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Canuck hires connects West-Coast team to Prairies

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks have gone country. They'll never be accused of arrogance now. There's a new coach, Willie Desjardins, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan.

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks have gone country. They'll never be accused of arrogance now.

There's a new coach, Willie Desjardins, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. There's a new, folksy general manager, Jim Benning, son of a man named Elmer, from Edmonton. And there's a new president of hockey operations, Trevor Linden, son of a woman named Edna, from Medicine Hat, Alta.

In just over two months, the Canucks have become part of the Prairie Empire. What took them so long? People from Alberta and Saskatchewan have been migrating west since Canada began, stopping when they came to the Pacific Ocean.

They always bring their work ethic.

"Jim's a hard-working guy," Linden summarized Monday after introducing Desjardins as coach. "He's down to Earth, he's genuine. He's not trying to fool anyone. Willie ... is a guy who has worked his whole life. I think he loves the game, loves to coach.

"You hire people because of their credentials and qualities. But at the end of the day, yeah, there's no question these guys are down-to-earth, hard-working, genuine people. When you want to build a team and surround yourself with good people, that's the type of people you hire."

It was only three years ago that former Boston Bruin Mark Recchi, a B.C. boy from Kamloops, shouted publicly what many people inside the National Hockey League believed -- that the Canucks were an arrogant organization.

Part of that, undoubtedly, was due to the whiff of superiority emitted by former general manager Mike Gillis.

But the Canucks are arrogant no more. Part of that, undoubtedly, is it feels like 30 years since they were beaten by Recchi and the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. The Canucks have won only one playoff game in three years and are coming off a season so shockingly bad that both Gillis and coach John Tortorella were fired, costing owner Francesco Aquilini an estimated $12 million US in severance payments.

Enter Linden, Benning and now Desjardins, the 57-year-old from Climax, Sask, who still owns three-quarters of a section of farmland there despite spending most of the last 30 years coaching hockey.

"Willie's a Western Canada guy," Benning, hired a month ago, said. "With Trevor being from the West and me being from the West, we were talking to him yesterday and we made the point: this is the team for you."

Desjardins agreed.

Still soaked in beer after winning the Calder Cup last week with the Dallas Stars' American Hockey League farm team, Desjardins arrived in Vancouver to interview on Saturday and Linden and Benning wouldn't let him leave without a deal. It is for four years.

The hiring is the last piece in the transformation at the top of the Canucks, but only the start of a momentous week that could reshape the team on the ice and define the Prairie Empire in Vancouver.

Benning confirmed Monday he is "talking to teams, listening to teams" about trading franchise player Ryan Kesler, and that he continues to talk to Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon about acquiring the first pick in the NHL Entry Draft on Friday. As it is, the Canucks hold the sixth selection, higher than any draft pick they've made since Daniel and Henrik Sedin were chosen second and third in 1999 as a foundation for what became a golden decade in Vancouver.

NHL free agency opens next Tuesday and the Canucks are so keen to add a player or two they bought out winger David Booth last week to give them more spending room under the salary cap.

Linden and Benning could run this franchise for a decade and not have another week as important as this one.

"It's an exciting week for us," Benning said. "Getting Willie on board was the first step."

Before his four-year professional hockey test run with the Stars' organization, Desjardins coached the Medicine Hat Tigers for eight seasons and won two Western League titles. If Medicine Hat had Mount Rushmore -- or even a hill -- Desjardins and Linden, a product of both the town and the team, would be among the faces carved in stone.

Desjardins coached earlier in Saskatoon and Japan and at the University of Calgary. Now, he finally gets the chance to be an NHL head coach.

"I can't say enough about how fortunate I am to get this chance," he said. "For sure, there had to be doubts. It wasn't something where I was always waiting and had to get to the NHL. But once you pass 40, you're probably wondering if your opportunity is going to come.

"Winning is so elusive. So to win that (Calder Cup) is unbelievable. And then to get a chance to be part of the Vancouver Canucks, what are the chances of that? I guess it's been my lucky week."

Luck hasn't had much to do with it. When asked what has allowed him to win at every level, Desjardins said: "It's the players, eh."

His wife Rhonda, as outgoing as her husband is supposed to be reserved, has been along for the entire coaching journey and wasn't about to miss Monday's press conference.

"We went everywhere," she said. "We have lived in a lot of crazy places. My daughter was born in Tokyo. You just make it work wherever you go."

Will it work for her husband in Vancouver?

"I don' worry about that for a second because he is honest," Rhonda said. "He is honest to a fault. He loves what he does. It's not a show, not a facade. He loves his players, he always has. He doesn't like the spotlight. He'd rather his players take it."

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