What can we learn from Canucks about building team identity?

What we’ve witnessed over the course of the last couple years in Vancouver is a masterclass of how to build a team the right way, from the top down. 

Nov 28, 2023; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet
Nov 28, 2023; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet / Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

There is much talk these days about the Vancouver Canucks finally finding an identity, after roughly a decade without one. After losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to Boston, as happens to all contenders in the cap era, players priced themselves out of the market and moved on, gradually eroding away what made the team special. 

However, the team's core remained despite their dominance fading. So what was different? At its peak, this team was known for its speed and skill. It played with confidence and swagger, which was essential for its success. The Canucks' window stayed open for a year or two after its Finals run, but it never reached the same heights.

Eventually, Alain Vigneault was fired (by ownership), and John Tortorella was hired (by ownership) against the wishes of GM Mike Gillis. This marked the beginning of ownership's meddling in the team. Their interference was akin to planting a virus into the organization's body that proved very hard to kill. It spread through the entire team, and the players were not immune. As a result, the team coming off back-to-back Presidents Trophies lost its swagger, and its identity needed to be stronger. The winning stopped. The team's identity played a vital role in its success. It is no coincidence that while it was missing for the next decade-plus, so were the wins.

I’d argue that at no point during the Benning regime's tenure did the Canucks have a strong identity. Not surprisingly, neither did they, at any moment, have strong teams. Now, two short years after his dismissal and the subsequent hiring of Jim Rutherford, Patrik Allvin, and Rick Tocchet, the team is back to one that could rival the 2011 version. And guess what else is back….a strong identity. So if the two go hand in hand, which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

Notice how when I talked about the losing versions of the team, I referred to them as having a weak identity instead of no identity? This is because every team has one, whether winners or losers. For instance, the Canucks of the last few years, that couldn’t give up a thousand breakaways, and cross-seam passes every game to save their lives, had an identity - that they were terrible and easy to play against. Although they had many great players, their poor performance was their defining characteristic. However, their team, which includes many of the same core players, is now leading the NHL standings and boasts the third-best goals-against record. So what gives?

Here’s a buzz word for you: alignment. 

As mentioned, the previous iteration of the team was entirely dysfunctional, and it started right at the top. Ownership was desperate for a winner. Not in a few years, not next year, now. It was hard enough before the introduction of the salary cap, but in today's NHL, you can't just buy a cup. And in the Canucks case, forcing things would lead to setbacks rather than progress. Frustrated fans in Vancouver were fortunate when Jim Rutherford agreed to take the job here. It can’t be overstated how pivotal this was.

Having won three Stanley Cups and been in the league since the Canucks inaugural season in 1970, Jim commands the autonomy to do things his way without meddling from above. JR understands what a healthy organization looks like, and the moment he was hired, the team’s compass began to point in the right direction. Jim hired Patrik Allvin, whom he knew well from their Pittsburgh days, and together, they hired Rick Tocchet, whom they both knew from Pittsburgh.

Yes, there’s a theme here. We all joke about how many people they love to bring in from the Penguin’s organization, but there’s merit to it. It’s not just the championship pedigree these people, be it players or staff alike, bring with them. It’s about understanding what that person is about and trusting that they are willing and able to put the team above themselves. 

The Vancouver Canucks had an impressive representation at the All-Star Game, sending six players, including Norris, Vezina, and Hart, trophy candidates. However, the presence of Jack Adam's favorite, Rick Tocchet, was notable. And while GMs aren't represented at the mid-season skills competition, Patrik Allvin deserves recognition for his exceptional performance. Allvin has made seven trades since the start of the training camp, while the rest of the league has only made 11, most of which have been minor deals.

Inversely, Allvin's trades have been for impact players, requiring significant cap gymnastics. He has revamped the bottom half of the roster, while other teams have found trades nearly impossible. Allvin has also shed millions in salary, creating valuable cap space to upgrade the roster in this final year of the flat-cap era. Virtually anything the team has needed, Allvin has found a way to get it. Seeing how complex management is working to improve the team every fraction of a percent possible should give the players confidence and motivation to perform to their potential. It has certainly played out that way on the ice. Moreover, I don't even think this is the most critical work Allvin has done.

Upon his hiring, one of the first things Allvin did was emphasize the importance of practice habits. Practicing how you want to play; practicing like champions. Tocchet wouldn’t be hired for another year when we first heard him preach about this. There was also much emphasis and scrutiny put on the leadership group. Bo Horvat had been captain for almost five years and was a fine player, but it was identified that a change needed to be made. It was made, forcing a shift in the dynamic of the locker room.

Some people wanted to see the likes of J.T. Miller named captain, but Allvin and Rutherford knew better. From the get-go, we heard two names mentioned over and over as the next player to don the C: Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. JR and Allvin recognized that empowering the young core to take the reins and lead the team could push them to maximize their potential. Ultimately, Quinn became captain, and look at the level-up we’ve seen in his game this year. He went from a remarkable young D-man to Norris favorite in one summer. More than that, the entire leadership group has bought in, demanding the same from every other player.

The coach, unanimously coveted by management, has respect from below and support from above. At his request, his players showed up in the best shape of their lives weeks and months before training camp to show their belief and dedication to winning. Everyone collectively is pulling in the same direction for the first time in a long time. Practices have changed dramatically, not only regarding players but coaches as well. Suddenly, at any given skate, a Canucks player can be found working with any one of the several Hall of Famers or cup champs. Aside from Tocchet himself, there's Adam Foote, Sergei Gonchar, Henrik Sedin, and Daniel Sedin, to name a few. Not to mention, Ian Clark is working with the goalies. 

Management took a lot of heat around the departure of Bruce Boudreau. Much like with Bo and the captaincy, they had a vision and stuck to it. Nobody’s giving them any flack now. For all the flowers being thrown at them for their wheeling and dealing, the best move they’ve made was hiring Rick Tocchet.

Tocchet is the X-factor in all of this. Like how Lindholm was acquired before the trade deadline to give him and the team ample time to develop chemistry, Rick's early arrival last year allowed him to establish relationships and set expectations with the players. This has resulted in tremendous success for the team. He has earned the respect of his players and convinced them that they can win.

The foundation of this winning culture was laid through Rick's "non-negotiable staples," such as fitness, accountability, earning your ice, playing with structure, and celebrating teammates. As the team has adopted these values, Tocchet has challenged them further to "learn to play tired," "play uncomfortable," and "meet pressure with pressure." Although his old-school style precedes him, he is a progressive coach with strong bonds with his players. His honesty in the media and refreshing dialogue have been compelling, and it's evident how much he loves talking hockey. His dedication to winning is undeniable. 

On the "Spittin' Chiclets" podcast last week, Brock Boeser highlighted that Tocchet is the first one on the ice at practice, working with every player regardless of their position in the lineup.

For the first time as a fan, I’m rooting as much for the coach as any particular player. He is my most vital connection to this team. The new identity of the Canucks no doubt starts with Rutherford and Allvin and is visible through the players, but to find the heart of it, look no further than Rick Tocchet. 

When establishing team identity, we've seen that it's essential to consider various critical off-ice factors. Instead of viewing the team and organization as separate entities, seeing them as one cohesive unit working together toward a common objective is essential. This preparation and collaboration are crucial long before setting foot on the ice.

Digging deeper, we see the alignment doesn’t stop here. Even in Abbotsford, the same structure is in place, so when players are called upon to play for the big club, they are equipped to hit the ground running. Unlike in the past, the next generation of players is not being rushed into the NHL. They are given ample time to gain experience and learn the standard they will be expected to maintain when it's their time.


This version of the Canucks has shown us what a healthy organization looks like, with alignment from top to bottom. They have shown us how a strong identity is built.