VANCOUVER -- As a captain and player in the 1980s on some of the worst teams in Vancouver Canucks history, which is saying something, Stan Smyl stood out for the ferocity with which he battled to win when there was frequently little chance of doing so.
Smyl never gave up, never turned away from the fight. He bled Canucks colours, which is why it killed him a little at Rogers Arena on Saturday when he saw those colours trashed by a fan whose act of protest against Vancouver’s atrocious start to the season was to heave their jersey to the ice near the end of a dismal 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That turned out to be the final Canucks game for general manager Jim Benning, head coach Travis Green and their top assistants.
It was clear from Monday’s press conference, headlined by owner Francesco Aquilini and Smyl, whose lifetime spent with the Canucks has culminated with a posting as interim general manager, that the temporary boss of hockey operations wants the current players to bleed as he did, to fight to win.
For all his mistakes as GM, Benning left behind an impressive handful of young core players. Captain Bo Horvat is still only 26. Goalie Thatcher Demko and winger Conor Garland are 25. Brock Boeser is 24, Elias Pettersson, 23, Quinn Hughes, 22. And they could be joined as core players by Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander, both on the National Hockey League team at age 20.
That’s a lot to work with, and it’s why the Canucks won’t be embarking on a rebuild and auctioning off assets, despite Aquilini’s assertion that the next general manager, whenever one is hired, will decide if a rebuild is necessary.
But what the Canucks need is for these players, who have thrived when there was no real expectations, to, you know, win -- start bleeding team colours.
There is a new coach in Bruce Boudreau, but a new buzzword, too: Accountability.
The players already understand the challenge.
As veteran winger Tanner Pearson said after Monday’s morning skate: “We’re the ones that are on the ice doing a job, right? So if we’re not (responsible), we’re kind of kidding ourselves. Accountability has to be the key thing right now.”
Benning stopped engaging with fans and built a roster with significant holes. Green failed to get anywhere close to the best out of his top players this season. It was time for change. The Benning regime was stale.
But the reason the Canucks made broader changes Sunday night than at any other time in their 51-year existence is because of the players. It’s almost always that way in sports.
So, what are the players going to do now?
“I think everyone was waiting for something to happen,” Smyl said. “Was it a decision on the GM? Was it the decision on the coach? We didn't have all those answers. And the players are looking around for answers. And what happens when you get to this point is that you start finger pointing.
“We all have a responsibility here. You're all professional athletes, and the only people that are going to make any difference is the players in the dressing room and the sense of direction we want to go as an organization. I think we'd lost track of that. For what reasons, I don't know. But we're going to get the sense of direction on track.”
Smyl further explained: “I think the players, to get to the NHL, are all put in different situations. And pressure is one of them. Accountability is another one, and I think they've gone through that experience at some level. This is what we've gotten away from within our organization.”
“We were hoping for a turnaround,” Aquilini said. “I mean, everybody was optimistic. I was optimistic, probably too patient. Maybe we should have done it sooner, I don't know. It just came to a point where a decision had to be made. Something had to be done.
“I think we have a lot of, you know, good, young players. We have a good core, we have a great goaltender. There's a lot of good pieces in place and why it's not working, I don't know. I wish I had the answer. It's very complicated. But I definitely believe in this group.”
Aquilini said he will conduct a “thorough and exhaustive” search for the next general manager and floated the possibility of also hiring a president of hockey operations to replace Trevor Linden, whose willingness to speak for the organization and act as a buffer between owner and GM have been badly missed since he was pushed out in 2018.
The owner said “everything is on the table.” He said he hasn’t spoken recently to former Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and, when pressed, wouldn’t rule out bringing back a former employee – such as ex-GM Mike Gillis, whose advocates in the media-analytics community seem to outnumber his advocates around the NHL since Gillis has been without a major title in hockey the last seven years.
Aquilini’s search may take all season, which is why he went out of order by hiring a new coach before a new GM. The Canucks couldn’t wait any longer to do something. They couldn’t have any more home games with paying customers discarding their jerseys and booing players and chanting for Benning to be fired.
Elevated from his title of special advisor to the general manager, Smyl will lead an interim management committee that includes player-development director and minor-league GM Ryan Johnson, Canucks icons Daniel and Henrik Sedin and surviving assistant GM Chris Gear. There is a lot of character in that group.
If the Sedins are talking to you about culture and accountability, you had better listen.
Asked what he has learned from the last seven seasons, which have included only two playoff appearances, Aquilini said:
“I mean, there's so many lessons. I think, you know, from this last seven years, I think building a culture is really important. I think that's probably what I learned: it's about culture and about values in which you collectively believe together.
"That's something that's always evolving. . . coming together as a group and believing in something, making you do something that's probably beyond your capability because you want to do it, because your group is there. That's what I learned about culture.”
Building that is harder to do than hiring a coach or a general manager.
“The status quo was just not acceptable,” Aquilini said, reading a prepared statement at the start of his press conference. “My family and I are committed to this team, our fans and the great city of Vancouver. We will get this right and we will make you proud.”
Also easy to say, harder to do.