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Interview with Paolo Aquilini

Paolo Aquilini

Sports somehow have a way of bringing the people together like nothing else.

Here’s an interview I did with Paolo Aquilini, part owner of the Canucks for BC Christian News last year around this time. Click here for the unabridged version:

I’m trying to think back to that day. I was so incredibly nervous. I wrote out my questions on Q cards and tried to do as much research as I could. I remember walking into that building and seeing a lot of marble. One of the ladies working there gave me a bottle of water, took me up a short flight of marble steps and into a medium sized boardroom. Of course there was a jersey on the wall. I sat there alone in that room nervously waiting for Mr. Aquilini, not quite sure what to expect. Finally he arrived, looking pretty casual from what I remember. I think he was in jeans. He was a humble man and very candid during our conversation opening up about his faith, his family, owning such a big part of Vancouver’s pride, and the responsibility he had to the city.

Canucks Co-Owner is a Man of Faith

There IS not much that defines the culture of Vancouver more than the Vancouver Canucks – and for many people, the Aquilini name is synonymous with the team.

But what many might not know is that Paolo Aquilini ­– who, along with his two brothers, makes up the ownership group of the Canucks – is a dedicated man of faith.

Aquilini finds his business day a constant process of managing urgent priorities, vying for his immediate attention. However, while growing the various Aquilini enterprises is important to Paolo, he is driven by the underlying focus of helping others.

“We look at owning the Vancouver Canucks as stewardship, not as ownership,” said Aquilini. “What that gives us is an opportunity to do things with an asset that really belongs to the public. It gives you a sense of responsibility.”

It is with this mindset that Aquilini conducts his day-to-day business dealings – in relationship to the Canucks, and also GM Place and other Aquilini enterprises.

Through his role as president of the Canucks for Kids Fund, Aquilini is involved with a variety of charitable initiatives.

In addition, Paolo – along with his wife, Clara – founded the Canucks Autism Network, a key charity of the Canucks, designed to help families living with autism in British Columbia.

Christianity has played a big role in his life since he accepted Christ in his twenties. Aquilini has found that his expression of faith is best conducted through friendships, and not just through words.

“It is more important to truly build relationships with people, and really love them,” he noted, adding:“If I strive to make that my primary focus, my faith will naturally flow into those relationships.”

Paolo Aquilini recently spoke with Shara Lee of BCCN. Following are some key excerpts:

BCCN: How has owning such a big part of Vancouver culture affected your family?

PA: Traditionally our family has always been very low key, with regard to our business.

Obviously, that changed with the purchase of the team and GM Place. Our family was put in a bigger spotlight – more, I think, than any of us were ready for.

I think it definitely affects you; but it is all about keeping things in proper perspective. For us, we look at our involvement with the team as stewardship, not as ownership.

The stewardship of the team is a huge responsibility; it is the management of what really is a public asset. It belongs to the people of British Columbia, and it is our job to handle that asset with great care – to make sure we are doing everything possible, both on and off the ice, to win the Stanley Cup.

The stewardship of the team extends far beyond what happens on the ice or at GM Place. I have been fortunate to be involved with the Canucks for Kids Fund, and through the hard work of the staff and many volunteers, we are able to raise about three million dollars a year – which is distributed to charities throughout B.C. to help kids in all different situations.

The team truly is a public entity – and as such, it is paramount that it gives back as much as possible, to help communities across British Columbia.

My wife Clara and I were involved with starting an organization called the Canucks Autism Network (CAN). This is a new signature charity of the Canucks, with a goal to help families living with autism across British Columbia.

One of my children has autism; his name’s Christian. As a result of the journey with our son Christian, my wife and I went through all the different trials, tribulations and triumphs of raising a child with autism.

We developed a deep appreciation of what families go through when a child has autism. Through our journey, we met many hurting families – and my heart especially went out to the brokenness of single moms who have a child with autism.

BCCN: Did you see a natural connection between charitable work and the Canucks?

PA: Yes, absolutely. Stewardship of the team happens on and off the ice, and naturally extends to what is going on in the community. The Canuck name is able to open so many doors.

For example, CAN would not be nearly  as successful as it has been, if it did not have the name and branding that associates it with the hockey team. The work they do would be no different; but because the team is behind it, the community gets behind it – and it is able to accomplish more.

I am excited about the future, and expanding the ways the Canucks are involved in the community.

BCCN: Many families would see it as a burden to have a child with a disability.

PA: I would tend to think that, before Christian was born, that God would have said: “Who’s the family that I should send Christian to?” And I’m so grateful that it was us, because we love Christian unconditionally –  and he has truly been a blessing to our family.

Without him, we would not be half the family that we are. He has taught us so much about faith, trusting God and helping others.

He has been the ultimate blessing for us, and now we strive to turn that around and bless others.

BCCN: What is it like living with an autistic child? What are the challenges?

PA: The spectrum of autism is very wide. On the one end you have low functioning children – and on the other, high functioning.

Our son Christian falls in the middle; he’s not very high cognitively, but he’s high socially.

Funny enough, the thing that really blessed him to improve his social ability was hockey itself. Once we bought the team, he went from loving Lego to loving hockey players: following them on TV, and following them on YouTube; he memorized their birthdates.

Hockey has been the biggest blessing in Christian’s life, to make him who he is today. It’s just really opened him up to be more socially connected to people. People can talk Vancouver hockey all day long, and Christian is able to do that as well; so he really connects with people on that hockey level. So that’s been a great blessing.

BCCN: Tell us a bit about the rest of your immediate family.

PA: My wife Clara is my best friend and first love. We got married when we were 24, and have been together since we were 16, since high school. We have four children that have been a blessing from God, and that we are very grateful for.

BCCN: Do you ever have to choose between family and work?

PA: I once heard somewhere that the Christian life is like walking on a tightrope uphill – meaning, it’s all about balance.

Like anybody, the ideal balance in my life is always under siege by everything that is being packed into a day.  Balance is definitely not a place that I have arrived at, but it is something that I work at every day.

For me, I find it is about balancing my family, my faith/charity endeavors and my business work.

It’s not about compartmentalizing; it is about prioritizing, to ensure everything is at appropriate levels. But it’s a challenge.

BCCN: How does your Christianity play into what you do?

PA: Just like kids grow up and mature, I think I grew up spiritually from when I first became a Christian in my early 20s.

When I first became a Christian, I thought evangelism was everything; you had to talk to people about God everywhere you were, all the time – whether I was at work, out here or there. It was like I had to get that message out – and if I didn’t, I was doing something wrong.

However, I started to realize that it was important that my life be a testimony, not just my mouth. I really like how St. Francis put it: “Preach the gospel at all times – and when necessary, use words.” That’s what I want to strive for.

I’ve learned that it’s more important to build relationships with people, and really love them, rather than to just talk to them about the gospel. Because, for me, I think that people could see through that.

I was going around just talking, but people would respond: “Those are okay words – but do you even care about me?” People will listen to you when you are in relationship.

I don’t want to negate the fervour and the love of people who want to spread the good news, that’s good. But I think, in my experience, I’ve learned that my primary focus should be one of loving people in relationships.

BCCN: Tell us a bit about your spiritual journey.

PA: I’ve studied theology, I love the stuff; but I’ve had to learn to love Jesus much more. I started loving systematic theology a little too much, and that’s a lesson I’ve had to learn.

I grew in a Catholic church. But for me, I never experienced a true relationship with Jesus. For me, Jesus was just a figure; we didn’t have a relationship. I just went to church once a week, and that’s what I did; that’s part of the way I grew up.

But then I opened the Bible – and basically, I had a conversion on the spot, as I was reading. I just picked up the Bible, and as I was reading, it said:“Behold, the kingdom of God is at hand.” And I just remember saying, “Jesus is God, Jesus is God” – and my whole life changed at that point. It was a profound experience.

BCCN: Did you ever struggle with your faith?

PA: I personally went through a lot of difficult times over the last seven years; especially about six years ago, I went through a profound, deep, painful time.

We left the church we were in, and we started a home church. Unfortunately, we were being taught that our group was the only one, and everyone out there doesn’t really know the Lord – and it became very cultic in nature.

Somehow the Lord, through the help of another pastor, brought me out of that situation. I left that church, but in that process, what happened is I had to really dig down in my own soul and ask: What is saving faith? How do I know I have saving faith?

So then I just went back to the scriptures, and just asked God to show me. And to me it just opened up very quickly from the Book of first John, where God says . . . . “This is how you know, because you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of the living God.”

It became so clear, that it is simply believing in Jesus – that is salvation. This profound change in my journey led me to understand that salvation is wider and broader that I had ever imagined.

BCCN: What do you think winning a Stanley Cup would do for Vancouver?

PA: I think winning a Stanley Cup would mean more than to the city of Vancouver than winning the Olympic Gold Medal in hockey. Hockey just runs through our blood, and we have had so many years of struggling, trying and not being able to make it.

The day of victory will come, and it will be a great time of celebration.

It is exciting to see how sport brings people together. We got a good picture of that during the Olympics – random strangers high-fiving, hugging, talking. It will bring the community together.