VANCOUVER – At the end of the most unexpectedly positive week for the Vancouver Canucks since their playoff bubble breakthrough two summers ago, the organization managed to undermine itself again on Friday with the poorly timed firings of two longtime senior employees from the hockey operations department.
Assistant general manager Chris Gear and senior director of hockey operations and analytics Jonathan Wall were dismissed one day after Jim Rutherford was named president of hockey operations and interim general manager.
Rutherford has yet to hold an introductory press conference nor physically arrive in Vancouver. He has not even met the staff he is inheriting from general manager Jim Benning, who was fired by owner Francesco Aquilini on Sunday, soon after head coach Travis Green was replaced by Bruce Boudreau.
There is speculation the terminations of Wall and Gear, who was touted by Aquilini on Monday as part of the Canucks’ interim management committee, were being planned before Rutherford was formally hired, presumably, to clear the deck on which the new president will build his own staff.
It would be naïve to think someone with Rutherford’s stature and experience wouldn’t be aware of the operational landscape, but Friday’s firings are still a bad look for both owners and their new super-boss.
Gear, 49, who is also the Canucks’ general counsel and handles a myriad of operational issues, had been with the organization for 12 years. Wall, 47, joined the Canucks straight out of university in 1998. To characterize either one as a Benning loyalist or intrinsically tied to the previous regime is false.
Wall, who managed the Canucks’ salary cap, was born and raised in Vancouver. Gear is from Richmond, just across the Fraser River.
Like all incoming hockey-ops bosses, Rutherford is entitled to hire his own people. But an experienced, successful NHL manager who has won three Stanley Cups and is already in the Hockey Hall of Fame should understand optics and have at least wanted to meet senior employees and talk to them about their jobs before they’re fired on his watch – regardless of whether the decision to terminate originated with him.
It looks how it looks. And it comes after four highly encouraging days when the long-awaited dismissals of Benning and Green removed a dark cloud that had been stifling the team and started the change many fans had been demanding.
The instant, positive impact generated by Boudreau – experienced, optimistic and gregarious – could be seen this week in Canuck players who shut out the Los Angeles Kings 4-0 on Monday and beat the Boston Bruins 2-1 in a shootout on Wednesday.
Then, on Thursday, the Canucks hired one of the most respected hockey executives of his generation.
The organization should have carried all that positive energy into Friday night’s home game against the Winnipeg Jets, but put some of its momentum at risk by firing the kind of loyal employees who do their jobs well but with little fanfare and who are the operational backbone of an NHL team.
Rutherford is in charge, even if he’s not yet on site, and will need to bring in his own people soon because the Canucks are a couple of injuries away from an operational crisis. The core of the hockey-ops department has dwindled to senior advisor Stan Smyl, recently appointed advisors Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and minor-league GM and player-development director Ryan Johnson.
One of the most popular figures in franchise history, Smyl has served the Canucks for 43 years and had one of his finest moments on Monday when he sat beside Aquilini at a press conference and passionately and earnestly talked about accountability and making the team better. Three days and two wins later, Smyl’s title as interim general manager was taken away.