If Gillis proves to be a winning decision for the Aquilinis, then no one will care that he might have been indirectly lobbying for Nonis’s job behind the scenes months prior to his predecessor’s dismissal or that he was less than forthright and candid about when he met Aquilini. If Gillis is a failure, then the circumstances around his hiring will not be good for his reputation or future job prospects; it may also make it more difficult for Aquilini to hire a quality GM down the road. But ultimately, all Canucks fans care about is having a winning team and a quality organization that puts victories above everything else. “And that’s what we want and that’s what I know Mike will build here,” says Aquilini. “Lurching from season to season with no coherent plan – that’s what we won’t tolerate as owners. We will spend whatever it takes to build a top-quality organization.”
When Aquilini first told his good friend Frank Giustra he was going to buy half of the Canucks, the West Vancouver billionaire warned him that his life would change dramatically. “I told him he was going to be in the spotlight constantly,” Giustra recalls. “And it won’t always be pleasant or fun. I wanted to be sure he thought that through. Up until that time, Francesco was a fairly private person, perhaps even more so than me. So I wanted to prepare him for what to expect.” Giustra is among a small but close group of Aquilini’s friends that includes shipping magnate Kyle Washington and investment guru Bob Cross. Realtor Bob Rennie, who markets and sells virtually all of the Aquilini condo projects, says of the group, “Frank Giustra has his billionaire boys club and Francesco is one of the members of it.”
The truth is, nothing can properly ready a person for intense scrutiny from the media. And despite the sage advice from Giustra, Aquilini was not ready for the sometimes harsh treatment he’s received from local media, especially at the Sun and Province. Aquilini reads everything said about him with a lawyer’s eye. He’s phoned Kevin Bent, publisher for both papers, several times to demand corrections when stories have contained erroneous information. And Aquilini has almost always got his corrections.
He’s so angry with the way he was portrayed during the Canucks trial that he hired Sun legal affairs columnist Ian Mulgrew to ghostwrite his autobiography. The book doesn’t have a publisher yet, which doesn’t concern Aquilini. “I want the record set straight, if nothing else, for my kids and my grandchildren,” he says of his vanity press project. He is particularly upset with the treatment he’s received at the hands of columnists Cam Cole and Ed Willes. “These are two guys who have a lot of fear,” says Aquilini. “These are guys who are afraid of their own shadows. But they do this stuff on a consistent basis because of who they are as people, and I’m not going to change that.”
Cole did not want to comment on Aquilini’s remark. Responds Willes: “I have no idea what he’s talking about...then again, he probably gets that a lot.” A widely circulated rumour in the Province newsroom was that Aquilini tried to get Willes fired over columns he wrote about the Nonis affair. Aquilini says that’s not true, that he only suggested to the publisher that Willes could “better serve the paper in another department.”
“I think Francesco is learning fast what it means to be the owner of the hockey team in this city,” says Bob Rennie. “He cared a little too much about what people were saying about him in the media. As soon as you don’t care what they’re saying, it gets a lot easier. But it takes time for people to understand that. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin first. And I think Francesco is starting to develop a few calluses here and there.”
Aquilini pulls his silver Range Rover into a parking spot right outside the front doors of Templeton Secondary, his old school. He walks into the office of the school’s vice-principal Walter Mustapich, who is there with teacher Jim Crescenzo. Both went to Templeton with the Canucks owner when he was known as Frank.
It isn’t long before they’re all talking about Templeton’s acclaimed mentoring program, where members of the community who have made a success of their lives come and talk to kids considered at risk. Often the teenagers come from homes where both parents are crack addicts; just as often, the kids, who are mostly boys, are gang members. One day last year, Aquilini and Frank Giustra came and spoke to a dozen boys in the First Nations Sacred Room. The kids eventually opened up about their lives and home environments. “And the kids still talk about the game you took them to,” says Crescenzo.
Aquilini has hosted a group of Templeton kids a couple of times at Canucks games. On the last occasion, he had the kids show up in suits and ties. Among the group were two boys who were in opposing gangs. They hadn’t talked since getting into a fight earlier in the year. “That night there was a peace treaty drawn with Francesco,” says Crescenzo. “The two boys walked out of that game and the blood is no longer boiling and the peace treaty was done. It meant so much to them that this person who is so important actually gave a shit about their lives.”
When he gets back behind the wheel of his car, Aquilini becomes reflective about the kids at Templeton. “You know,” he says, “if you want to know what maybe the greatest thing about owning the Canucks is, it’s suddenly being able to make a difference in kids’ lives. Just by making yourself available, and by virtue of your position, you can help get a kid back on the right course. I know it sounds a little corny, but you wouldn’t believe how good that can make you feel.” Aquilini takes one last, long look at the school, spotting the window to the office where, 30 years earlier, a principal had told his parents he wouldn’t amount to much. He can, on that level, relate to kids at the school today, many of whom are being bombarded with the message they’re never going to make it. Like them, Aquilini had his share of fights. In some ways, he’s been battling ever since.
He takes a left out of the parking lot and squints against the harsh, bright sun. After years of living in the shadows – of the Coliseum, of his imposing father – Francesco Aquilini has moved into the spotlight that comes with owning the Canucks. Now if he can just get his hands on the Stanley Cup.