Cover story: From professional hockey player to business aficionado, to foster care advocate—Trevor Linden leads on and off the ice
The Canucks’ breakaway star
By Eric Mackenzie
There are few people as synonymous with Vancouver as Trevor Linden. One of the most popular players in Canucks history, famously captaining the team within a game of a Stanley Cup title in 1994, he enjoyed a 20-year National Hockey League career that started and finished in British Columbia and included a stint as NHL Players’ Association president.
After branching out into business ventures post-retirement, Linden is now preparing for his third season as the Canucks’ president of hockey operations, having returned to the franchise in 2014.
Yet Linden’s impact in the city and province reach far beyond the rink. That’s why his Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia citations acknowledge his humanitarianism and community engagement. Linden has been a differencemaker in the lives of many—young people in particular—through both the Canucks and his own Trevor Linden Foundation.
With the weeks winding down to a new NHL season, Linden took some time out of his busy summer schedule to sit down with Megaphone and discuss some issues close to his heart—philanthropy, community, and of course, a little bit of hockey.
Eric Mackenzie: Now that you’ve had more than two years in the front-office role, what has been the most enjoyable part of the job?
Trevor Linden: It’s interesting. I’m starting my third year and obviously had no false illusions of what we were in for. I understood we had a lot of work to do. But for me I think I’ve seen the transition from an older group into starting to integrate some young players, if you think of [Sven] Baertschi and [Markus] Granlund and [Bo] Horvat and [Jake] Virtanen, and [Ben] Hutton, and even seeing some of the kids we’ve drafted, watching Brock Boeser and the [Thatcher] Demko and [Guillaume] Brisebois—these kids grow and come back to development camp every year. That for me is probably most exciting—seeing the kids [progress]. From our ’14 draft, we’ve had three players from that draft play in our lineup—[Nikita] Tryamkin was another one. So that’s cool to see.The whole building of a team is a uniqueprocess and I enjoy that. I enjoy seeingthe maturation of these young players.
EM: You have really made an effort to solicit feedback from Canucks fans over the past couple of years. What have been your takeaways from engaging with them a little bit more?
TL: We try to listen. The concerns vary—in-bowl entertainment, the music. There are various concerns. But the one thing we always come back to is we’ve got a great, passionate fan base that cares. That’s really encouraging. So it’s pretty cool to have that opportunity. They understand—[I hear] a lot of positive comments while I’m out. “Hey, see what you’re doing, I know it’s not perfect yet.” They can kind of see the direction we’re going and it’s encouraging, but there are going to be some peaks and valleys as we go and I think a lot of the fans understand that.
EM: We want to talk a bit about your work in the community today. Can you tell me about some of the work the Trevor Linden Foundation is doing that you’re excited about?
TL: When I look back, I came to Vancouver as an 18-year-old kid and had no idea about philanthropy, community, giving back. I had never been part of it. So I came to Vancouver and was part of this organization, and it was Arthur Griffiths and Pat Quinn who really set the standard for this organization of where that goes. Pat was adamant that we not only were hard-working and dedicated on the ice, but we were that off the ice to the community. Arthur Griffiths’s vision to build Canuck Place was a dream. I remember thinking, “How are we going to raise all this money? How are we going to do this?” Through his vision, hard work, and dedication, I was there when they announced the concept and I was there when we opened the doors to Canuck Place in 1994. Twenty-plus years later, we’re still making a difference in the lives of kids and families around B.C. So that was my introduction to it, and I was fortunate to be surrounded by good people like Stan Smyl, Doug Lidster, Richie Sutter, and these guys who kind of led the way for me. That culture that tradition has continued in this organization. Now we have Daniel and Henrik Sedin who are quietly the most incredible people off the ice about where they give and how they give and what they do. They’re now teaching the Sven Baertschis and Bo Horvats and Jake Virtanens and Ben Huttons that this is the way we do it. Our guys, they don’t do it because they have to. They don’t do it because they feel an obligation. They do it because they want to and it’s important to them that they make a difference in this community. We get coaches, managers, or players who come from organizations that are blown away by what happens with this organization—the commitment this group has to making a difference. And so, for me personally, having my introduction to that in the early ’90s and creating the Trevor Linden Foundation— we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re trying to support the various groups out there that are making a difference, and my role has kind of changed with the Trevor Linden Foundation, kind of shifted gears after I retired to working with at-risk youth and doing some mentorship programs and supporting groups like the Vancouver Foundation and the foster care programs and how we can make change there. For me, it’s been rewarding, it’s been a real privilege to be able to work with young people that have been dealt challenging situations in life—broken families and single-parent homes and (they) haven’t had the same opportunity many of us have had. To be able to make a small difference in their lives has been really rewarding for me.
EM: You mentioned some of your work with the Vancouver Foundation— in particular with First Call and Fostering Change, working with kids aging out of care. Why is that an important initiative for you?
TL: Because I think about how I grew up in Medicine Hat, and I didn’t have a lot, but I had two awesome, committed parents, two brothers, a tremendous foundation for my youth. But then, it’s interesting. I left home at 18 and came to Vancouver, and I was completely unprepared to be an adult, if you will. But I had a tremendous support group around me. I had Pat Quinn, I had a coaching staff, I had Stan Smyl, I had players. I had people who cared about me and gave me that network. I think about an 18-year-old foster child aging out of care and being just [told], “OK, there you go.” That’s not the way it should be. That’s a recipe for disaster. If I was just turned loose in Vancouver without that support network, I can’t imagine where or what I would have gotten up to, and I had the benefit of coming from a solid family. I think these kids deserve a better opportunity than just being aged out. Working with the Vancouver Foundation—a tremendous group of people who care—if we can make a difference, if at 18 you can give them that support network for a few more years that gives them a chance to integrate themselves into society and figure out where they need to go and what they need to be, I just think it’s what we need to do as a society, so that’s where that started.
EM: How do you think you can effect change in that area and help some of those kids aging out of care?
TL: It’s just about supporting the cause. I think it’s about lending my voice to that. It involves many different organizations— the provincial government, the City of Vancouver, and that sort of thing. But I think the Vancouver Foundation is such a caring group and if I can support them in what they’re doing—I’ve been to some of their fundraisers, and meeting some of these kids is what’s incredible. I’ve met so many kids that have been dealt the toughest of tough circumstances in their childhoods. Their stories of overcoming and going to school or trade school or college are incredible. That’s the support we need. There are various smaller groups that are providing support, whether it be shelter and education and support networks for these kids.
EM: How else has the foundation been able to support at-risk youth?
TL: The Boys Club, which is an East Vancouver group that is just a tremendous organization. Same type of thing—taking a group of adolescent boys and giving them some structure and some guidance and mentoring. I had positive role models in my life back in Medicine Hat, whether it be my dad or my mom or my hockey coaches, or even some of the kids I knew in the neighbourhood who were hockey players— and that’s all I thought about, was being a hockey player. I think we underestimate the importance of young people—a 15- or 16-year-old boy who maybe doesn’t have contact with his father, or comes from challenging circumstances—giving them some direction and some path to follow, to say: “That’s the way I need to go.” At that age, there are so many forks in the road that can lead you down the wrong way. If you can provide some structure and some direction for some of these kids, it can be pretty impactful, and that’s a group I’ve done some work with for years. They do a tremendous job and it’s very grassroots and very real. It’s about teaching kids what it means to have character and have discipline, to do things that are honourable and right, and how to treat women and how to be respectful. Those are things that sometimes we take for granted because we just naturally had that because we were lucky enough to be in great families. That’s all it is. I look at myself and I was lucky as could be that I had that opportunity, where a lot of these kids got a bad deal. So you just try to give them a chance.
EM: Coming back to the Canucks in a formal role has given you a chance to re-engage with some of the franchise’s community work, too. Does that almost feel like getting back to your roots a bit?
TL: Yeah, I mean, the Canucks for Kids Fund—incredible. Thirty years, $50 million. It’s certainly grown tremendously. We’ve kind of gone from Canuck Place, BC Children’s Hospital, which is a huge beneficiary, the CAN [Canucks Autism Network] group, the Downtown Eastside [Canucks Family Education] Centre. There are so many areas where we can effect change. That’s a real pillar of what this organization is about, making a difference in the community. It’s just the fabric of what we do, and the reward comes when you’re in Prince George for training camp and a woman comes up to you with tears in her eyes and says, “Thank you.” And you say, “Well, thank you for what?” And then she tells you a story about the difference the Canucks Autism Network has made in their family’s life, that not only has it helped their child integrate into activities and allowed them to play sports and have a normal life, but it’s also given the family some respite, some help, support and programs and care. That’s where the payoff is, for sure.
EM: Heading into a new season, what excites you most about what you’ve done over the summer?
TL: We continue to transition the group. I look at the youth, and one challenge we had was we had very few players in that 20 to 25 age group when we took over, and our prospect pool, we needed to replenish that. So I look at where we are now and the youth and I think of our defence. So we’ve got a younger group there. Alex Edler’s our oldest guy, and he’s 30 years old. That’s encouraging. Seeing the likes of (Emerson) Etem and Granlund and Virtanen and (Anton) Rodin and Horvat and Baertschi—that younger, core group hopefully developing, and the ability to hopefully add Demko and Boeser and (Olli) Juolevi and Brisebois down the road. The Troy Stechers of the world and seeing where they end up. So I’m encouraged. The thing for our group is that we had a tough year last year. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses. We just had a tough year for many reasons. But I think with the changes we’ve made, the addition of Loui (Eriksson), I like our goaltending, I think our defence is in order. Our challenge is going to be: Can we score enough goals? We have to be better on the power play. But I’m excited because I know one thing—the game is played on the ice. We could sit here today and put all the depth charts on the wall and pick a team that’s going to win, but then we might as well not even bother playing the year. That’s why we play and that’s why I’m excited.