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Moose-Canuck act getting better with age

by Paul Friesen | Winnipeg Sun

WINNIPEG, Man. … Cirque du Soleil isn’t due in town for another three months or so, but there’s another pretty good balancing act already taking place at the downtown arena.

This show is five years running, and while there’ve been a few shaky moments and a slip or two along the way, the two parties tied together have yet to come crashing down to the concrete.

In fact, they’ve never been in better sync than they are right now.

Step right up, folks, and witness the amazing co-ordination between the Manitoba Moose and Vancouver Canucks, a one-of-a-kind, AHL-NHL high-wire act the rest of the hockey world had better start taking notice of, if it hasn’t already.

Most marriages of this type are traditional, in that they’re dominated by the partner holding the most power. That would, in virtually all cases, be the NHL organization. The NHL boss says, "Jump!" the AHL underling asks, "How high?"

In the case of the Moose and Canucks, though, they’re leaping in unison, at the same time juggling the two building blocks they hold dear: winning and developing players.

Like we said, it’s the only show of its kind in hockey, and it’s going to run at least another three years, thanks to a new agreement between the sides, announced yesterday.

"I’m not sure there’s a team that has as much control over the situation as we do," Moose general manager Craig Heisinger was saying. "That’s been earned, I think, over the five years. It certainly didn’t start like that."

No, it didn’t.

Those first three years, this was a more typical marriage, dominated by the stronger partner. A Vancouver-appointed coach (Stan Smyl) ensured that Vancouver prospects played, whether they deserved to or not.

Slowly, the fairer side began to assert itself, insisting their guy (Randy Carlyle) go behind the bench, handing out ice time the way he saw fit.

Along the way, the partners got to know each other, and established some trust. When it came time to hire their third head coach (Alain Vigneault), they collaborated.

What’s more, the Moose began to insist they find more of their own players, instead of simply relying on Vancouver’s prospects.

And when Heisinger proved he knew the difference between a stud and a dud, the boss in Vancouver, Dave Nonis, began to collaborate on the player front, too.

HOCKEY MARKET

"A lot of teams send 20 players down: ‘this is what you get — hope you like ’em,’ " Nonis said. "Some people are happy with it. This is a market that wants to win. It’s a hockey market in a great Canadian city. Their roots are maybe a bit deeper than some of the other teams in the American League. I recognize that. And I like it."

Last season, as many as 10 players on the Manitoba roster at any given time were Moose finds.

Some, like Rick Rypien and Alexandre Burrows, earned jobs in Vancouver by year’s end.

"The team makeup is not dictated by whose contract you’re on," Heisinger said. "That may be the most unusual (thing). That’s not probably traditional in the American Hockey League, but it’s traditional here. And something that we insist on."

The reason’s simple: the Moose know they can’t ice a loser if they want to sell minor-league hockey in this town.

And while most NHL GMs don’t give a rat’s behind if his farm team wins, as long as his draft picks are getting plenty of ice time, Nonis has come around.

In return, Heisinger has found him some players.

See what we mean by a balancing act? If either falls, they both come down.

They’ve got another three years to perfect it.

Paul Friesen is a columnist for the Winnipeg Sun and SLAM! Sports