VANCOUVER – As the Vancouver Canucks go through pre-season preparations, Swedish captain Henrik Sedin finds himself in almost exactly the same position as Detroit’s Steve Yzerman occupied in 1995. It’s so close, it’s eerie.
The following description could apply equally to Henrik now and Yzerman then: “He’s the soft-spoken, 30-year-old captain of a powerhouse club in the NHL’s Western Conference. This skillful centre perennially contends for a top-10 finish in regular-season scoring. Every year his team, loaded with Europeans at key positions, is considered a playoff disappointment. Most recently, this club went all the way to the Stanley Cup final, and was considered the favourite, but instead fell to a big, tough Eastern team with an outstanding goalie.”
Even Yzerman’s words of disappointment after getting ousted by the Martin Brodeur-backstopped New Jersey Devils sound similar to Henrik’s after losing to Tim Thomas’s Boston Bruins.
“I thought we'd be able to persevere and get through their defensive shell,” said Yzerman. “Obviously, we weren't able to do that.” “Our line is there to score, and we didn’t score,” said Henrik. “We couldn’t beat Thomas. Nothing we did worked.”
Today, of course, the current GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning is synonymous with Canadian hockey excellence. Yzerman owns three Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medal as a player (2002), and managed Canada to a World title (2007) in Moscow and more Olympic gold (2010) in Vancouver. But for NHL observers, it was that first Cup with Detroit in 1997 that turned Yzerman’s reputation around. Suddenly, the former 155-point scorer (1988-89) got respect he had never had before.
Can Henrik earn similar respect by leading last year’s President Trophy-winning club (117 points) back to the finals and winning the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup? Like his twin brother Daniel, who captured the 2011 scoring title with 104 points, Henrik isn’t focused anymore on reprising the kind of personal heroics that brought him the 2010 Hart and Art Ross Trophy.
“Playing-wise, Daniel and I are at where we want to be,” Henrik told IIHF.com. “It’s about going all the way now. We’ve got a better appreciation of what it takes to go all the way. You need some luck, you need to be injury-free throughout the whole playoffs. I think we have a team this year that’s prepared to gel.”
“Whether you score 70 points or 100 points, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the team makes the playoffs,” added Daniel. “Then we know we have a chance to win the whole thing.”
And if you ask IIHF Triple Gold Club member Mikael Samuelsson, who was a second-line mainstay before sports hernia surgery forced him out of the playoffs in May, not having much time to rest before resuming action shouldn’t be overemphasized.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that it’s a short summer,” said the 34-year-old winger from Mariefred, Sweden. “You could use it as an excuse if things don’t go our way in the beginning. But it’s not a huge difference if you get knocked out in the semis or the finals or whatever. It’s maybe ten days. I think we can handle that.”
The Canucks should also be able to handle the big target they’ll have painted on their backs as front-runners. Suffice it to say, they weren’t the league’s most popular team outside their own city. The level of criticism they inspired was, at times, bewildering, considering their offensive power made them highly entertaining to watch.
What prompted the hatred? Clearly, not everyone who subscribes to CBC commentator Don Cherry’s smash-mouth philosophy appreciated the Sedins’ emphasis on finesse. Starting goalie Roberto Luongo took heat for his sometimes arrogant-sounding public pronouncements and his inconsistent performances: he had two shutouts in the finals, but also got ventilated by Boston in four games. In hockey-mad Vancouver, Luongo, like the Sedins, will need a Cup to silence his detractors despite owning an Olympic gold medal.
And then there were physical incidents that weren’t really characteristic of the Canucks overall, but got magnified under the playoff spotlight: Alexandre Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron’s finger, embellishments by Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Kesler, head hits by Raffi Torres and Aaron Rome.
Of course, the team would have gotten more respect universally if the scoreboard in Game Seven had read “Vancouver 4, Boston 0” instead of the opposite.
However, last year’s memorable moments – both good and bad – must be put to rest, according to top-pairing defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “We had two chances to win the Stanley Cup, and the nights before those games, you lie in bed and you think about the possibility and what you would do to celebrate,” Bieksa recalled. “But there’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a new season, we’ve got pretty much the same team coming back, and there’s no reason we can’t get back there. If we don’t, it’s because it’s our fault.”
The Canucks will admittedly start the season short-staffed. Still recovering from off-season surgery are Selke Trophy-winning centre and 2010 U.S. Olympian Ryan Kesler, along with fleet-footed winger Mason Raymond. And the defence lost some firepower when German blueliner Christian Ehrhoff parlayed a career-best 50-point season into a 10-year, $40-million free agent deal with the Buffalo Sabres on June 30.
But Henrik Sedin isn’t overly concerned about Ehrhoff’s departure: “We have other guys who can step up in that role and take on more responsibility. Alex Edler will take on more responsibility. A lot of guys are coming up, like Chris Tanev, who played great when he played last year. And we have a healthy Sami Salo now. ”
“It was really nice to be healthy during the summer,” said Salo, who missed most of last year with an Achilles tendon he tore playing floorball in his native Finland. “It was nice to be on the ice rather than on the mend.” At age 37, Salo is as hungry as anyone for success after losing in the finals of the 2001 World Championship, the 2004 World Cup, the 2006 Olympics, and last year’s Stanley Cup.
"What makes our team so good is the selflessness," Bieksa noted. "I don’t think guys really care about points and ice time. We’re so deep that players who come here to play aren’t going to be putting up their best numbers and top minutes that they might with other teams. We sacrifice, and we’re a better team for it."
Improving on-ice success, of course, isn’t everything. The sad loss of longtime teammate Rick Rypien, who was found dead in his Alberta home in August, put things in perspective. So did the tragic death of Slovak star Pavol Demitra, a Canuck from 2008 to 2010, in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air tragedy in Russia this month.
“It means hockey is not everything,” said Henrik. “You’ve got to enjoy what you do. There’ll be tough times in the winter when you lose a few in a row, and you face questions. But we’re living a good life, and we’ve got to enjoy it.”