From darkness into light

After years of hockey heartbreak, Vancouver’s hopes brighten

31.05.2011
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Ryan Kesler hugs teammate Kevin Bieksa after he has scored Vancouver’s game-winning goal in double overtime in Game Five to win the Western Conference Finals 4-1 agains the San Jose Sharks. Photo: Harry How / Getty Images

VANCOUVER – As we prepare for the kick-off of the 2011 Stanley Cup final, things have never looked sunnier for hockey in Vancouver. Just ask long-suffering Canuck fans, who hope to see another big cloud – the lack of a Stanley Cup – lifted with a victory over the Boston Bruins.

Vancouver assistant captain and 2010 U.S. Olympian Ryan Kesler described the feeling of defeating the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference finals as “pure joy”. Canucks fans need more of that.

Clearly, few people in the 2010 Olympic city are old enough to remember the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires capturing the Cup. Much of the recent improvement in the local hockey climate can be attributed to international hockey events – with or without a Canuck connection.

It started with the 2006 IIHF World U20 Championship, where Brent Sutter’s defence-minded squad, including Jonathan Toews and Kristopher Letang, beat a Yevgeni Malkin-headlined Russian team 5-0 in the gold medal game at GM Place (now Rogers Arena). The city was ecstatic.

The following year, the WHL’s Vancouver Giants defeated the Medicine Hat Tigers 3-1 to win the Memorial Cup on home ice at the Pacific Coliseum. The late game-winning goal came from Czech sniper Michal Repik, and the first one came from Slovak grinder Mario Bliznak, who's now in the Canucks' organization. Both were 2007 World Junior participants. The tournament MVP was Vancouver-born power forward Milan Lucic, now a member of the Bruins.

Lucic was front and centre again in the 2007 Super Series between the U20 national teams from Canada and Russia that summer. Playing four games in Russia and four in Canada, he captained Sutter’s Team Canada to a record of seven wins and one tie against an overmatched Russian side coached by Sergei Nemchinov. The final game was held at GM Place, a 6-1 rout for Canada.

The most joyful hockey celebration in civic history, of course, came at the 2010 Olympics when Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal gave Canada a 3-2 win over the United States for men’s gold. Having Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo in goal was an additional bonus for locals. The whooping, high-fiving, dancing, flag-waving crowds that packed Robson Street and Granville Street after that victory won’t ever be replicated.

Yet if the Canucks, who entered this year’s playoffs as the President’s Trophy winners with a league-best 117 points, manage to take Lord Stanley’s silver mug, the celebrations will be just as about as fervent.

The Canucks are one of 13 active NHL franchises that have never claimed the ultimate prize. But their history is more littered with downers, disappointments, and outright disasters than most other teams.

That began in 1970 when a wheel of fortune awarded the top pick in the NHL entry draft to the Buffalo Sabres rather than their expansion brethren, the Canucks. Buffalo got the legendary centre Gilbert Perreault, while the Canucks settled for the less accomplished defenceman Dale Tallon. A history of underwhelming first-round picks would ensue: Dan Woodley (1986), Jason Herter (1989), Libor Polasek (1992), and so on.

There were bad trades, such as shipping future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely to Boston in exchange for a past-his-prime Barry Pederson in 1986. There were disappointing free agent signings, like bringing in an overweight Vladimir Krutov in 1989 – just two years removed from trailing only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the Canada Cup scoring race – or Mark Messier in 1997, which turned into a bust when the “greatest leader in professional sports” couldn’t deliver even one playoff berth during his three-year, $20-million contract.

There was the embarrassment of having the two highest-profile criminal cases in recent NHL history linked to the Canucks’ home arena. Boston defenceman Marty McSorley faced charges after swinging his stick here at Vancouver’s Donald Brashear in 2000, while onetime NHL all-star and Vancouver hero Todd Bertuzzi was also hauled into court after ending the career of Colorado’s Steve Moore with a sucker punch in 2004.

Canuck teams that appeared to be true contenders have fallen flat. The 1993 squad, which finished with 101 points after Pavel Bure’s first 60-goal campaign, couldn’t get past Gretzky’s Kings in the second round. The 2003 team, riding high on the scoring prowess of Bertuzzi and Markus Näslund, also flopped in Round 2, allowing the Minnesota Wild to rally from a 3-1 series deficit.

Even when underdog Vancouver teams marched to the finals, electrifying the province of British Columbia, fans were left with a sense of “coulda, woulda, shoulda”.

Although it was unlikely that Stan Smyl, Tiger Williams and Richard Brodeur could have overcome the 1982 New York Islanders with Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Billy Smith in their prime, the Canucks had third-period leads in both Games One and Two, which they lost 6-5 and 6-4 respectively. In other words, there was a glint of hope before they were swept in four straight.

The 1994 finals, which Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers in Game Seven at Madison Square Garden, will always represent true heartbreak to this city. The Canucks came within a hair’s-breadth of equalizing in the 3-2 loss, as Martin Gelinas and Nathan Lafayette both hit goal posts. Then, defeat turned ugly when a post-game riot erupted in downtown Vancouver, and 200 people were injured while dozens of others were arrested with scenes of looting and tear gas on Robson Street.

Most tragically, some members of the Canucks family have been cut down before their time. These include forward Wayne Maki, who succumbed to brain cancer at age 29 in 1974, and defenceman Luc Bourdon, who died in a motorcycle crash at age 21 in 2008. Bourdon, a close friend of Canuck winger Alexandre Burrows, would likely have been part of this year’s Cup run had he survived.

So if the 2011 Canucks succeed in pulling off four more wins, the feeling of heavenly light shining down will be as epic as sunshine glinting off the North Shore Mountains.

“Obviously we have the biggest step of all coming ahead of us,” Luongo said. “But right now I think we're having the time of our lives, and we're enjoying every step of the way.”

LUCAS AYKROYD

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