A $5-million message came wrapped in a 37-year-old body.
Midway through the 2008-09 National Hockey League season, the Canucks didn't appear to be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup, even by bringing high-priced free agent Mats Sundin to the West Coast, deep in the twilight of his career.
The Canucks remained a few chess pieces away from winning, but by paying the long-time Toronto Maple Leafs captain roughly $5-million (all currency U.S.) to play for one-half of a season, new GM Mike Gillis declared for all to see that owner Francesco Aquilini was ready to buck up with the big boys.
"The philosophy from ownership is 'we're doing everything in our power to win,' " Gillis said. "For him, at that point in his career, to sign with us was something we felt was critical in legitimizing our desire to win."
Since that day in December of 2008, the Canucks have committed $175-million in long-term contracts to their key players, and have established the NHL's most stable dressing room this side of Detroit.
Embracing a no-stone-unturned, no-expense-spared mantra, the team enters the playoffs this week as odds-on favourites to win its first Stanley Cup in 40 years of NHL participation. While the Canucks have appeared in two finals, for the first time they have secured the conference title and the Presidents' Trophy for best overall record. Going into Saturday's regular-season finale in Calgary, they lead the league in goals per game (3.15), goals-against per game (2.20), power-play percentage (24.2), and faceoff percentage (55). When they score the first goal of a game, they win nearly 84 per cent of the time, an NHL-best. On any night, the Canucks can ride offence, defence, goaltending or special teams to victory.
Naturally, the city is abuzz, the most excitement it's seen since the Winter Games of February, 2010.
The franchise's steady, gradual strategy - to build around conscientious professionals dedicated to self-improvement - is personified by the 10-year veteran Sedins, identical twins from Sweden. Henrik Sedin won the league scoring championship and its most-valuable-player award last season, and brother Daniel could do the same this year.
Vancouver may be unique in that its operational strategy has remained consistent through ownership regimes and management changes, but it isn't the only franchise that has tried to construct a championship team by forming a young stable and letting it grow together. The difference is that other franchises, such as the New York Rangers, have spent their money on long-term contracts for the wrong group of players.
Operating under a firm spending cap, making poor choices can doom a team to mediocrity for years, as players with middling performance and expensive contracts become ankle weights. Other teams won't trade for them.
The Detroit Red Wings set the NHL standard as franchise builders.
The Wings made wise choices with long-term deals, and the Canucks are following suit.
The Sedins, centre Ryan Kesler, goaltender Roberto Luongo, winger Alex Burrows, and defenceman Alexander Edler are an excellent mix of scoring prowess and defensive responsibility, and they have all got better over the past few years. All-star Kesler would be a first-line player on other teams as one of the NHL's best defensive forwards, with a scoring touch. Burrows has some of the same attributes, while the oft-questioned Luongo is thriving this season, one year after helping Canada win an Olympic gold medal.
The journey has been a decade long, and impossible to ignore is the talent-procuring eras of former general managers Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, who ruled from 1998 to 2008 and now steer the Leafs. The current regime adroitly played the hand it was dealt, growing the business and the team, and turning Vancouver into an NHL destination.
"Ownership, from the moment they took over, has shown their commitment to winning, and done a brilliant job of supporting that environment and reinvesting in the product," said former Canucks president Chris Zimmerman, who left two years ago. "Both on and off the ice, it is clearly a premier franchise in the league. And it's positioned to be there for quite awhile."
The Aquilini family first invested in the Canucks and their home arena in 2004, but didn't becoming sole owners until buying out Seattle businessman John McCaw in late 2006. Chairman Francesco Aquilini declined to be interviewed for this story, as it would be appearing too close to the playoffs.
The family, which includes Francesco's two brothers, didn't begin stamping its signature on the club until early 2008, after fending off a legal challenge for half-ownership of the franchise from two prominent Vancouver businessmen. By that time, the Canucks were well into a sellout streak of home games - now an NHL-best 348 and counting - and the loonie was on its way to parity against the U.S. dollar.
On B.C.'s Lower Mainland, there were whispers of the new owner's frugality, but since hiring Gillis three years ago, the Aquilinis have yet to deny a funding request.
The budget for scouting and player development has roughly tripled since the spring of 2008, and the team's 2010-11 payroll will approach $70-million - more than $10-million above the NHL spending limit when injuries and buried salaries are included. Vancouver has operated over the cap this season because of vast injuries, and has increased its spending by roughly $15-million in the past two years.
Gillis, hired in April of 2008, commissioned studies of the team's travel by military sleep experts, and hired chefs and nutritionists to devise dietary regiments. He brought in a skills coach and a director of sports science whose duties include "everything from the emotional to physiological" well-being of the players. The team is also dabbling in advanced statistical analysis.
"It was a relentless attention to detail," Zimmerman said. "Mike has been a huge proponent of finding the little competitive advantages that create an environment where players can maximize their potential."
In essence, these were competitive expenditures that didn't count against the cap, but were designed to take advantage of the franchise's economic might and spend in areas where competitors couldn't, or wouldn't. They also sent a clear message to Canucks players, many of whom were approaching free agency, that management was serious about winning.
Concurrently, even with an overpaid Sundin sitting in the corner locker, Gillis set out to convince his players to provide hometown discounts, on the theory that cap management is pivotal to building a Cup contender. The first domino to fall was Burrows, who signed a four-year, $8-million deal in March of 2009, leaving money on the table after the Canucks informed his agent that they intended on trading him if he wasn't willing to extend his contract.
Soon thereafter, Kesler suggested Vancouver's central players should all be willing to take less money to remain together and pursue a Cup. The statement got his knuckles rapped by the NHL Players' Association, but it proved prophetic. The Sedins twins (five-years, $30.5-million each) and Luongo (12 years, $64-million) re-signed that summer, while Kesler (six years, $30-million) followed suit the next year.
"We had a great core of guys here, and you look at the management we have, you knew management was going to do whatever it takes to win," Luongo said. "So you're not worried about them saving money, and you knew they were going to try to add the pieces for us to win."
Nine Canucks have been together for at least four years, and four have been with the team since late 2003, when Kesler made his debut. That's the most in the league other than the Red Wings.
The continuity includes the bench. When training camp broke this year, 11 players had known only two NHL coaches, Alain Vigneault and Marc Crawford, and four of them apprenticed under Vigneault with the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's farm club.
Collectively, the team reaped enough cap savings re-signing its stars that there was enough leftover to add complementary parts such as defencemen Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Hamhuis, and forwards Mikael Samuelsson and Manny Malhotra, who will the miss playoffs with an eye injury.
"We only have a finite amount of money to spend," Gillis said. "If players want to play in Vancouver, and want to be part of this environment, we help them understand that there is nothing personal in how we go about [managing the cap]"