of the year and telling me I wasn’t good enough, [and] that if I was the same kind of player the following year, I wasn’t going to be an NHLer anymore. That propelled me to become a regular. Those are tough conversations to have, but if you take it well and they’re well-presented to you, it goes a long way.
BURNSTEIN Awesome guy. Awesome. Once you’re in his bubble and he gets to know you, he gives you your range to do your thing. He wants to know how you’re doing with your family, he respects your decision-making and how you’re going about your business.
WILLIAMS When I first got hired, my family stayed in Newfoundland. My wife [Nancy], daughter [Sophia] and son [Ben, who was four at the time] came to visit. Ben was in the stands as you go out to the ice surface, so he’s right by the bench. Alain went out to stand on the bench and yelled something to our trainer. It was something like, “Hey, can you do this?” My son looked down and goes, “Hey, it’s not nice to boss people around.” Alain laughed and looked over and said, “But I am the boss.” And my son said, “Yeah, but it’s still not nice to boss people around.” Alain still laughs about it.
The Canucks won the Northwest Division with 105 points in Vigneault’s first year before losing to Anaheim in Round 2 of the playoffs. But Season 2 saw a 17-point drop and a missed post-season. GM Dave Nonis was fired. Nine days later, Mike Gillis replaced him.
BOWNESS We loved Dave Nonis. Dave did a wonderful job. He was great to work with and we were all disappointed when they made the move. However, it worked because Mike came in, and with his whole group, it was very clear from Day 1: We’re in this together and we’re going to work together. Knowing Alain as well as I did, that’s the only way he would operate.
GILMAN Mike had lived in Vancouver prior to having the job. He had a client on the team in Markus Naslund, and Mike had issues with some of the things that Alain did. Alain was going into the final year of his deal and my counsel to Mike was, “You have one of two choices: You either fire him or you extend him, because in a Canadian market, you cannot have your coach going into the final year of his employment agreement. The minute the team goes on a three-game losing streak, the-fire-the-coach stuff will start within the media and take on a life of its own. I don’t know if the guy’s a good coach or not. I kind of think he might be. Personally, I would extend him because, in part, when you’re coming in as a new GM, you only have so many coaches to fire. You better make sure you’re not firing a good one before you even know who he is.” But Mike was within his right to sit him down and tell him exactly how he wanted him to do the job, and what is not acceptable.
VIGNEAULT I didn’t think I’d be able to stay on. Usually a new guy brings his own people.
GILLIS I got to know Alain when there were a lot of rumours and different opinions swirling around about his ability as a coach and him being terminated, which was a fairly daily thing in the Vancouver papers. As I got to know him, I found him to be a very smart, good hockey coach. I don’t think he recognized the opportunity he was going to be given, but we pushed him into thinking about how to structure the team differently and how to begin to maximize the performance of these younger players. Alain got onside with that in a real hurry, and we started making changes. I asked him to answer 30 written questions.
VIGNEAULT He did send me quite a questionnaire. I emailed back to say, “I can speak English fairly well for a French guy. Writing, it’s a different challenge. It’ll be easier for me to express myself face-to-face.”
GILLIS (We) went through these questions that I had constructed around vision and player treatment, practice schedules, a whole bunch of different things. At the end I asked him, point-blank, “Are you prepared to coach differently than you have and you’ve become used to?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, here’s my vision for the team and this is where I think the league is going and this is what I think we need to build around.” He was a huge supporter of Daniel and Henrik. He understood the concept of moving away from more senior players to a younger group, between the ages of 24 and 29. He was all in favour of that. He agreed that there were certain things that wouldn’t happen, which was any public criticism of the players or changing practice times, or creating practice times because someone’s mad about the team performance. I wanted to move into a far more structured, analytical approach to what we were trying to do. We figured out this common objective about how we were going to go about things. I was confident and he was confident, because he stuck around and didn’t want to go anywhere else.
VIGNEAULT [Then-assistant GM] Steve Tambellini was there and he pushed real hard for Mike to keep me.
BROWN The one thing that AV doesn’t get enough credit for is he’s very innovative. Every summer he is looking for something new to do with the team. He’s always watching other teams practice. He’s trying to be on the front of what’s going on in the game. And I think that team epitomized some of those things, like putting the Sedins out on offensive-zone faceoffs so much.
GILMAN I knew he was smart. He plays the country-bumpkin card a little bit, but underneath that is an incredibly sharp and shrewd man. Alain is the best coach I’ve ever worked with, period. But he’s also the best coach in terms of being even-keeled after a game is over, win or lose.
Two months after Gillis was hired, Vigneault received a one-year extension. He remained the Canucks’ coach until May 2013. One of Gillis’s management appointees was Lorne Henning, who had 40 years in the NHL as an executive, coach and player — winning four Stanley Cups with the Islanders. Henning acted as a liaison between coaches and management.
LORNE HENNING (Assistant GM, 2008-2015) Alain’s got a great personality in that he can make fun of himself, which lot of guys can’t in that position. But one thing about Alain, he always liked to get the coaches together, the minor-league coaches and the NHL coaches for five, six days and brainstorm systems so everybody’s on the same page. And if [Manitoba coach] Scotty Arniel came up with an idea, Alain would be like, “Hey, I like that.” You know? “Let’s change that.” So it’s never, “We’re doing it my way.” He was very open.
BROWN Lorne had been a coach and now he’s on the management side … so he could go to Mike and say, “Look, I’ve been there. I know what these guys are going through.” Same thing in the opposite direction. He has a great way with people. He struck a perfect balance there.
GILMAN Lorne served as a pressure-release valve for the coaching staff. What typically would happen is [Mike, Lorne and I] would go in after games. There were times when you’re not happy. We would evaluate as a group, then Mike and I would depart and Lorne would stay. They could speak more candidly. And Lorne could come up to Mike and I and tell us things Alain thought or what the coaches felt, but were unable to say in that environment with the brass. It was an excellent role that Lorne served. It was underrated. We had an exceptional working relationship as a team.
Vigneault wasn’t the only one facing internal scrutiny. As an agent and an outsider, initially Gillis was viewed with skepticism. And inherited staff were very curious to see how he’d handle another pressing decision.
CRAWFORD We had organizational meetings in Vegas about a month after Mike was hired and I remember them being very tense. We had to make some key decisions. First and foremost, one of them was not re-signing the captain, Markus Naslund, who [had been] Mike’s client. I had to make that presentation to Mike. I remember afterwards Alain saying to me, “That was needed. He needed to hear it from someone other than me.” It was a tough decision for our group, but it needed to happen. The twins needed to be the focus. Sometimes those big players in your organization have to move on.
GILMAN I first met Mike in 1995 and we formed a relationship. Over the years, he used to tell me that one day he was going to be an NHL GM, and when he did, I was going to be the first person he hired. For a long time I didn’t put any stock in it because I had a job. But then I got fired in Phoenix. Mike offered me a job two days after he was hired in Vancouver. The first question I asked was, “What are you going to do with Markus?” knowing Naslund was his client. You see sometimes what happens when GMs have attachments to certain players. He said, “I don’t think Markus comes back.” I knew that if he was prepared to make that tough decision with not only a client who he had made a lot of money on over the years from commissions, but also a friend, I knew that he was capable of making tough decisions.
GILLIS I saw a group of players that were in decline…. I thought that if you could eliminate [them] and move to enhance the performance of the younger players, then you could take a non-playoff team and make it competitive in a real hurry.
CARLING Once Mike trusted you, he was very good at empowering people.
HENNING I loved working for Mike. If he said something we didn’t agree with, Laurence and I would tell him. He’d take it in. Mike wanted people to have a voice, so they’d say things and Mike would listen. If he liked it, we’d do it. He respected people and was kind of a contrarian, which is good. Guys had to be sharp, be on the ball, but they knew their opinion mattered.
GILLIS My first free agency, we’re trying to sign Michael Ryder. We felt we were getting played by the agent — you know, we were new. The money kept going up. I said to everybody, “Okay, here’s your chance. Speak up. Do we want this guy or not?” Michael Ryder was a right-handed shot who could score, right? We’re constantly thinking about how to get the twins from 70 points to 100 points. (But the response ) was kind of… mixed. I listened to everybody and said, “Okay, we’re out. We’re not getting this guy. Let’s move on.” We wanted people to speak up.… What I didn’t want was people after the fact saying, “Oh, I disagreed with that.” What I wanted was, you’ve come to a consensus, it was highly collaborative, and once the decision was made, everyone was behind that and we moved on…. I could tell when it was more about the money than it was about the environment. We wanted people that were committed to being the best they could possibly be and committed to looking at new ways of becoming that player. And if we didn’t see it, we didn’t want them. I felt very strongly that we could create an environment that would attract younger free agents that were accomplished players to Vancouver if we made certain changes.
CRAWFORD He was an outstanding recruiter. He knew what players liked. It helped that we had the 2010 Olympics that showcased Vancouver. Mike saw that coming, and he knew that this was going to be an opportunity to sell the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks renovated their dressing room before those Games, knowing it would be Team Canada’s. They hoped word would get out about what a spectacular ‘home’ it was, which happened. But the organization would soon be known for much more than that.
EHRHOFF At the highest level, it’s that little percentage. You can’t be 100 per cent better than your opponent, but you can be one per cent better in a hundred ways.
DANIEL They weren’t scared of trying anything.
BURNSTEIN When I started with the Canucks in 1995, we became one of the first teams to have a hyperbaric chamber. We always felt like we were trying to get ahead of the curve, seeing what’s out there. Certainly when Mike came in, he brought a different perspective. Teams were starting to look at hiring performance people, mental people, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, sleep people, motivational speakers — all of these different specialists…. Mike’s philosophy on things was, “We’ve got the horses. Can we get another per cent out of them?”
TAMBELLINI The exciting thing as a player is when you can tell that ownership and management is willing to spend any dollar amount to give our group the edge to have success. They’re bringing in 3D visual training to work hand-eye co-ordination and peripheral vision. You walk into a room, the food that was coming out and the recovery drinks. Whether we won or lost, this was the plan and they were sticking to it. It was so noticeable that this team was all into winning. We’re going to give our players the best opportunity to be fresh every night.
KESLER [There was a machine] that took our heart rate, that tells whether you should practice or not. We would do that every morning. The mechanism to slow down your breathing after games. I bought into everything.
GILLIS The key thing that propelled that team further and quicker was we did a complete sleep analysis, and fatigue-management analysis. The entire season was mapped out before the first game was played. We approached travel differently based on analytics and real-time numbers. We had the most difficult scheduling in the league because there wasn’t another team close by, and we were crossing the border all the time. We had to figure out ways to have fewer injuries and be fresher. So it meant … we needed more days off. We needed to travel east two days in advance of our first game so that we could get our circadian rhythm as close to normal as possible. We began staying overnight after long road trips…. That took a big buy-in because we had to go to our leadership group and say, “Here’s what the numbers are. Here’s what the analytics say. This is what we should be doing if we want to be optimal. You don’t have to agree to it — we can force it upon you. But we want to show you why [we’re doing it].” And they said, “No problem. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
CRAWFORD I worked there a long time — 16 years. I remember being there for group talks about it very early on, Marc (Crawford) and Mike Johnston talking: “We’ve got a younger team, but we have the hardest travel. How are we going to do that?” Mike flipped that. He said, “Listen, we have to maximize the schedule and we have to go to the league to get it done.” Instead of managing the players, they managed the league.
CARLING A couple of the things we did weren’t always popular, but they were done because there was a belief it was the right thing to do. And you can imagine the guy telling his wife after 12 days with the kids at home, “Oh, by the way, we’re not coming home Thursday. We’re going to come home Friday.” But it was done so that the team would be ready for the next game after that.
VIGNEAULT He challenged our comfort zone. He wanted to be proactive in everything. Mike had this idea about bringing in a science expert, like they have in soccer. I really liked the idea, but I thought maybe this should be tested at a lower level before you bring it to us. And, to tell you the truth, [he] was … right. There were some things we tried for a short amount of time and then moved on. But I liked being proactive and looking for any new thing that could help an athlete perform, whether it be physical or mental. To this day, I use a lot of those things I learned in those five years with him.
WILLIAMS I can’t speak for the other teams, but we had three laptop computers in the main lounge where every player’s shifts and all the games were kept. The full line or a defence pair could sit with a computer apiece. They would watch the shifts, discuss what they were doing, what they needed to do better. They did it in groups all the time. Even when we were on the road, we took these computers and put them in the room in the hotel we had for the players. Rod Brathwaite helped me a lot with that. It wasn’t very often they just sat there with nobody looking at them.
GILLIS The other thing we did is look at skill maximization through different means, whether it was more cardio and physical training away from the ice, or using our practice time more effectively. We hired a full-time skills coach who would work with individual players before practice. Rollie Melanson created a program where our goalies were on the ice before practice with our skills coach, working on different, small things they couldn’t work on in a full practice — repetition, repetition, repetition. Those things propelled those players to a much higher level, where instead of playing intuitively or emotionally, they are playing with a purpose.
CRAWFORD Obviously, the captaincy with Roberto was outside-the-box [thinking]. Clearly there was a change in managerial style. [Gillis] was a non-traditional hockey manager and we tried a lot of things. His leadership in allowing us the freedom to grow was a big part of our success. I can say that myself — I was a 30-something-year-old and one of the lead hockey-operations guys on a very successful team. I wouldn’t have been given that opportunity, I don’t think, in a lot of other organizations at that time.
SCHNEIDER I appreciated the fact that Mike tried to think outside the box and he knew Vancouver was a unique place geographically. The demand from our fans and media, as a destination for free agents, how are we viewed? He took that as a challenge to say, “All right, every disadvantage we have, I’m going to try to turn into an advantage.”
RAYMOND They did that with the wives, too. “Listen, what can we do?” They want to make things the best they can so there’s no stress at home. When guys come to the rink, they’re focused.
KESLER [Gillis] stayed the course the whole time. It took me years being gone to understand how good [he] was. I can’t believe he doesn’t have a job, to be honest.
The guts of the team were set. The coach was in place. There was a coordinated plan from the GM on down. And the ownership group had their backs.
GILMAN A seminal thing happened early on. At our first training camp [in 2008], it was clear we had two young players on entry-level contracts who deserved to be there at the expense of two one-way contracted players. The two young players were Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen. The two veteran guys were Matt Pettinger and Jeff Cowan. Pettinger was making $1.1 million. Cowan was making $800,000, if I’m not mistaken. Mike and I sat down with [owner] Francesco Aquilini. Mike said, “If you really want to change the culture … in good organizations, the players decide who makes the team. Not the coaches. Not the managers. The players have decided these two guys should be on the team and these two guys shouldn’t. If you want to get the players to believe you really want to win, these two young players have to be on the roster. We understand that’s $1.9 million that you’re eating in the minors. But if you really want to change the culture, that’s got to be done.” Francesco didn’t blink an eye. He said, “Do it.” He deserves a lot of credit for it because that established our credibility. That was the first building block because it said to the players that these guys don’t care about money. They care about winning.
The Canucks also brought in the late Pavol Demitra and — two months into the season — Mats Sundin. Two high-character people who made an impact.
GILLIS In 2008–09, some people picked us to finish at the bottom of the league. We had to supplement the team with some players that weren’t long-term [options], but we gave them the opportunity they needed and they gave us the opportunity we needed. Pavol was highly skilled, could play up-and-down the lineup and different positions. He was a really good guy. Mats we pursued because we wanted somebody who approached the game very methodically and very professionally. We wanted him for Ryan Kesler, to move him into more of a leadership role. We wanted to try and supplement our guys with examples of greatness and character. Mats was a phenomenal addition, but he was treated mercilessly by some of the Vancouver media. He didn’t care, but we cared.
KESLER That’s when Burr was coming into his own and our third-line guys were turning into first- and second-line guys. Mats really helped. Not only my career, but he had a big impact on the Sedins’ career too. I wish he would’ve stayed one more year, because I think we possibly would have won it, but that’s hindsight. I think 2009 was the time I was like, “Okay, we can do this.”
The Canucks were improving — 100 points in 2008–09 and a first-round sweep of St. Louis; 103 points in 2009–10 and a first-round defeat of Los Angeles. But a new rivalry formed. Both seasons ended with a six-game second-round loss to Chicago. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
GILLIS In 2009, the [Chicago] games could have gone either way. In Game 4 [with Vancouver ahead 2–1 in the series], we were up 1–0 in Chicago late and lost that game in overtime. And for me, that’s when we lost the series. But I realized we had the makings of what could become one of the top teams in the league.
BIEKSA When we lost the first time, I don’t think we believed we were better. The second time, we really thought we were the better team. They went on to win the Stanley Cup and that validated [our feelings of improvement]. We thought we were destined for bigger and better things.
WILLIAMS We looked at what Chicago had. It was the [Dustin] Byfugliens and the Ben Eagers and the Adam Burishes, the depth at the bottom of their lineup, that kind of put them a little bit ahead of where we were.
RAYMOND Those battles, we knew we had something.
BOWNESS After we missed the playoffs [in 2008], to see the attitudes the guys came back with. They were hungry, they had something to prove and they kept working hard.
That was another important development: The players were extremely competitive when it came to fitness.
BIEKSA The identity of the Canucks. We really felt like we were the best conditioned team in the world. We took a lot of pride in that. You are what you value. We valued being in top shape. We argued over who has the better bike times, who’d burn the most calories. We were all in probably the best shape of our lives. When Chris Higgins comes in at the deadline, he has to [do a fitness] test right away and he’s like, “What the hell is this?” That’s what our team was — in unbelievable shape. Our bag skates at the end of practice weren’t, “Let’s get through it.” It was competitive. I’m going to beat Henrik, Henrik wants to beat Kes, Kes wants to beat Burr. I feel that translated into our games. We came at teams in waves.
We were fast and physical … so highly skilled. We didn’t always have the biggest team, but we had every guy come in and finish their hits on you and re-attack and just swarm you.
TAMBELLINI When your two best players, Danny and Hank, win the strength and conditioning every year, if you don’t show up in good shape, you look like an idiot. The standard was so high in the room. And there was never a time when guys complained about doing the work. The gym was always busy. It was just paying the price to stay in great condition. It wasn’t like anybody was told to do something. That was part of everyone’s daily routine.
HAMHUIS During the [2012-13] lockout, I got to train with the Sedins for three, four months side-by-side, and I thought I worked really hard and was in very good shape. They opened my eyes. I put new limits on myself because my limits weren’t enough. To watch these guys and their work, it was inspiring for me. It made me a better player, better person, better at training. When you’re working out and you start to feel the burn in your legs, for a lot of guys, it’s like, “Okay, that means I’m getting tired and it’s almost time to be done.” Once they got that burn in their legs, they were like, “Okay, good. Now the workout is starting,” and they kept going.
BURNSTEIN The players took it to a different level. The brothers were in good shape — we brought in Mikael Samuelsson, he was in really good shape.
TAMBELLINI Mikael Samuelsson was built like a Greek God, he was so strong.
BURNSTEIN We had a core group of guys from a fitness level that really kind of took it on. It did become contagious.
BALLARD It was probably January . You get in those dog days, right? We had a post-practice workout, and I remember saying to Alex Burrows, “I don’t feel like working out today. This sucks.” He grabbed me. He goes, “Let’s go. We’ll get it done. We need this in the playoffs.” He didn’t necessarily want to do it either, but he knew all the little things that you have to do to win and to keep each other accountable were so important, not only for that day, but come the end of the season. That was the mindset every day throughout the year.
Vancouverites are familiar with the Grouse Grind. It is a steep three-kilometre trail that goes from 300-metre elevation to 1,100.
BURNSTEIN It’s a pretty challenging hill. We’ve done it as a team every year for a lot of years. And it’s timed. Nobody wanted to get a horrible number.
TORRES Maybe five days before camp started, all the boys are getting together. I was in great shape at that time, but I wasn’t in that kind of shape for climbing those hills. I remember the twins and Kevin would go up there and [it’s like] “Holy f—, man, this is a grind.” Going back down my back was on fire. I was like, “This is amazing.” When you go through something like that with a group, it’s contagious. You want to put in your work and earn your stripes.
ROME I did it with the Sedins and said to myself I’d never do it again with them. I know Juice would tell you he was in the best shape, but I would say those two guys are right at the top.
The oral history of the best team in Vancouver Canucks history, Part II
With the pieces in place, the 2010–11 Vancouver Canucks set out to dominate the NHL. And they did, right up until the end. This is their story.