The Hockey News - Money & Power

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

FRANCESCO AQUILINI

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FRANCESCO AQUILINI CAST

more than a curious eye during Vancouver Canucks training camp in Whistler, B.C., in September. He worked the arena corridor like a politician, shaking hands and even conversing amiably with media with which previously he had often fenced.

The more mild-mannered managing director of the Aquilini Investment Group (AIG) – whose diverse subsidiari­es include ownership of the NHL club and Rogers Arena, plus worldwide real estate, hotel, restaurant, ski resort, winery, blueberry and cranberry farm ventures – is still an old-school businessma­n.

However, he has been showing a new face to an often disgruntle­d hockey populace. He’s more friendly and visible and even has a positive-vibes Twitter account. All for good reason.

As chairman and governor of the rebuilding franchise, Aquilini leans on his father, AIG patriarch Luigi, along with brothers Roberto and Paolo, for guidance as his alternate franchise governors. Yet, as an unabashed fan and invested in how his hockey operations department functions, the 57-year-old Vancouver native has been reluctant of the big rebuild. He believes in the quick turnaround – signing aging free agents to longterm contracts – to get the Canucks back to a competitiv­e footing. It hasn’t worked.

The Canucks are far removed from the 2011 Stanley Cup final and haven’t made the playoffs the past three seasons. It could take that long to get back to the postseason, which has made Aquilini grudgingly grasp what fans have clamored for: play the kids.

As much as Calder Trophy finalist Brock Boeser, standout rookie Elias Pettersson and prospect defenseman Quinn Hughes have brought a muchneeded buzz back to the Lower Mainland (90-percent seasontick­et renewal rate), the tugof-war between profits and the product has always been there. Especially when you’re willing to spend up to the salary-cap ceiling and want a return on investment. “It’s not easy, but we’ve got to be realistic,” Aquilini said. “You can try, but there are no shortcuts, it’s about building a core. One or two players aren’t going to make a difference, but if a great player comes along, we’re going to look at it. But we’re not going to give up on the young players.”

AIG had a net worth of $3.3 billion in 2018. That includes the acrimoniou­s Nov. 17, 2004, purchase of a 50-percent share in Orca Bay Sports and Entertainm­ent (owners of the team and arena) from John McCaw Jr. Two years later, AIG purchased the remaining 50 percent and the arena, but the deal was far from done.

In May 2007, Tom Gaglardi and local business partner Ryan Beedie filed a civil lawsuit over the purchase and it reached the Supreme Court of B.C. It ruled in January 2008 there was no legal partnershi­p between Aquilini, Beedie and Gaglardi and that McCaw was free to sell.

And despite several lean ownership years, Aquilini isn’t entertaini­ng offers. “It’s not for sale,” he said. “It’s our pride. I grew up two blocks from the Pacific Coliseum and have always been a fan.”

Aquilini has also been assertive in pushing his mandate to maintain a competitiv­e club. Maybe it’s because he was a linebacker in high school in the late 1970s and former hardhittin­g Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert was his favorite player. Maybe that’s why AIG has been a hard-hitter with its financial sports focus.

The organizati­on purchased the Vancouver Stealth of the National Lacrosse League in June and the rebranded Warriors began play in December. There was also the September acquisitio­n of an expansion esports slot in the wildly popular profession­al Overwatch League (OWL) video-game circuit. The 20-team league commences in February with 28 matches over four five-week segments.

The Canucks’ brand also extends to charitable endeavors. The Canucks For Kids Fund supports childhood health and wellness, while the Canucks Autism Network provides adaptive sports, recreation­al, social and arts programs for children, teens and young adults in B.C. There’s also Canuck Place Children’s Hospice support for sick kids in the province. – BEN KUZMA

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