Category Archives: Canucks

On Mike Gillis and Marketing To His Audience

Of all the Canucks honours up for grabs this season, the most deserving is Mike Gillis for Executive of the Year.  Or perhaps Marketer of the Year.

While his acquisitions and re-signings (all of which have been analyzed ad nauseum over this playoff run) have been great,  as head of the entire Canucks organization, Gillis has done a phenomenal job of changing the culture and attractiveness of the NHL’s Pacific Rim outpost. 

And all of it, in my estimation, has essentially been an effective marketing and re-branding exercise to attract his most desired audience: good hockey players.

Build it, and they will come.

As a former agent, Gillis has the unique perspective of knowing what players want from an organization.  Just like any employee, players want to work for a solid organization that has a commitment to success and a commitment to its people. 

Remodeling the dressing room, hiring sleep and nutritional experts, creating season-end reviews with off-season improvement regimens — yes it all adds to the on-ice success, but more than anything, it’s a clear message to all players in the league that the organization is dedicated to winning and to improving its players’ experience. 

Birds of a feather flock together.

Integrity, intelligence, and accountability.  Gillis was very clear about the culture he wanted to cultivate; he wanted men of character on his team.  That’s what Gillis wanted and that’s what he went out and got.  With a vision of the Canucks organization in place, he sought out attracting the right personnel, from senior advisors right down to draft picks.  

Talent and skill would no longer be enough to make the Canucks’ roster.  There’s a reason Manny Malhotra arrived at training camp already running drills.  There’s a reason Gillis told Dan Hamhuis that they only wanted him if he was willing to give back to the community.

The impact this had on the Canucks’ reputation is immeasurable.  It’s brand building at its finest.  When you show the league and its players that you only want and will only accept the best, that’s who you’ll attract.  The whole process is brilliant in its simplicity.  It’s the easiest marketing any businesses can implement: do an exceptional job, and the audience you seek will start seeking you.

Word of mouth. (You know, the original social media.)

Players talk.  Casual off season conversations between friends happen all the time.  Who doesn’t want to know if the grass is greener on the other side?  “What’s it like to play for that coach?  What’s your travel like?  What kinds of amenities do you have?  How does the organization treat you and your family?”

As the saying goes: “Reputation is what people say about you when you’re not in the room;”  the way those questions are answered is precisely what builds a reputation.  There’s a reason Mike Gillis patterned his template for the Canucks organization after the renowned Red Wings franchise.  Detroit is the team everyone wants to play for.  They have a reputation for structure, stability, championship pedigree and league-wide respect.

So how do you get players talking positively about your hockey club?  

Gillis and Malhotra chat at practice

Well, basically what Mike Gillis has done to take this franchise to the next level.  Everybody in the league and their mother knows exactly how Manny Malhotra was treated over the course of his terrible eye injury.  And if you don’t believe the word of mouth, then just listen to the cracks in Malhotra’s voice  during his recent press conference when asked about his team and the organization.

Players know these things.  They hear the talk and they know where “the good places” are.  You better believe Gillis heard that talk while he was an agent and I believe he’s done an admirable job of getting the Canucks into that conversation.  He had a brand and a message, and he’s effectively gotten it through to his target audience.

The result speaks for itself.

Creating an organization that players want to join and work hard for is, aside from winning a championship, arguably one of the hardest tasks in professional sports.  It takes vision, attention to detail, creativity and an understanding of how to attract and retain the best players possible.

During these Stanley Cup playoffs, the Canucks’ “talent and depth” have been praised by virtually every major media outlet.  I’d say that’s a job well done.

It’s a testament to the success of Gillis’ moves that the Canucks are in their first Stanley Cup Final in 17 years, but it will be a testament to his strategy if we can see them there again sooner than that.

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On The NHL All-Star “Guardian Project”

It sucks.

A harsh two words for The Guardian Project, I know, but let me explain.

The concept of marrying hockey with comics is a dream come true for me, because I’m a fan of both.  Take each NHL team and create a superhero scenario around it?  Great!  A nice opportunity for the league to piggyback onto the prevailing “comics are cool” zeitgeist.

How could it fail?  Let me count the ways.

First of all, the NHL is late to the party on this one.  Both Major League Baseball and the NBA have gotten some comic book treatment in the past year or so.   The difference is the other leagues were featured by magazines (Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine respectively) with competent marketing deptartments who knew how to leverage the cross-marketing platform potential — something seemingly over the heads of the NHL’s powers that be.
  
A video on the making of the Marvel/ESPN NBA Preview
  
It’s a sad NHL trend to latch onto a successful idea, only to execute it poorly and laughably.  I love hockey and the NHL and want to see the league’s popularity grow, which is why it pains me to see an idea with so much potential fall short because of poor understanding of the medium they were getting themselves into.
 
Their second problem was going to Stan Lee.  Yes, he’s the founder of Marvel comics and an industry legend — but he’s also outdated.  The guy hasn’t had a good idea in over 30 years.  So what’s the idea he fed the NHL?  “Let’s take all the team names and turn them into superheroes with powers based on their namesakes and cities!”  Eeehhmm… <tug at collar>
 
I looked at all of them.   They all suck.  Even the ones that should have been cool.  Each one a parody of the concept instead of an homage to their team.
 
My personal insult?  Well, since I’m from Vancouver: The Canuck
 
Really, Stan Lee?  Really?  You took the lamest parts of Aquaman, awkwardly shoved them into a poor excuse for a Batman costume, then said “he likes rain”.  You gave him a whale cape.  [sigh]
   
  
That one image is pretty symptomatic of the entire project’s poorly-thought-out, effort-lacking, boat-missing, cash-grabbing, wasteland cast of costume-wearing misfit concepts.
 
It’s a shame really.  If the NHL had asked the right people, it could have been pretty good.  Instead they went with a recognizeable name that no longer produces acceptable product. 
 
Kind of like the All Star game, I guess. (Zing.)
[UPDATE]  A good article by The Puck Daddy, Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) explaining the background of the Guardians Project and why those of us who find it laughable are not the target audience.  Also of note, comics writing legend Chuck Dixon was tapped to write all the inital stories.
I’m sorry — I love Chuck, but The Canuck one still sucks. (That wasn’t supposed to rhyme so much, but it did anyway.)

On The Sedins, And What Could Have Been

In all the moderate hoopla over Henrik leading the league in scoring, it’s easy to forget that The Sedins could easily have been wearing Maple Leafs uniforms on the first of July.

There was an eerie calm about The Sedins at free agency.  A pervasive feeling of “What? Where else would they go?”  They wanted to be here, right?  After all, they’re Swedes — and Swedes are like the Labrador Retriever of hockey players: loyal and happy to be where they’re treated well.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to The Sedins sticking around: Mike Gillis had to get on a plane to Sweden and plea bargain.   Then a second, less funny thing happened: Brian Burke got on a plane to Sweden, too.

Tampering allegations aside, what if Gillis didn’t make it?  What if on that fateful day, Gillis flubbed and lost arguably the two most important players on this Canucks team? 

And then assume that Burke got to them.  “Twins Land In TO: Burke Scoops Sedins”

  • Burke looks like a hero.  Reclaiming his prized possessions from the ’99 draft, Burke makes the big splash he wanted in Toronto.  Presuming the twins achieve the same torrid pace, the Leafs are no longer cellar dwellers in the East and are considered dark horses to make hay in the playoffs.
  • Gillis loses his cred.  A lot of people have given Gillis the benefit of the doubt, if not praise, for his ability to keep the core of this team together by re-signing Luongo and The Sedins.  But if his two top scorers flew the coop, would we feel the same way?
  • Alex Burrows goes MIA.  We all talk about Burrows’ back-to-back hat tricks against Columbus and Phoenix, but let’s not forget that when Daniel was hurt and Henrik was scoring, Burrows was nowhere to be found.  Only since Daniel’s come back has Burrows regained his touch.  And instead of Burrows, we could be watching CBC’s interview with alternate reality rookie scoring leader, Nazem Kadri.
  • League-wide superstar recognition.  Take this to the bank: if The Sedins are on the East Coast playing before the Toronto media monster the way they are now, they’re labeled superstars and everybody pays respect to the NHL’s leading scorer, further feeding into Burke’s “genius” and throwing egg all over the faces of Vancouver fans, media and Mike Gillis.  That would seriously suck.
  • The Canucks languish in neutral.  Despite some solid free agent signings, losing two of the team’s top scorers and leaders leaves them in a “team system” that misses the twins’ innate and consistent scoring ability.

So it took the Sedins 10 years to figure out the NHL game?  Hell, it took Naslund over six years to get it.  I think it’s pretty clear that without the Sedins this team would have more questions than answers, because it’s not like Grabner and Hansen were going to fill the void.

I like Daniel and Henrik.  I honestly never thought they’d be a serious top line threat in the NHL, but I always considered them the best second line in hockey and probably better than a few first lines.  But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity: we got to call Henrik the NHL’s leading scorer.  I’ll take it. 

And if this is a sign of what is still to come, I’ll take that too.

On The Canucks’ Identity

The Canucks are the smartest, laziest kid in the class; motivated to succeed by ego and challenge, but frustrated by their own inability to pass pop quizes and assignments.

That’s my definition of the Canucks’ identity this season.  How else do you explain the infuriating lack of consistency and effort?  They’re that teenager whose IQ is off the charts, but won’t do thier homework and can’t keep a job.

Much has been made of the Canucks’  ability to rise to the challenge of strong  opponents and big games, but whose concentration derails once the interest wanes.  Why?  Because they are (or at least they think they are) too smart and too good.  No one will say it out loud, and the Canucks themselves may not even realize it, but it’s true.  I really do believe they care, because they don’t like losing, but the character that Mike Gillis wants this team to be built around is inexplicably absent — otherwise this team, despite their injury woes, could easily be well over 500.

This is a pattern with these Canucks.  Look at last year’s playoffs for a microcosm of this season’s lacklustre performace:  The team drives hard through the last half of the season, riding high on their record and trouncing the almost equally favoured Blues.  Then the seemingly young and overacheiving Hawks (who they had blown out in their previous meeting) fall into their playoff laps.  What happens?  Overconfidence.  They take the supposedly “lesser” team for granted and lose it in six.

Fast forward to this pre-season: a team half-filled with prospects and farm-hands, steamrolling the competition and riding a wave of confidence.  What happens?  They fall apart to start the season and struggle to stay at 500.

I really thought the losses of Luongo and Daniel Sedin would be a good thing for this team.  It’d force them to rely on the system and hard work to get them through, then the reinsertion of their two stars would put them over the top. 

Not so much.

So here we are, sitting 10th in the west and facing Nashville, one of the hardest working, best-coached teams in the league.  Think they’ll win?  I do.  It’ll be a hard-fought contest that could even go into overtime.  Then who do we draw next?  Edmonton. 

Pop Quiz:  Where do they currently rank?

Answer: Last in the west. 

You think the Canucks know the answer to that one?