Trevor Linden Q&A: Where do the Canucks go from here?

As the Maple Leafs prepare to take on the Canucks after their heated matchup last time, Mike Babcock talks about the likelihood of things getting chippy again.

When Trevor Linden’s father-in-law came to this country in 1949, he left his road bicycle behind in Italy. He missed it. So in 1956, he wrote to his cousin back home: “I want a Bottecchia. Can you send it to me?”

That bike, a rare gem revered by avid cyclists like Linden, sat collecting dust in his father-in-law’s garage as he battled lung cancer.

The day he beat the disease and walked out of the hospital, Linden presented him with the Bottecchi, a ride he had dusted off and immaculately restored with original Campagnolo components. You can’t find a collector’s item like this in such good condition.

Upon seeing his bike looking like new again, the hockey player’s father-in-law broke down.

“I don’t know where to put it,” he said. “You take it.”

So the Bottecchia sits parked in the Vancouver Canucks president’s new office by a large window overlooking a city that wants to see its hockey team fixed up, made young and fast again.

As the Penguins and Stars raced up and down the flat screen on Linden’s office wall, we sat down with the 46-year-old Vancouver icon Thursday night to talk about rebuilds and retribution, empty seats and hot seats, prospects and, of course, that dangerous game in Toronto.

SPORTSNET.CA: Big game versus the Maple Leafs Saturday. What do you expect?
TREVOR LINDEN: This building is going to be half Toronto fans on Saturday. The only difference when someone scores will be the horn. The [crowd] noise will be the same. If you’re in the lower bowl, the noise level will be the same. If we score, there’ll be a horn.

Tempers will be high.
The only thing I’d say about that is, look at the two teams. [Derek] Dorsett is out for us. It’s Matt Martin and [Erik] Gudbranson. Other than that, there’s a couple other [tough] guys, but it’s pretty… I don’t think there’ll be much going on.

“Matt Martin is dead.” I imagine stuff like that gets said on the ice a lot, and this one is news because it was in the hall and reporters heard it.
“I’ll f—-n’ kill you,” right? I played hockey for 20 years as a professional, and I never thought when someone said that to me or to someone else that they meant “I’m going to kill you.” It’s like when you’re a kid: “I’m going to kill you.” You don’t mean you’re going to kill him.

I hear it in men’s league.

When what Gudbranson said goes public, are you like, “Oh, God. This is something I have to deal with.” Did you have to speak with him?
Yeah. Guys get pissed off and emotional. There’s a figure of speech in there but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Never a good thing. It happens. Boys will be boys, right?

What did you think of the Kadri hit?
It’s interesting. We were talking about it. I appreciated the department of player safety’s opinion on it based on the rulebook. It wasn’t late. The primary contact wasn’t the head. And they’re going very much off the rules, which they have to. I do believe there has to be some smell test whether the hit is dangerous. You’ve got a player in a vulnerable position, and a repeat offender in a predatory way. I ask you this: If Danny Sedin is face-down on the ice in a pool of blood, getting stretchered off, do you think differently that that hit should be allowed in the game?

So much seems to depend on whether the guy is injured.
And that’s not right. That’s trouble. I’m not blaming [senior VP of player safety Stephane Quintal] and his crew. He’s coming out here [Saturday]. Under their jurisdiction, they can’t do anything about it. But ask any hockey fan, regardless of what team they root for, if Danny Sedin—a wonderful player—the fact he wasn’t face-down in a pool of blood is remarkable. The department of safety needs some leeway to say, “That’s a suspendable hit. We don’t want that in the game.” We’ve got so many great players in the game. You watch guys in Toronto. The McDavids, Matthews, and Marners of the world. I don’t think we’re taking hitting out of the game by taking that hit out of the game. Anyone who thinks there’s no hitting, you strap it on and go out there. You look at every team’s injured list—five or six people deep. The game is physical and hard.

Are you guys lobbying hard for a rule change, then?
It’s a hot topic of discussion at the general managers meeting. This isn’t about it happening to our player; this is about our game. Is that the type of hit we think is OK? At the end of the day, if everyone thinks it is, let’s go for it. And when it happens to someone else, and the player doesn’t come back but it’s the same hit…. If I take my own loyalty to Danny, who’s a friend and an incredible person in this community, out of it and put in any other player. That’s a skill play he’s making.

He’s in the process of scoring a goal.
The amazing thing is, I didn’t even know he scored. I talked to Danny after the game. He went off the ice, sat in the room, was getting checked out. Alex Edler, who was hurt for that game, came in the room and said, “Dude, what a shot.” He didn’t know he scored! I didn’t know he scored. That’s one thing right there: that play he made was a skilled play. Those plays are made by the Eberles and McDavids and Marners and Johnny Hockeys and Monahans and Sedins and Kanes of the world. That’s who makes those plays.

I spoke to Daniel last year, and he said he can’t go on swing sets with his kids anymore because it makes him feel sick. First thing I thought when I saw the hit was his concussion history.
Watch the hit. You think he smashes his face on the ice but somehow his glove gets down [first]. I don’t know if he meant to or if it’s by accident but somehow his face hits the thumb of his glove. The fact he came back and played shows he’s a tough guy. He’s been a tough guy his whole career. But he’s this close to an ugly, ugly scene. No hockey fan wants to see that.

Back in the day, if it was [Brian] Burke or Colin Campbell, they had the leeway to make the call: “That’s a dangerous hit. I need to suspend.” It’s topical now but as a league we need to decide.

Safety aside, what rule changes would you like to see?
You’re always trying to make the game better. I was part of the ’04-05 [Brendan] Shanahan competition committee, which was a unique experience I value very much. I’m not certain bringing back the red line is the right thing. I’m not sure if it slows down players. The game is faster now, plain and simple. I don’t know why we’d want to slow it down. Our game’s pretty good. I’m a fan. I’m not looking to change rules.

Your team has taken its share of criticism this season but what’s the biggest positive about the Canucks?
I look at where we started. Every situation is unique to itself. In this situation, there was a core group of players that meant a lot to this organization, a lot to this city. Game 7 losers in ’11, Presidents’ Trophy in ’12. A core group starting to move on [in age]. Eleven no-trade contracts. Two guys that, quite simply, were just never going to be moved. That’s 33 and 22. They’re going to be here until they decide to not be here.

Now, look at this year. Tonight we’ll have the youngest defence core in the National Hockey League. Our oldest defenceman will be 26-year-old [Luca] Sbisa and [Philip] Larsen. Gudbranson’s 24. [Ben] Hutton’s 23. [Troy] Stecher and [Nikita] Tryamkin are 22. That’s a new group. We’ve rebuilt that defence. I look at depth in goal, with Jacob Markstrom, who’s 26 years old and [Thatcher] Demko and [Michael] Garteig behind him. Bo [Horvat] has taken another step this year. We’ve continued to get younger.

Coming into the year, we were open with our objective—to be a hard team to play against and competitive, and hope to be in the fight, playing meaningful games in March. We’re in a significant transitional period as an organization. We’ve got good young players in college and a couple in junior. It’s a matter of being patient. We went through a tough stretch there in Toronto, where we weren’t very good. That was a tough night. But [the biggest positive] is the growth of young players like Stecher, Tryamkin, and Hutton.

What’s the best thing about Stecher? Fans love the guy.
I’ll tell you a story. I went to see him in February in North Dakota. After that meeting, I said, “That kid has an intensity about him that is real.” I said to him, “We’ll talk when you’re done. Go win a national championship.” Watching, watching, watching… they win. Right away we start the process of bringing him in. Got him signed. He finished school in May and wanted to train with our strength coach right away. I’d go down and check in on the guys every day. I kept seeing this bike down there. Finally I said to one of our equipment guys, “Whose bike is that?”

“What do you mean? That’s Troy Stecher’s bike.”

“He rides his bike here every day?”

He’s from Richmond. His sister lived at 41st and Oak. From [Rogers Arena] it’s probably a 20-minute drive. He lived with his sister. Didn’t have a car. He didn’t get his signing bonus till July 15, so he rode his bike [at least 30 minutes] here every day. Never missed a workout. That was his mode of transportation. First couple of days, he pushed himself so hard in the gym, he puked. The kind of kid that goes to the garbage can, pukes, and continues his workout.

The reason I say this is, the kid has been told his whole career he’s too small, can’t play. What you can’t measure is the competitiveness and determination. When you watch him play, he’s 5-foot-10 on a good day but he’s so competitive. He’s smart. On the right side of the puck. He can defend because he’s smart enough and he wins puck battles.

He was our best player in Penticton. Great. Then in preseason he was one of our top defencemen every night. Not fazed by the situation at all. Fun to watch and he drives offence. He pushes the pace. And he’s a likeable kid.

Bo Horvat has been a good story. He’s in a contract year. What’s your theory on giving a guy who’s in his early-20s a lot of term?
You look at the kid, the maturity level. What’s his approach? What are his day-to-day work habits? Definitely, Bo is an important guy for us. We see him as a leader of this group as he continues to develop. He’s an impressive kid. You gotta make sure the internals are right before [you sign a long-term deal]. Certain guys can handle it; certain guys have trouble.

You think he might have trouble?
I’m not going to say.

Fair enough. How did Willie Desjardins handle the heat he was taking during the losing skid as a coach whose job may be in jeopardy?
Willie’s concern is one thing. That’s winning. In professional sports, people look to point the finger. The easiest one to point the finger at is the coach. He went to work every day and worked hard at getting our group better. It’s a tough spot to be in, and we talked a lot through it.

Do you increase the number of conversations you have with him when things are going bad?
No. I try to be consistent. Honestly, I try to be present enough but not too much.

Why has attendance gone down the last three seasons?
We started the sellout streak in November 2002. That ran 12 years, to ’14. That was a good run. The West Coast Express years, then a pause. Luongo came. Then the Sedin-Sedin-Kesler-Burrows-Bieksa-Edler core group took the city through 2009 to 2012. There’s a bit of a pause [now]: What’s going to happen next? There’s a recognition that although [fans] love that core group that was here, they’re waiting to see what the next chapter looks like. We’ve got a passionate fan base. They care.

So what does the next chapter look like?
The veteran leadership, be it Daniel, Henrik or Alex Burrows, is certainly important to the growth and development of the Granlunds and Baertschis and Horvats and Virtanens and Stechers and Tryamkins and Huttons. Eighteen months ago we lost to the Calgary Flames in the playoffs. As disappointing as that was, we understood we had to keep transitioning, keep getting younger. We’ve done that. Maybe not as quick or as dramatic as people would like it to happen.

Perhaps some fans look at Toronto’s rebuild. Very dramatic. Stripping things right down. Getting rid of its best players. There’s a theory out there that the Canucks fan doesn’t have the appetite for an aggressive teardown.
What people fail to realize is the older group of players we had here—the Garrisons and Keslers and Bieksas and Higgins and Hamhuises—which are no longer with us, these are good people. These are leaders. Perhaps in Toronto that wasn’t the case.

We have Daniel and Henrik Sedin here, who are very important to this organization and icons in the city. They’re not going anywhere. I don’t know how I walk into the room and tell these guys, “Strip it down.” I’m not sure it’s fair to these guys. There’s different circumstances, be it in Toronto or Carolina or Vancouver, that require different routes. It’s not perfect, but I’m encouraged by the young players we’ve introduced, and we’ve got some young prospects.

Which prospects excite you?
I’m excited about Brock Boeser. Olli Juolevi. Thatcher Demko. Adam Gaudette at Northeastern is having a good year. Will Lockwood is an encouraging young player having a great year at Michigan. Guillaume Brisebois is at Canada’s evaluation camp for world juniors. The challenge we had, drafting in ’14, we knew where we were void in our prospect pool and that 20-25 age group. We’re trying to build that group up. Acquiring Markus Granlund, Sven Baertschi, that young-ish group. Adding a first-round pick in the Kesler trade, etc., etc. There are good players in our system but they’re young. Still in college. There’s no quick fixes.

Boeser’s a compelling one. Who does he remind you of?
The guy we thought about when we watched him in the USHL is Joe Pavelski. He’s not a burner but he’s got a great shot, a great release. He’s a really intelligent offensive player. Brock is a quality kid, the type you want on your team.

How emotionally invested are you during the play?
First year, I was trying to figure out after a home game, win or lose, why I was so tired. It’s a long day. Get here early, game ends at 10, you’re here until 11. It’s the emotional rigours of watching the game. You root for your guys. I’m not so demonstrative but it’s tiring. So the next morning, I was wondering why I was so tired. Then you’re going on the road, you’re constantly moving around with the travel. I find myself saying, “I haven’t played a minute and I’m tired out.” Imagine how our guys are feeling after a six-game trip.

Do you go on every road trip?
Early in the season I will. I want to be close to the action and with the guys as much as I can. I do less as the season goes on. Try to get out west and see amateur and junior games as well.

Speaking of juniors, big news. How involved were the Canucks in the bid to host the 2019 tournament?
We were involved early in the process. Ronnie Toigo, Vancouver Giants [owner], approached us. A friend of mine who owns the Royals, we got together. Ron asked if we would support with the building and other things. We were like, “Absolutely.” The city got on board, so we were part of a big committee to bring it.

How nervous were you that another city would win?
Very. I thought Edmonton and Bob Nicholson were going to get it. He seems to have an inside track on all Hockey Canada, IIHF stuff.

There was speculation Burrows would be bought out last summer. You stuck by him. How has he dealt with aging and his changing status on the team?
Exactly the way I’d expect Burrows to deal with it. I remember talking to him my first year. He was on the fourth line. He was like, “Trev, listen. I don’t care where I play. I just want to win.” I know with Alex it’s just not words. That’s the type of kid he is. If you want him on the fourth line to kill penalties or on the first line, he’ll come to the rink the same way. We couldn’t ask for a better guy that works his tail off and practices great habits. We knew the value Alex brings. Having someone like that around young players, it’s hard to coach that or do that from here.

Is Jacob Markstrom your No. 1 goalie of the future?
We definitely feel he has a chance. The succession plan: Ryan [Miller] may be back next year. We’re not sure. He’s a free agent. Jacob, we feel can be a No. 1 goalie, and we got Demko in Utica. It depends on his development. Goaltenders take a little more time.

Your divisional race is so tight. What are your thoughts on the so-called “loser” point and the idea of going to a three points for a regulation win?
We get a better overtime maybe because of [the current system]. I know it can skew how [the standings] look and keep teams in it. You can go either way with that. I’m good with the way it is. Would it increase the regulation-time competitiveness or dumb it down more? I don’t know.

Tell me a time you got home thinking, “That was a good day at work.”
There’s been a lot—and they’re not what people would expect. Going through the college free agent process. Signing Troy Stecher, that was a good day. Being in development camp watching drafted players and seeing their improvement. I’ve enjoyed it. Certainly there’s things I haven’t enjoyed. That makes the good things that much better.

What’s this job taught you about yourself?
I was away for six years, doing my own thing. I detached from the world of hockey. What it’s taught me is you never lose the love of the game, the fire that burns for it. Being a player in this market prepares you for the challenge. I knew full well what I was walking into two-and-a-half years ago. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew there was going to be criticism. At the same time, I love the people I work with.

Did you really know how much criticism or stress was coming? How many hours you’d need to invest?
As a player, you don’t really know what the other side is like. You don’t understand it. I was eyes-wide-open on (a) where this team was and (b) the scrutiny that would come with that. This has been a pretty successful market over the last several years, so I knew there’d be high expectations. I’ve been through challenging times—lockouts, strikes, personal contract situations—and I’ve always believed if you work hard and try to do the right things, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. As a player, you leave the rink and you’re done. One, singular focus: play, practice, be professional. After you leave, the phone’s not going off, the emails aren’t coming. It’s an all-consuming business.

Considering that, how much longer do you see yourself doing this?
As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, and I enjoy what I do. I feel very fortunate to be part of an organization that’s meant so much to me. I care about this team, this city, the fans of this team. I understand the business. But at the same time, if someone knocks on my door tomorrow and says, “You’re done,” well, I go back to my old life. That was good, too.

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