Aquilini to Canucks fans: Don’t “diss” Jim Benning

Oct 14 2021, 9:27 pm

Francesco Aquilini made a rare media appearance on Wednesday.

Prior to the Vancouver Canucks’ opening game of the 2021-22 season, the team owner spoke to Satiar Shah, Dan Riccio, and Randip Janda of The People’s Show on Sportsnet 650.

Aquilini spoke about a number of topics in the near 25-minute interview. He said he was disappointed about last year’s results, but he believes in the team moving forward.

“I think this is more of a team that we saw in the bubble; than we saw last year,” said Aquilini, who added that he would be “really disappointed” if the Canucks don’t make the playoffs this season.

The Canucks haven’t made the playoffs much of late, of course. The team has made the postseason just once in the last six years, and only twice during Jim Benning’s seven-year tenure as Canucks general manager.

Aquilini, who has had a reputation for having a quick trigger finger at times, has shown remarkable patience with Benning. When asked why, Aquilini continued to preach patience, but also said the team needs to take the “next step.”

“Jim has a vision of how to build this team. So I want to follow through with that,” said Aquilini. “These things take time. It’s not something that you can cut corners, or shortcuts, [like] build a team through free agents. It doesn’t work. What we’ve done is we’ve drafted a lot of these young players, and now they’re starting to come into their own… Now is the point where we need to take the next step.”

Ironically, “cutting corners” has been a criticism for much of Benning’s tenure by this management group’s harshest critics. The team has traded draft picks with regularity, including first rounders in each of the last two drafts for the first time in Canucks history.

Credit to Aquilini, if nothing else, he has stuck by his guy.

Fans were in crisis mode just one month into last season, long before COVID-19 ripped through the Canucks’ dressing room. Many people were calling for Benning to be fired, and instead, Aquilini backed him publicly.

“I can understand the passion of the fans… But dissing people, second-guessing every decision they make, I don’t agree with that,” Aquilini said. “That’s why I went on Twitter and backed Jim. Things take their time, and now we’ve reached the point where we’re going to see some results.

“Right now, I’m backing Jim and if you’re going to diss anybody, diss me. Jim is doing his job. These are very difficult circumstances. This is not easy.”

Two months after Aquilini’s tweet, a group of fans took things a step further by protesting Canucks management with a “Fire Benning” banner that flew around the city. After the season ended in May, an “Aquilini out” banner took flight, as a small group of fans held a protest outside Rogers Arena.

“I think that’s a cheap shot. I think it’s no class,” Aquilini said about the Fire Benning banner. “People that do that have got too much time on their hands. At the same time, he has a family. Would you want to see your husband or your father getting hung out like that? It’s just low budget, no class. That’s what I think.”

When will Rogers Arena be full again?

Aquilini described the last year as the “toughest year in business” he has ever had to deal with.

The Canucks laid off a majority of their office staff during the pandemic and needed to go on a hiring spree this summer to fill positions.

Everyone in the organization is eagerly anticipating the return of fans, which hasn’t been possible for a regular season game in Vancouver since March 10, 2020.

But as 31 NHL teams have been cleared to host games at full capacity, the Canucks have not. Aquilini called the situation “odd.”

“Right now, we’re 50 percent, and we’re the only arena in North America to have not at full capacity, which is odd. You can question that,” Aquilini said.

“I’d like to see 100 percent, obviously. But that’s going to be up to the provincial health officer to decide that. My understanding is there’s some indication that will be changed by the time we have our opening game. I think that eventually, it’s going to get there because we’re the only team. I think, by default, we’ll have to get there.”

BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry did give hope for the Canucks to play games at full capacity earlier this week. Henry said the “intent” was to have 100% capacity for sporting events once fans were required to be fully vaccinated. That day is October 24 in BC, just two days before the Canucks’ home opener on October 26.

When the puck drops that night, no major pro team in North America will have waited longer to host a regular season game with fans in attendance.

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