While there hasn’t been a National Hockey League playoff game in Vancouver since 2015, Cole has made it to the Stanley Cup tournament the last nine seasons. And with six different teams.
The 34-year-old defenceman from Michigan has logged 116 playoff games, won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and made it past the first round five times.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning asked Cole at the end of last season to stay on, albeit at greatly reduced pay due to salary-cap pressures, he declined. In July, he signed a one-year, $3-million contract (same as he had in Florida) to play for the Canucks, who are managed by Penguins alumni Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford.
All Cole knows is winning.
But coming to the Canucks is like bringing Mozart to a group who has never heard music.
Of course, that’s the point. Someone like Cole is who the hockey team desperately needs as it tries to find traction and anchors on which to attach culture.
Still, what is in this for a serial-winner who had other options in free agency?
“I’ve been very fortunate through my career to be on a lot of really good teams,” Cole tells Sportsnet. “A lot of playoff games, a lot of long playoff runs. And as a player that’s getting a little bit older, age 34 now … you want to be on a good team. So a lot of people may say: ‘Oh, then why’d you pick Vancouver?’ I think that this team is a lot better than people give them credit for. I think that this team has a lot better roster that people give them credit for. And I think that with the right guidance — with Toc and the coaching staff that we have — I think we have the ability to surprise some people.”
Canucks coach Rick Tocchet was on the coaching staff in Pittsburgh when Cole was there. And Tocchet was on the bench next to Cole in Saturday’s special-teams practice at training camp when the defenceman was counselling some younger teammates on penalty killing.
First on the ice on the PK in Tampa, Cole should help the Canucks improve a penalty kill that was the worst in the NHL last season. After averaging 19:23 of ice time for a 98-point Lightning team, Cole will also help the five-on-five play, likely on the Canucks’ second defence pairing.
But the real measure of Cole’s impact, albeit harder to quantify, will be his influence on teammates — if his singular focus on winning and the professionalism required to achieve it spreads to others.
“I’ve said this for many years but as a professional athlete, the only reason that you play the game is to compete and to win,” Cole says. “That’s it. The only goal is to win. This is a business and you’re judged by whether you win or lose. There are some guys in this league that are cool with just collecting a paycheque and this is just a job for them. But for me and I think for any professional athlete who wants to be successful, winning is what matters. That drive is to win. And that starts with making the playoffs, and then it’s winning in the playoffs.
“Every year there’s a team that gets into the playoffs and makes a run. Look at Florida last year, look at the L.A. Kings when they won, look at St. Louis. You don’t need to be a Presidents’ Trophy winner to go far and make some noise in the playoffs. You need to peak at the right time and get everyone on the same page, and you need to have a great goaltender. I think these are things that we are more than capable of doing or have on our roster. I think this is a really good team.”
With the trades by Allvin of former Stanley Cup winners Luke Schenn and Tanner Pearson, Cole becomes easily the “winningest” player in the Vancouver dressing room.
And how do you build a winning culture?
Cole’s answer is as fascinating as it is thorough.
“An easy answer to this that everyone tends to say is: ‘Oh, we have such a close team and we all get along,’” he says. “But it’s more than liking somebody; it’s understanding that you as a player have a job to do within your role. And the quicker you can define that and accept that … just understand this is a job and I have a task and my task is to win. There are multiple ways to go about that, but this is how I’m going to go about helping my team win hockey games. And when you win hockey games, the chemistry, the camaraderie, all that, comes along with it.
“For me, it’s about just understanding what you need to do to win and doing that every night. It’s a consistency thing. It’s not going on losing skids of two, three, four, five games in a row. You lose one game, you get right back at it and you win the next game. Winning consistently is a mindset, it’s habits. it’s an overall consistency to your game.
“There’s a feel-good side of culture where it’s like, ‘We like each other, we enjoy hanging out.’ And that’s great. But does that win you hockey games? Ultimately, what wins you hockey games is: I know that I can go to battle with this person and this person is going to do everything they can to win, and I’m going to do everything I can. And these other people are going to do everything they can. That’s what wins … knowing that every player up and down the roster is going to do whatever they can to win hockey games. I think that’s truly what a winning culture is. You don’t need to be best friends with every person on the team. You need to know that everyone on the team is going to do everything they can to win hockey games.”
As training camp ends here for the Canucks, who sent a group of players to Calgary to open the pre-season Sunday night, Cole says his thoughts about the team’s talent have been confirmed.
“We’ve had a couple of team dinners, got to hang out and spend a lot of time together off the ice,” he says. “Fantastic group. I thought we did a lot of good work, really kind of nailed down some things we need to get through. Knowing what we need to fix is the first step, so this is just a great first step. We’ve got a lot of really talented young players on this team.”
Cole jokes that he has already informed GM Allvin that he is open to discussing a contract extension.
“He said: ‘Let’s get a couple of games under our belt first,’” Cole smiles. “Fair enough.”
And how is the culture coming?
“I think this is where (Tocchet) is going to be huge,” Cole says. “He’s a very straightforward, demanding coach, as he was a very straightforward and passionate, intense player. I think he’s really good at holding people to a standard. And that standard is going to be defined by him, our coaching staff and the players. And ultimately, holding people to that standard, from Quinn Hughes to whoever just got called up from the minors, it’s going to have to be across the board.”
• Injured winger Ilya Mikheyev skated Sunday in a non-contact jersey with the late group at training camp. It was his first session with teammates after the Russian took a two-day leave for family reasons at the start of camp. Mikheyev hasn’t played since his season ended last January with an ACL knee injury and surgery.