by Brian Beitz
Now that we have all had a little time to recover from the shock of the Cody Hodgson trade and the vendetta-driven deathmatch that was his return to Rogers Arena on Saturday, I think it’s time we all took a moment to reflect on the man who made these events happen, Mike Gillis. One thing we at Smug Nation have learned over the past few years as Canucks fans is never to try and anticipate what Mike Gillis is going to do. If the NHL was an 80’s action film, Gillis would be the aging loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules. From startling trades to curious inactivity, Gillis has displayed what can only be referred to as sheer smugnacity in his approach to managing this team. But, as you may have predicted, Gillis’s unpredictability is becoming a bit predictable, in that we can now predict how he will act when doing unpredictable things. You see, Smug Nation has discovered that Canucks fans should treat Mike Gillis like the poker player he truly is.
I have always felt that many of the best poker players display skills that would make them formidable business managers. From insight into the people around them to the ability to keep a steady hand in a high-pressured situation to quietly patting your server on the ass when she brings you your cocktail, a poker player has the savvy and moxie that really separates the men from the boys in the business world (by the way, everything you need to know about business, you can learn from watching Mad Men). Never is this more apparent than with Mike Gillis. Lately, watching him, I’m beginning to wonder if I should be asking him for gambling tips, because the man would make a phenomenal poker player.
Here are the 5 poker-playing traits Gillis displays on a consistent basis:
1. Never Tip Your Hand:
This is the first rule of poker. Don’t show other people your cards. You can master pretty much every other aspect of the game, but showing people your cards will still leave you at a significant disadvantage. In this respect, Gillis is a natural card shark. Coaches have been developing this skill for years, be it for starting goalies or injury updates—having “concussion-like symptoms” is somewhat akin to having “broken leg-like symptoms.” This was seen most recently when Gillis was asked if Cody Hodgson asked the team for a trade. The GM stated plainly, “Things that happen behind closed doors in our offices are not for public consumption…. I’m not going to discuss it.”
Simple, prudent, and to the point. This move allows Cody Hodgson to save face in front of the fans who would quickly turn on a player who asked not to represent their fanbase and allows Gillis not to be viewed in a bad light by players who may be looking to play for Vancouver in the future. This is a good move by a savvy GM that knows there is really no way to win in that situation. But then, any GM would do the same. Right?
2. Keep a Good Poker Face:
Pretty simple, right? When you play cards, don’t let your face give anything away.
This is a natural gift of the big man in the Canucks organization. Whether the team is scoring a game-winning goal in the playoffs or say, allowing 3 goals on 7 shots in the opening 5 minutes of a game, Gillis has that same look: like someone just drank the last cup of coffee, even though someone put up a clever Inception-based sign (looking at you, Gilman!). The only thing Mike Gillis’s weathered face reveals is that he likes late nights, beer, and trans fats.
I say kudos, MG. There is nothing worse than a camera shot of a GM celebrating a 2-0 goal in the 1st period of Game 32 of the regular season. Like my grandma always said, “Sit up straight and act like you’ve been somewhere.”
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Run with Undervalued Cards:
If the price is right, don’t hesitate to play a “weak” hand. Do you know what hand beats pocket aces more than any other? 6,8 off-suit. Gillis loves this philosophy, as we saw when he signed free agent Chris Tanev to a league-minimum entry-level contract after a year playing for the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers. From Andrew Ebbett to Byron Bitz to Dale Weisse, GMMG loves to load up on undervalued talent in the hopes that they provide some surprising results. Sure, it may not always work out—*cough* Marco Sturm *cough*—but it pays off enough times to be worthwhile. In the case of Tanev, Gillis definitely caught a break on the river.
4. Know How to Read Your Opponent:
Nothing determines a poker player’s game more than the ability to read the player sitting opposite. Predicting what cards someone is holding, when they are willing to take a risk, and what they value are obvious strengths, are skills that obviously translate to a General Manager position, most notably in trade and salary negotiations. While Gillis’s trades have not all been of the “Zdeno Chara and a 1st for Alexei Yashin” variety, he always seems to get fair value (or better) for what he puts out there. Be it getting Christian Ehrhoff for a couple low-ranking prospects or picking up David Booth and Steven Reinprecht for Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson, Gillis always seems to come out with a key piece the Canucks need or a key piece they need be without. It’s his ability to read the GM he’s dealing with that makes Gillis the Biff Tannen to Dale Tallon’s George McFly (at the beginning of the film, of course—let’s just hope Tallon doesn’t buy himself a Delorean).
5. Don’t Get Pot-Committed:
If you ever get into a hand where you feel you’ve probably got the losing cards, but you’ve put so much money into the pot that you decide to keep going anyway, you’ve become pot-committed. See that guy across from you wiping drool off his chin? It’s not because of the beef jerky in your pocket; he’s going to take your money. GMs get pot-committed more times than I care to count. They invest money and reputation in a player or strategy and ride that baby until they’re putting their grandpa’s gold watch on the table and insisting they’re good for the rest.
Don’t believe me? Look at Brian Burke in Toronto. Burke came on as GM insisting that there wasn’t going to be a 5-year rebuild in Toronto, that he wasn’t going to blow up the team but rather add some pugnacity. Well here the Leafs are, 4 years later, on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again. Had Burke been willing to admit they weren’t on the right path earlier, that they should have sought smugnacity instead, maybe you see a different Leafs squad right now.
Gillis doesn’t know the meaning of pot-committed (metaphorically—of course, he knows the term; he’s a phenomenal poker player). When Mike Gillis moved Marco “bionic knees” Sturm, his only big-name free agent signing in 2011, to Florida a measly 6 games into the season, he was doing what many are loath to do: acknowledging a mistake. If that wasn’t enough, Gillis very recently moved the first first-round draft pick he made after joining the Canucks. GMs are graded largely on their ability to get their own draft picks into the lineup and develop them into strong players, and the man moved the most publicized pick the Canucks had made since taking Ryan Kesler 23rd overall in 2003. Why did he do this? Because he believed that he had invested in a very strong piece that was no longer the right fit for his organization. The word for that is ballsy.
With all the talk of the NHL possibly inheriting the NBA’s so-called amnesty clause, you wonder how many GMs could actually walk away from an error so soon after making it. Mike Gillis could—he knows that the trick is not only to walk away from a bad hand but also to be ready to walk away from a good hand. You can lose with those too.