Formally the organization’s Director of Player Personnel, Henning, 56, becomes General Manager Mike Gillis’ new right hand man.
Gillis was without an Assistant GM for the month of August as former Canucks VP and Assistant GM Steve Tambellini joined the Northwest division-rival Edmonton Oilers as General Manager in late July.
Tambellini had been with Vancouver’s management team for 17 seasons and his knowledge and experience were thought to be irreplaceable, but Gillis took his time enlisting a suitor and he found a perfect match in Henning.
“I was a coach for a long time, but the last four years I’ve been player evaluating and I have friends that are assistant GMs and GMs so this is something I’ve aspired to do for quite a while,” said Henning.
“I’m very excited. Mike, Laurence (Gilman) and I have been going through the organizational charts the last three or four days and I’m excited, I can hardly wait for training camp to get going. I’m happy to be here and ready to get going.”
If the ranks of NHL management were the boy scouts, Henning would have almost every merit badge imaginable. NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
The product of Melfort, Saskatchewan – The City of Northern Lights that also produced NHLers Grant Jennings, Lane Lambert and Pat McLeod – was a player before he gained practice behind the bench.
Henning was selected 17th overall by the New York Islanders in the 1972 NHL Amateur Draft, he went on to play nine seasons on Long Island before hanging up his skates in 1981, only to move into an assistant coaching position with the team where he remained for three seasons.
In Henning’s twelve years in N.Y. his name was chiseled on Lord Stanley’s mug four times, twice as a player and twice as an assistant coach, all under the watchful eye of Islanders Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour.
In 1979-80 he helped the franchise win their first Stanley Cup by assisting on Bobby Nystrom’s overtime winner against Philadelphia in the series clinching sixth game, the following season the Islanders defended their championship with Henning double dipping as a player and an assistant coach. He appeared in 10 games so he’s listed with the team on the trophy not the coaching staff; Henning was the last playing-coach to win the Cup.
A sports lover even away from the rink during his playing days, Henning pitched and played shortstop for the Islanders’ off-season softball team in addition to riding trotter horses at Roosevelt Raceway in New York.
Following his retirement in ‘81, a then 29-year-old Henning helped lead the Islanders to another two cups in 1981-82 and 1982-83 as assistant coach. That was the start of an 18-year NHL career behind the bench that had him calling the shots as head coach for the Minnesota North Stars (85-87) and with the Islanders (94-95), and as assistant coach with the Islanders (89-94), the Chicago Blackhawks (95-98), the Islanders (99-01) and most recently with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (02-04). KEEPING GREAT COMPANY
“I think I’ve worked with a lot of great people over the years, Al Arbour, Bill Torrey, and I’ve worked with a lot of GMs and you pick their brains as you go and if you’re around the game long enough you should pick something up.
“Overall I’ve worked for some outstanding people that I’ve really admired, that have built good franchises so you kind of learn from them.”
In 2005 Henning joined the Canucks organization and he’s been on the West Coast ever since. His extensive NHL virtuosity, from time as a player and in the coaching ranks, has been precious to Vancouver over the past three seasons and now that Henning is Assistant GM, it becomes even more so.
Don’t expect Henning to simply be a yes-man to Gillis though, Henning’s opinions will be heard and trusted as he’s more than proven he understands the game through and through since he first suited up for the Western Canada Hockey League’s Estevan Bruins in 1969.
Nearly 40 years later he’s exactly where he wants to be, back helping call the shots for an NHL franchise that is on the rise, in a city that lives and breaths hockey.
“I’ve been in the US market most of my career so my first year here I was shocked at the passion and the energy of the fans, the love for the game you forget when you’re away from Canadian cities.
“When I was in New York we were lucky to have 300 people to an inter-squad game, here it’s 18,000. The passion is great and we’re looking forward to bringing a winning team and winning the cup, that’s the goal and I think we’re going to surprise some people sooner than they think.”
There are never any guarantees in the hockey world but a mixture of one part Henning’s invaluable experience and two parts of Gillis’ fresh thinking and the Canucks seemingly have a cocktail of success on their hands.
Whether or not it goes down smooth will take some time to decide.