I know what it’s like in an organization to be the Dead Man Walking, when you know in your heart that your stint is up and that it’s only a matter of time before it’s all made formal.
It felt like an eternity for the deed to be done and the departure to be set. But I can at least say my episode proved professional and was nothing like the disgracing, degrading, depressing organizational humiliation we are publicly witnessing now with the Vancouver Canucks and their soon-to-be-departing coach Bruce Boudreau.
Boudreau, who revived the team when he arrived last season mid-year, appears to have been able to furnish that mojo for only so long with the roster he has. He will be made the latest fall guy for what has been a decade of trades that didn’t work and contracts that overcompensated and handcuffed the operational flexibility.
The dismissal of Boudreau would be typical business – hockey coaches are hired to be fired, generally speaking – if he weren’t being so transparently and gruesomely kicked and kicked and kicked to the curb. His boss, team president Jim Rutherford, let it be known this week that he’s been talking to potential replacements but that Boudreau “is our coach now.”
“Now,” as in: “until, you know, we can figure out the best day to replace him.”
As a business, this is bad business. The players like their coach in a way they didn’t his predecessor and may not his successor. The fans are rooting for him, shouting “Bruce, there it is” when the team builds a late-game lead. Boudreau has been one of the National Hockey League’s most adept regular-season coaches, but he must wonder regularly how and why he signed on to this.
The Canucks have to be the city’s most successful unsuccessful business.
Each day the team does not relieve him of duties is a day he won’t get back. I know he is earning a seven-figure salary, but even millionaires can be mistreated. It is a publicly tortuous spectacle that has made the Canucks the news of the league for all the wrong reasons.
What Boudreau has faced repeatedly is Rutherford publicly questioning his lack of structure, revealing that he didn’t know he’d have to employ him this season, and damning him Monday without even any faint praise.
The shabby handling of a consummate professional has worsened what was already the team’s pedestrian reputation in the sport. Given the team’s importance in shaping the cultural identity of the community, it reflects poorly on the broader image beyond the market. Why would anyone want to sign on when this is how you might be treated?
Ever since its Game Seven defeat in the 2011 Stanley Cup final – an event further diminished by the riot that followed – the team has been searching for a way back to finally win its first Cup. A dozen years later, the team is no closer to that goal than on that sorrowful 2011 night.
Vancouver has dug its own hole, and just when it seems like it might crawl out, seems to find a new shovel and new place to bore a new one.
The club’s owner, Francesco Aquilini, most certainly has its best interests at heart. He is an ultra-competitive business person unafraid of the big move, as evidenced a year ago when he eviscerated the management team and installed what can confidently be called its most competent upper management in memory.
Trouble was, it came too late. The bad contracts involving players past their prime stacked the odds against success. There was no fiscal manoeuvrability to do much more than fiddle at the edges of a team with an exciting set of leading players but a deficient supporting cast.
Rather than take the place down to the studs, the Canucks opted for paint job after paint job.
Now it finds itself in the worst possible place any business could: cognizant of the need for profound change, of “major surgery” as Rutherford puts it, but rendered inert fiscally to prevent proper investment. Even worse, it acknowledges that some of its best players may need to go to eventually build the financial room necessary to furnish a better overall lineup within budget – that a mediocre team might be worse before it is better.
Like any business’ shareholders, the fans aren’t going to take well to a bad patch when they were promised imminent prosperity.
For his part, Boudreau says he’ll keep coming to work every day until they tell him not to. Memo to Bruce: Walk into the boss’s office and say this treatment means the team can expect this certain firing to be the floor of a settlement with a pretty high ceiling. Life is too short to be on a leash like his, and it wouldn’t be wrong to bite the hand that’s been feeding you and promising to yank it away.
Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.