VANCOUVER — If this was stressful for Jim Rutherford, he didn’t show it.
The 72-year-old member of the Hockey Hall of Fame said he considered retirement and “stress-free days” at home in Raleigh, N.C., but instead decided to join the Vancouver Canucks for a lot of stressful days as the team’s new president of hockey operations.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he told reporters Monday during his first media availability for the NHL team.
Rutherford smiled several times during the half-hour press conference, made light of himself — “I couldn't get a job in the media, so I ended up having to do this” — and joked of his reputation for making trades that he wouldn’t make one Monday because reporters already had enough to write about.
He acknowledged without specifics the holes in the Canucks’ lineup, but also said the team may be better than people realize. He loves coach Bruce Boudreau, who was hired four days before Rutherford when managing owner Francesco Aquilini fired both general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green on Dec. 5.
But the most important thing Rutherford conveyed was confidence and leadership, and the kind of direct, relatable messaging that was always a challenge for Benning and became almost non-existent the last two seasons as the team on the ice deteriorated.
Rutherford was presidential.
The Canucks are 4-0 under Boudreau after starting the season 8-15-2 for Benning and Green.
Monday may turn out to be his easiest day on the job. But what Rutherford said, and how he said it, is likely to restore some consumer confidence in the franchise that felt unmoored the last two months.
“Well, I love the game,” Rutherford said when asked to explain his return to the NHL 10 months after he resigned as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I love the league. I had chances to go to other places over the last few months. I've always done things on a gut feeling. And when I had a chance to go to Pittsburgh (in 2014), I thought I was going to retire then, and I immediately told my wife, ‘You know, I can go to Pittsburgh and win the Stanley Cup.' And we did.
“And when Francesco came, and he met with me and he talked for a long time, I just felt good about the conversation and I felt good about this opportunity. And it's special being in a Canadian market. It's special being in a place like Vancouver ... and knowing how popular hockey is in British Columbia and how much people love the Canucks. And I think this is a special opportunity where a team has not accomplished what they wanted to. And I like to win, and that's where we're going to get to.”
With a contract that expires when he is 75, Rutherford may also be thinking about his legacy and what it would mean to steer the Canucks toward their first Stanley Cup.
Many people have promised the chance of that since the Canucks joined the NHL in 1970. Benning was the team’s 11th general manager, and although Rutherford doesn’t have that title, he will act as GM until he hires one. The Canucks are the only NHL team with an 0-3 record in the Stanley Cup Final and only twice since 2013 have they made the playoffs.
But Rutherford, at least, won the Stanley Cup twice as GM in Pittsburgh and once with the Carolina Hurricanes before then. He clearly likes the building blocks already in place in Vancouver, which has young franchise players in goalie Thatcher Demko, defenceman Quinn Hughes and centre Elias Pettersson.
His challenge is to build the team around them better than Benning did the last two years.
“I saw what you guys saw in the first 20 games: the team that underperformed,” Rutherford said. “But as I thought more about this team and what I saw, I saw something in it and I certainly saw a lot in this franchise and the Canucks brand that I decided that I'm going to take on this challenge. And I understand it's a challenge. We all know that.
“That's why I'm here. I'll give it my best, and we're going to do the best we can to change the culture and get to a point where we have a consistent playoff team that can grow into a contender and give us a chance to get to the ultimate goal.
“My answer (about the team), based on being 3,000 miles away and having my feet on the ground in Vancouver for 24 hours, is that this group is obviously better than the first 20 games. But I'm not so sure that it may be even a little better than people think.”
• Although the Canucks are not fast, he wants them to play quicker as they have under Boudreau.
• He has compiled a list of 40 GM candidates.
• He values diversity.
• He has someone already in mind as an assistant GM and that announcement could come soon.
• He won’t be trading away high draft picks, like he regularly did in Pittsburgh, because the Canucks are in a different evolutionary “cycle” than the Penguins team he inherited.
On Boudreau’s effect on the Canucks so far, Rutherford said: “I say this with respect because I think the former coach is a really good hockey coach. But ... sometimes the players move away from the coach or vice versa. And I just think based on what happened in the first part of the season, that having a guy like Bruce, where he gives the players a lot of confidence and makes them feel good about themselves, was really the right guy at this time for this organization.”
Rutherford said Aquilini asked him about hiring Boudreau before Rutherford became president following an extraordinary hours-long visit by the owner to his home. But the owner didn’t ask Rutherford how he felt about other front-office staff before Aquilini fired assistant GM Chris Gear and director of hockey operations and analytics Jonathan Wall on Friday.
“I didn't request any moves,” Rutherford said. “But when you're changing the culture, sometimes when you have people that have been here a long time, it's harder to do. And what I'm trying to do is change the culture and get to that consistent, positive, winning attitude. And I'm not saying those people couldn't do it. But I think the more new, fresh people we have in there, the easier it's going to be to do.”