VANCOUVER — The day that Trevor Linden became the Vancouver Canucks’ president of hockey operations, an old acquaintance approached him after his introductory press conference at Rogers Arena and chided: “You fool.”
And Linden instantly understood the admonishment, which was equal parts good-natured barb and truth.
Linden is — maybe was — hockey royalty on the West Coast, a beloved Canuck deity rivalled in franchise history only by former coach and general manager Pat Quinn.
The Canuck team he was inheriting from fired general manager Mike Gillis was motoring towards a cliff’s edge, accelerator pushed to the floor. The Canucks, after a decade-long run of superiority in the National Hockey League, had become dangerously old and stale and, as the draft had long been a black hole for the organization, there were almost no elite prospects in the development pipeline to replace the aging core. Only a handful of the existing players possessed trade value and nearly all of them had trade restrictions in their contracts.
And this was happening in a frenzied market accustomed to success, and with local owners who demand it.
Things were going to get a lot worse for the Canucks. Linden, like everyone, could see this.
Four years and three months later, having navigated the Canucks’ nadir, overhauling the organization and building the deepest stockpile of prospects since the team entered the NHL in 1970, all while enduring the media blast furnace daily, Linden abruptly left the organization Wednesday to return to civilian life.
The Canucks’ press release announcing his departure — one month after the draft, seven weeks before training camp — was headlined:
‘Vancouver Canucks and Trevor Linden amicably agree to part ways.’
We’re not sure about “amicably,” especially after managing partner Francesco Aquilini’s 12-part explanation on Twitter included this 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.”
So, the Aquilini family didn’t share Linden’s vision? They clashed ideologically?
The owners want to win now; Linden has been preaching patience in the Canucks’ rebuild since he first uttered the R-word two seasons ago. Linden wasn’t worried about winning next season; the owners are.
But whatever the optics, the Aquilini family gave Linden time and latitude to rebuild the Canucks and revolutionize their scouting and player development departments, and are invested enough in the rebuild that Linden’s hand-picked general manager, Jim Benning, was signed to a three-year contract extension last winter.
Benning is now in charge of all hockey operations and will report directly to the Aquilinis. Hopefully, Benning understands how important and time consuming managing up will be.
Other than a brief statement released through the Canucks, Linden wasn’t talking Wednesday night and may not do interviews anytime soon. But his departure probably isn’t about one thing, but a lot of things.
These have been a difficult four years. Linden’s friends could see the toll the job was taking on him. He didn’t seek the job to begin with and didn’t need the money.
Still, near as anyone can tell, Linden has never quit anything in his life. So, the intrigue over this monumental change atop the Canucks organization isn’t likely to abate.
The strangest part of his departure, whether it was his call or Aquilini’s, is that Linden leaves with the worst of the rebuild over. Yes, next season could be bleak again, standings-wise, as the Canucks experience life without Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who were both the heart and conscience of the team right up until their retirement as effective, offensive players last spring.
But Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat are in the Canucks lineup already, and Elias Pettersson, Adam Gaudette and Thatcher Demko could play for them next season. Quinn Hughes may decide to turn pro rather than return to college, and other top prospects like Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen and Kole Lind will be a phone call away in the American Hockey League.
Things are soon going to be better for the Canucks. But Linden won’t be around to see it. At least he won’t be seeing it from management’s suite.
He’ll be home in Kitsilano, with his wife Cristina and their one-year-old son, Roman. And probably a lot happier than he has been the last couple of years, even with his Canucks crown dented by his time as president.