Never did Jim Rutherford think building a new practice facility for the Vancouver Canucks would be this hard.
That’s what he concedes right off the top when asked if there are any updates on the search for a practice facility for his NHL team.
Almost from the moment he was hired in December 2021, the Canucks’ president of hockey operations had vowed that his team could no longer be a true outlier in the NHL — his team needed control of its own training centre.
His words echoed those spoken by two previous management regimes. There was even a joke made by those who have been around the team over the years that one of the selling points in signing collegiate free agent Chris Tanev in 2010 was that the team would soon be opening its own practice facility.
And yet, here we are, at the end of 2023, with nary a permanent facility in sight. Yes, the Canucks once had a deal at Burnaby 8 Rinks, but that partnership ended in 2010 over the costs of potential renovations.
“You asked me what I’ve learned since I’ve been here … I learned that there’s no land in Vancouver and if there is, yeah, it’s costly,” Rutherford acknowledged Monday when asked for an update to the team’s search for ice. “To sum up your question, I would say we’re trying to use one of the local rinks and build our own needs around the dressing room and the workout — strength and conditioning — facilities. To me, that appears like the best way to do it.”
It hasn’t been about convincing Canucks ownership either, he insisted. The Aquilinis have been ready and willing to invest in a new property.
“Francesco (Aquilini) is totally on board as to getting a practice rink, however we do that. And there has been some options of parcels of land where we could possibly build one. But then it really doesn’t go anywhere. So I do know that we’re going to be able to figure out how to take a local rank and build what our needs are onto that.”
For most of the time since Rutherford took over, when the Canucks have had to practise away from Rogers Arena because of a concert or Warriors lacrosse game, they have used the facilities at the University of B.C. When a concert takes over Rogers, they truly do: most often not even the team’s own gym or medical facilities at Rogers are available because those areas end up as part of the concert’s backstage access area.
There was a brief return to Burnaby several seasons ago, but with most of the team’s players now living on the west side of Vancouver, or downtown, commuting out east wasn’t exactly well-received by the players. Nor have visiting teams appreciated the long slog from downtown or from the airport to get to what’s now known as Scotia Barn.
Being convenient to where the team and its players are based and, to a lesser extent, reasonably convenient to the airport, remain the leading factors to consider.
There have been talks between Canucks ownership and Simon Fraser University in the past — there are people on campus who have varsity hockey ambitions and Canucks chairman Francesco Aquilini is a proud SFU alum — but the Burnaby Mountain campus is remote from the airport and a long way from where the players live. The Doug Mitchell centre has a number of spaces they lease out, such as the dressing rooms and workout areas that St. George’s School’s prep hockey program uses.
When the Canucks practise at UBC, they are using Saints’ spaces.
There are not a lot of options for land on the west side of Vancouver, but there is space around the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre — such as a small, old surface parking lot just west of the Father Bauer Arena — that could be built on if the Canucks were interested in establishing a permanent presence on the Point Grey campus.
“We wouldn’t control the rink. We would control our part of a facility that we would build, and then as far as the rink goes, for the most part, we’re in those rinks when no one else is anyways, it’s not prime time in there. Now if we get to a point where we potentially would have development camp, our training camp there, then you get into some of that. And you’d have to work that out,” he said.
One could imagine at that point looking to find a way to add another ice sheet.
At least as far as finalizing plans for an off-ice facility, Rutherford does believe they are getting close.
“I feel pretty confident that by the end of the season, we’ll have figured out where we’re going to go, and then how long it will take to build what we need to build. I don’t know how long that takes,” he said.
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