Nonis heads Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame inductees
Every time Mark and Don Nonis headed out the door to play street hockey on the pavement at Parkcrest elementary in North Burnaby little Davey would tag along.
“I just really wanted to keep up to them. It probably happens a lot like that for younger children chasing their siblings around,” says Dave Nonis of those early days. “If we weren’t on the ice playing, we were on the road playing.”
His path to the sport was predestined. By the time he could walk, Don, who is five years older than him, and Mark, four years his senior, were already playing ice hockey.
Their dream, of course, was to play in the NHL. That’s the goal of many a Canadian boy. They didn’t make it, but Dave did in another way rising through the administrative ranks to become general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. He is now in charge of one of hockey’s most hallowed franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s a career that has earned him induction into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame as a builder, which will happen at the organization’s annual banquet at the Firefighters Hall in Metrotown Thursday evening.
He learned the game not only in their back alley, but also with the Burnaby Minor Hockey Association.
“It was probably some of the best memories of hockey that I ever had was with Burnaby Minor,” recalls Nonis in a phone interview with the NewsLeader. “It wasn’t always the most affluent group of kids, but they were kids who wanted to play.
“We were always playing against the Burnaby Winter Club, probably the strongest team in not only the Lower Mainland but the country … It was difficult to beat them, but it was a chance to play against the best players,” says Nonis.
And competing with the best has always been in his DNA.
When his Burnaby Minor days were done, Nonis played a season of junior, 1982-83, with the Burnaby Bluehawks of the B.C. Junior Hockey League earning a scholarship to the University of Maine, where he captained the Black Bears to appearances in the 1987 and 1988 NCAA championship tournaments his final two seasons.
When his collegiate career was completed, Nonis was cut following a tryout with an American Hockey League team, so he played a year in Denmark. When European clubs come calling, and NHL teams don’t, it didn’t take much to read the tea leaves about his aspirations of playing in the big time, says Nonis.
“Especially back then, five-11 defencemen didn’t necessarily make it into the NHL. There were a couple, but not a lot, so that was a strike against me.”
So he returned to Maine to get his master’s degree in business and be an assistant coach for the Black Bears. That’s when he began to realize his route to the NHL just might be through the front office, not via the locker room.
Although he was thinking about heading to Sweden to play another year, then-Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Brian Burke, called. He had met him when Burke spoke at an event in Maine. Nonis made an impression as being the only guy on the team to heckle Burke when he made cracks about the Black Bears.
Despite Nonis’s tender age of 24, Burke offered him a chance to work in the Canucks front office with the likes of general manager Pat Quinn, now Washington Capitals GM George McPhee and Burke.
“My first job I was a jack of all trades,” says Nonis.
In addition to doing the mundane things like sales and booking travel, Nonis cobbled together a computerized scouting program.
“We may have been the first to actually do it,” says Nonis.
He also got to work on putting together the Canucks’ salary arbitration cases, scheduling and much more. “I was trying to get my finger into every pie possible, all facets of the game.”
When Burke took a job in the NHL head office in New York, Nonis went with him, a pattern that has continued between the two friends. They left after the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs when Vancouver lost the final to the New York Rangers in a heartbreaking seventh and deciding game. That was the year the league had its first lockout, which may not have been a good time for the sport, but it was “very good in terms of learning,” says Nonis of being part of the collective bargaining and negotiation process. “Those [lessons] have proven invaluable moving forward.”
The pair returned to Vancouver in 1998 when Burke was named general manager. They proceeded to turn a financially-troubled franchise around by putting a highly entertaining product on the ice that brought fans into the rink, beginning a consecutive sellout streak on Nov. 14, 2002 that continues to this day.
“Any time you get a chance to work or play in your hometown is special. The team wasn’t doing great both on and off the ice, but it was a great opportunity to put our stamp on it. Coming back home was probably the highlight of my career to that point,” says Nonis. “We did change things up in terms of how we played … Nothing helps attendance like winning hockey games.”
In 2004, Canucks ownership decided not to renew Burke’s contract and approached Nonis about taking over from his good friend. Burke told him to take it and grow it, so he seized the bittersweet opportunity to assume the helm of his hometown team.
“It was a difficult day. It’s the high point of your career to take that job,” says Nonis. “It was something that was a little bit unexpected, because we had been playing pretty well.”
Nonis held the position for four years until the Canucks missed the playoffs in 2008 and he was fired. Even though it’s been almost five years, the building blocks he and Burke put in place still form the foundation of today’s Canucks with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows.
“A lot of players we left there were young players so they were capable of playing a long time. They weren’t fully developed, and they’ve formed a pretty good core of the team and it still remains an elite team today,” says Nonis. “It was probably one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever been through because in our hearts we had done the right things.”
When he left Vancouver, Burke added Nonis to his staff in Anaheim before Burke took over the Toronto Maple Leafs and brought Nonis along with him. Just before the current lockout-shortened season began, the Leafs fired Burke and promoted Nonis, the same scenario as in Vancouver.
“It’s going well. We’re an improved team, we’re a young team, the second youngest in the league, we’re going to have some growing pains still,” says Nonis of his current task in the hockey cauldron that is The Big Smoke. “But we knew that going in, and we’ve kind of done the same thing [as Vancouver], and we have to give them a chance to show what they can do.”
At age 46, Nonis has accomplished a great deal in his career, which he reflected on after learning he was chosen for induction into the hall.
“I was pretty proud of it. There’s a lot of people in Burnaby that have done a lot of good things,” says Nonis. “I’ve known some of [the previous inductees] and to be mentioned in that group was very special and I’m very proud.”
Even though the East Coast is where he works and lives these days, Burnaby is still home to him. That’s where the memories are, he says.
2013 Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame inductees:
Athletes – John Haar (baseball, football, soccer), Bob Mills (soccer)
Builders – John Adams (rugby, wrestling), John Berry (baseball, soccer), Dave Nonis (hockey)
Coaches – George Oswald (football), Margaret and Paul Savage (swimming)
Team – 1983 Willingdon Dirty Dozen women’s soccer team