VANCOUVER – One week after the shock departure of Trevor Linden from the Vancouver Canucks, there are a couple of elements we can confirm.
Linden, in fact, did leave the National Hockey League team. And “amicably” was spelled correctly in the Canucks’ press release. But that word was otherwise inaccurate in describing the sudden termination of the relationship between the most beloved figure in franchise history and managing owner Francesco Aquilini.
Linden, who left town immediately after the sensational announcement, has told friends he won’t be doing interviews for a long while. And Aquilini also has not made himself available for questioning, restricting his messaging to a 12-part Twitter explanation last Wednesday after Linden’s exit.
It was the owner’s ninth chapter – “A rebuild is a long, slow, gradual process. Everybody needs to be united behind the same vision and pulling in the same direction” – that ignited this story as if he were dropping napalm on a tinder-dry forest.
Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons began his Sunday notebook with a five-paragraph bombshell that Linden had essentially been fired by Aquilini after losing a power-struggle with Canucks general manager Jim Benning, hand-picked by Linden to run the hockey team when both joined the organization in 2014.
Also included in the alleged subterfuge was assistant GM John Weisbrod, Benning’s own right-hand man who came to the Canucks after apparently making few friends at the Calgary Flames.
Several people close to Linden, inside and outside of hockey, confirmed to Sportsnet that the deposed president does indeed feel angry and betrayed by Benning. No one, however, could or would provide details or speak on the record.
Unvarnished and uncomplicated, Benning appears to be a guileless Albertan from a salt-of-the-earth hockey family. If you described him in 1,000 words, “cunning,” “treacherous” and “manipulative” would not be among the adjectives.
When Simmons’ story broke, Benning’s over-riding sentiment was bewilderment.
“There’s no way I could do that,” Benning told Sportsnet from his off-season home near Portland, where he is preparing for his son’s wedding. “Trevor was my boss. I had no part of this decision. I’ve worked in this business for 27 years and if you talk to people from other teams, I’m an honest, straight-forward guy. I work hard.
“We always had a really good relationship. Always. We had the same plan and that plan hasn’t changed – drafting and developing to get to where we need to be. We were always on the same page on that.”
As the ownership family grew unhappy with Linden, it’s possible Aquilini started dealing directly with Benning, circumventing Linden in the chain of command. Whatever the issue between Linden and Benning, the material conflict here is undoubtedly between Aquilini and Linden.
“I don’t know what happened between Trevor and ownership, and it’s not my place to ask,” Benning said. “I’ve got a job to do building this hockey team. I’ve never been into politics. I have a hard enough time finding a defenceman who can help our power play. I don’t have time for politics.
“I had a good relationship with Trevor. We always worked together on things. He was my boss. He hired me as a GM and he extended my contract. I’m grateful to Trevor. If people think I had anything to do with Trevor leaving, that’s just wrong.”
If this was a power struggle, it’s hard to see how Benning benefits. Now required to deal with the Aquilinis on a daily basis, Benning’s job managing the Canucks just got harder.
Intrigue over who did what to whom overshadows what for the hockey club, and its ardent fans, is a far more dangerous long-term uncertainty: What happens now to the Canucks’ partially completed rebuild?
And what about the reconstructed scouting department headed by Judd Brackett, the improved player-development program run by Ryan Johnson, even the human performance division overseen by Dr. Rick Celebrini?
The Aquilinis are impatient to win, although they gave Linden and Benning an awfully long runway to get a rebuild airborne. Linden’s departure is widely viewed as evidence that Francesco Aquilini may be tired of waiting for better days ahead.
When the owner posted a photo this week of grapes from a family-owned vineyard in Washington State, reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly hostile. Several people demanded he sell the Canucks while others challenged him to explain Linden’s departure.
The timing of the Aquilini-Linden fracture is almost incomprehensible. The darkest days of the rebuild, those many hopeless nights from a couple of years ago when there wasn’t nearly enough talent on the ice nor in the development pipeline, appear to be over. Linden and Benning have assembled one of the best prospect pools in hockey. Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson is expected to be on the Canucks next fall, and dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes could be in the NHL by next spring.
The rebuild is working. At least it was working. Is the plan, embraced by the majority of fans who have endured the Canucks’ worst spell this century, now subject to the owners’ whims?
“The plan is not changing,” Benning reiterated. “Part of the reason I took the job is that’s my history – drafting and developing and helping build winning teams. That part hasn’t changed.
“That’s why we’re not looking to move our young players. That’s why we’re doing things the right way. We don’t want to rush our young players in where they lose confidence and don’t become the players we think they can become.”
Benning defended the Canucks’ acquisitions on July 1 of depth free agents Tim Schaller, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle, the latter two veterans commanding costly four-year contracts. Those transactions mystified a lot of people around the NHL.
Benning said the players were signed to help build a culture that supports incoming prospects, not to try pushing the Canucks towards the playoffs next season.
“We still have cap space,” Benning said. “If we were thinking about making the playoffs next season, we’d have signed James Neal or David Perron or someone like that. But we didn’t.”
Benning said Aquilini has not said anything to him about speeding up the rebuild.
“Every year we’re going to add one or two good, young players and at some point, we’re going to be really good,” Benning said. “But we can’t rush this process.”
Not without jeopardizing everything.