Canucks' Rutherford keeps diversity front of mind in hiring process

New Vancouver Canucks President of Hockey Operations and Interim General Manager Jim Rutherford listens during his first news conference since being hired by the NHL hockey team, in Vancouver, on Monday, December 13, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – For an older, white male who in appearance and experience seems to embody the National Hockey League establishment, Jim Rutherford has some progressive ideas about building his management team with the Vancouver Canucks.

Rutherford told Sportsnet in a pre-Christmas interview that he admires the diversity of the Seattle Kraken, which under chief executive officer Tod Leiweke filled many positions with women and people from various ethnic backgrounds so that the NHL’s newest organization would reflect the community it serves.

After he was hired by Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini to be the president of hockey operations, Rutherford told reporters at his introductory press conference on Dec. 13: “Our society is changing all the time, and I would like to see a more diverse staff if possible.”

A few days later, the 72-year-old’s first hire was assistant general manager Derek Clancey, a highly-respected “hockey guy” whose 16 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins meant he started there before Rutherford arrived as general manager in 2014 and orchestrated two Stanley Cups.

Rutherford had his eye on Clancey when he said yes to Aquilini, and the Canucks had – still have – pressing needs in their front office. Clancey, 52, is now in charge of professional and amateur scouting, among other duties, but doesn’t qualify in any way as a minority hire.

Rutherford, however, re-iterated in his interview with Sportsnet his desire to hire people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in hockey.

The Globe and Mail reported before Christmas that the Canucks were looking at a trio of female candidates for another assistant GM position: Jennifer Botterill, Jayna Hefford and Angela Ruggiero.

“My feeling is if you can build a front office with people that grew up playing hockey or in the game, not even necessarily playing but as part of the game, then you get different voices, different opinions,” Rutherford said. “You have a better chance of getting different ideas. That's really where I'm coming from here as to having people from different (backgrounds) coming through the system.”

In Pittsburgh, Rutherford helped mentor future NHL GMs in Jason Botterill, Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald. He said he is comfortable hiring and teaching people who understand the game and are willing to work hard, even if their resumes are not extensive.

“You talk about resumes and comparing resumes and comparing people, you have to do that all the time,” Rutherford explained. “Even when I talk directly to some of these people, they will say: ‘Well, I haven't done this, I haven't negotiated contracts.’ None of us had done anything at one point in our careers. I mean. . . every person that has any job, whatever it is -- in this case, we're talking about an NHL hockey team -- at one point in time, none of us had ever made a trade. None of us had ever done a contract, none none of us had ever dealt with the salary cap. You have to start some time.

“Part of me being in Vancouver and taking this job is to mentor people. I've mentored some people that have gone on to be GMs, some guys who started as young coaches. I think it's an advantage for our organization to bring certain people in that maybe don't have a lot of experience, but they're smart and they know the game. And their input is going to be heard. As each day goes by, they'll learn things. I mean, I've done this for a long, long time, almost forever, and I learn new things every week.

“Our game changes all the time; you have to be willing to learn. So for people coming in that don't have experience, they're going to be just like people that have experience: they're going to learn, right? But the important thing is to hire people that are willing to do that, work hard, have some kind of background in hockey. I think it will really strengthen our organization.”

Rutherford wouldn’t confirm he has spoken to Botterill, Hefford or Ruggiero, but said he has spent much of his time so far as Canucks’ president on the phone seeking out and speaking with potential hires.

He did say that the next AGM is likely to oversee the salary cap and player contracts, but he envisions a management umbrella with three assistants working under a yet-to-be-hired general manager, who will report to Rutherford.

He hopes to start in-person interviews for that senior position in January, although the current resurgence of COVID-19 is complicating the process, and he will wait as long as necessary to get the right GM.

In the meantime, Rutherford wants to expand the Canucks’ analytics department and hire a replacement for former director of hockey operations and analytics Jonathan Wall, who was fired by Aquilini along with assistant GM Chris Gear the day after Rutherford was hired on Dec. 9.

Rutherford praised the work of Canucks senior analyst Aiden Fox, a possible successor to Wall, and also raved about player development director and minor-league GM Ryan Johnson, whom he did not know before coming to Vancouver.

Rutherford has already promoted career Canuck Stan Smyl to vice-president of hockey operations and said he is thankful to inherit special advisers Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

“I like a lot of people that are still there, so I don't foresee needing to make changes to the people that are in the office now,” Rutherford said. “I've got to continue to build the structure of hockey operations and that's what I'm trying to do.”

With Rutherford’s ideals about diversity in mind, here are 10 potential candidates for management. The Canucks’ next GM may even come from this group.

Patrik Allvin

With an extensive scouting background, the Swede has been with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the last 16 years and was promoted in 2020 by Rutherford to the position of assistant general manager. Allvin was briefly the interim GM after Rutherford resigned, but lost out on the full-time title when Ron Hextall was hired. NHL insider Frank Seravalli reported last week on Sportsnet 650 that Allvin, 47, is the frontrunner to be named Canucks GM.

Jason Botterill

The 45-year-old crashed and burned as a first-time GM with the Buffalo Sabres. But he remains respected for his broad experience, including cap management, and was so well-regarded by Rutherford that he was previously an associate GM in Pittsburgh. Currently the top assistant to Seattle GM Ron Francis, Botterill may not be available to the Canucks until after this season -- and not at all unless he comes as the new general manager.

Jennifer Botterill

OK, so the siblings on this list are not named Sedin. Before the Globe reported the Canucks’ interest in the iconic three-time Olympic champion with Team Canada, Botterill was touted by a rival NHL manager as an ideal candidate for the Canucks. The 42-year-old has an honours degree in psychology from Harvard and has won praise for her sharp insights as a studio analyst for Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada.

Cammi Granato

The greatest female player in U.S. hockey history, the Hall-of-Famer has spent the last two years working for the Kraken as a professional scout, which means she was instrumental in their expansion process and knows the league intimately. Granato, 50, lives in Vancouver with her partner, hockey analyst Ray Ferraro, so she understands the market and has seen the Canucks as much as anyone over the last couple of seasons.

Mike Grier

The 46-year-old Detroit native played more than 1,000 games in the NHL after becoming the first Black U.S. player to make the league entirely through American hockey channels. After retiring as a player, Grier worked as a professional scout for the Chicago Blackhawks and assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils before the New York Rangers hired him last spring as a hockey operations adviser under new GM Chris Drury. Grier’s brother, Chris, is general manager of the Miami Dolphins.

Craig Heisinger

When we asked around the league about a manager qualified to be an NHL GM but who is rarely mentioned, the Winnipeg Jets assistant GM’s name popped up a couple of times. Heisinger’s name is rarely mentioned because the 59-year-old Winnipegger loves his hometown and is fiercely loyal to the Jets and owner Mark Chipman as senior vice-president of True North Sports and Entertainment. But Heisinger’s impressive experience includes working with the Canucks when the franchise’s minor-league team was the Manitoba Moose.

Ryan Johnson

Johnson, 45, is in his ninth season in Canucks hockey operations and has been the team’s director of player development since 2016. He is also the general manager of its American Hockey League franchise, a title he carried from Utica to Abbotsford, and has a ton of operational knowhow. A tireless collaborator who cares passionately about his players, Johnson has a bright future as an NHL manager. When Rutherford talks about hiring an entry-level GM he can mentor, he could be referring to Johnson.

Chris MacFarland

None of these GM-candidates lists ever appear without the Colorado Avalanche’s assistant GM and right-hand-man to executive VP and GM Joe Sakic. MacFarland, 51, spent 16 seasons working his way up through Columbus Blue Jackets’ hockey operations before moving to Denver in 2016. With a business degree and experience at law school, MacFarland has worked in every aspect of hockey management. He is so highly regarded around the NHL, the New York native can be choosey about his next opportunity.

Alexandra Mandrycky

Another rising hockey-ops star with the Seattle Kraken, Mandrycky was an analytics pioneer before putting her industrial engineering degree to work by joining the Minnesota Wild in 2015 as a data analyst. The Kraken wanted her badly enough that they hired the 30-year-old from the Atlanta area in 2019 -- before Leiweke named Francis his GM. Mandrycky is Seattle’s director of hockey administration.

Scott Mellanby

We’re not including Mike Gillis on this list, but the former Canucks general manager gave Mellanby his start in management as a special consultant in Vancouver. Mellanby left to try coaching as an assistant with the St. Louis Blues before joining Montreal Canadiens hockey-ops in 2012. He was named an assistant GM in 2014 and groomed since then by general manager Marc Bergevin to be his successor. But the 55-year-old resigned from the organization a month ago when it became clear he would not survive the regime change that saw Bergevin fired and Jeff Gorton brought in as executive vice-president.

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