TORONTO – Mike Gillis wants back in the National Hockey League, just not as a GM.
After being fired from the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, Gillis embarked on a five-year, globetrotting sabbatical, a personal mission intended to expand and deepen his thinking of the game.
The former player, coach, agent, executive and lifelong student of the game invested time studying how various sports teams and leagues outside of the NHL built, operated and created winning cultures.
Now Gillis is keen to lend his knowledge, vision and anti-groupthink point of view to a NHL franchise — yet the 2011 GM of the Year and builder of two Presidents’ Trophy winners maintains he’s not after one of the coveted 32 GM roles.
"I don’t think my role any longer is to be the GM of an NHL team," Gillis said Friday at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto. "That one person, over time, gets worn out and starts to make poor decisions.
"I think the jobs are now far more difficult than they were five years ago, 10 years ago in particular, and 20 years ago it’s not even close."
Gillis denied a late-April report that he and Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, the man who fired him, explored the possibility of a reunion in the wake of president Trevor Linden’s departure.
"Not from my perspective. I think there’s some people in Vancouver, fans maybe, promoting that, but from my perspective, I’ve never thought about that," Gillis said.
A general manager, Gillis believes, must devote his full-time efforts to keeping ownership happy, communicating with his head coach, overseeing player personnel, and making staffing decisions.
Gillis is inspired by the bigger picture: challenging the dimensions of the NHL rink and the time of day teams practice, suggesting a complete overhaul of traditional scouting processes, and imagining a future where a team dresses five forwards and a goalie (seriously).
"As a general manager of a team, you’re really myopic. You’re really focused on your team performance, on your individual player performance, on your coaching performance. I like that part of the job, but right now I’m more interested in how you build an organization, how you see results, how you measure results," said Gillis, who spoke to Sportsnet after delivering a wide-ranging hour-plus-long talk at Ryerson University for a lecture hall filled with coaches of all levels.
"I’m really interested in analytics, sports science, human performance, and how to blend those things into a high-culture organization."
So… special advisor? President of hockey ops?
"Whatever title is not what turns my crank," Gillis said. "I think when you have a truly high-functioning, well-organized company or sports organization that titles become less relevant. It’s more productivity and how you work together."
Gillis, who appreciates the Premier League organizational chart, believes an NHL front office could maximize its effectiveness by hiring four assistant GMs, plus a behind-the-scenes cast of problem-solvers devoted to maximizing its individual players through the study of hard evidence and suggesting their ideal linemates and situational usage to the GM and coach.
"You have to really believe in your conviction. We believed in that conviction when I was in Vancouver. We designed a team around that conviction — a puck-moving, dynamic, quick-transition team," Gillis said.
"If you don’t win the ultimate prize, suddenly that doesn’t work. Now, teams are all moving in that direction, and it’s a more entertaining game. I like watching it. And if I don’t like watching, it’s going to be hard to go to work every day."