A touch of reality slipped into the Vancouver Canucks' spring last Saturday night when New York Islander sharpshooter Mike Bossy picked off an errant pass and scored his third goal of the evening. That gave the defending champions a 6-5 overtime win in the opening game of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. The goal came at 19:58—two seconds before the end of the first sudden-death period—ending a game that Islander Coach Al Arbour likened to Irish football.
"Clutch, grab and tackle. Holding onto sweaters. Dump it out, dump it out. That's the way they play," said Arbour. "They try to frustrate you, and they'll use the same tactics the whole series. The refereeing? I'm kind of annoyed at some of the calls that weren't made."
It had started all over again—the psychological warfare coaches wage against each other and the referees at the start of any series, certainly any series in which the Canucks have been involved this spring. Arbour's remarks were reminiscent of some of the tirades Chicago Coach Bob Pulford delivered earlier in the week as his Black Hawks lost in the conference finals to these same frustrating Canucks, four games to one. But make no mistake, Vancouver does more than clutch, grab and dump it out, and before the Islanders become the first U.S.-based team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups, they could have a series on their hands.
That was the real message of Saturday night, not the refereeing. As Vancouver Coach Harry Neale said after the clinching win in Chicago Thursday, "We've had more players at the top of their game than any team I've been associated with. We've had great goaltending, we've outworked every team we've played and we've been lucky as a sonofabitch. When you put those four things together, you're tough to beat."
The Canucks have been just that. Through Sunday, their record over the last 23 games was 17-3-3, and two of those losses came in overtime. The mere presence of the Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals, dressed in their school-bus-yellow, flame-red and ebony-black uniforms, threatened to upstage the Islanders' quest for the Cup. Until this spring, there had been so little to say about the Vancouver franchise that couldn't be said by describing those uniforms. Ugly. In 1970, the year the team was formed, the Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres spun a wheel to decide who would get first choice in the amateur draft, and Vancouver has been losing ever since. Buffalo selected Gil Perreault, who became rookie of the year and one of the premier center-men in hockey. The Canucks followed with the first of their many bumbles in the draft, Dale Tallon. Tallon was traded three years later, and the Canucks are still searching for the star they had hoped he would become. Vancouver has never had a first-or second-team All-Star, has never had a coach or a player win an NHL award and, until last month's sweep of the Calgary Flames, had never won a playoff series. In its 12-year history, the team has had 10 losing seasons, including each of the last six.
The origins of the word Canuck are uncertain, although A Dictionary of Canadianisms surmises it might be derived from the Iroquois canuchsa, which means hut. That book goes on to say, "In spite of the definition given in many dictionaries, the term Canuck as applied by Canadians to themselves is not at all derogatory...." This description obviously was written before the Vancouver hockey team began dragging the nation's nickname through the muck. Canuck fans became inured to watching games in embarrassed silence. Playing hockey in the Pacific Coliseum was like playing in the Vancouver public library. Center Ivan Boldirev, who was traded to Vancouver two years ago from Atlanta, recalls, "We used to come in here and tell each other before games, 'Let's not wake up the fans.' " Adds Scotty Morrison, the NHL's chief of officiating, who used to live in Vancouver, "I've been to games there in which you could sit in the stands and hear the players talking amongst themselves on the ice."
The low point may have been reached in January. The Canucks had lost a club-record 13 consecutive games on the road, and the offense was in such sorry shape that the local joke was that the only way to stop Wayne Gretzky was to let him play under Neale. Attendance was down by more than 1,500 fans per game, as compared with a year before, and there was talk of the club leaving Canada's third-largest market for the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The New Jersey Canucks? A certain Sir James Alexander, an explorer and an author, would have turned in his casket. In 1849 he wrote, "Come boys and have some grog, I'm what you call a Canuck; a Canadian."
It was, in fact, a Canuck-Canadien game in Montreal on March 18 that turned the team around. Montreal had lost only one of its last 27 games, and Vancouver was winless in its last eight, but the Canucks won that night 4-2 on Darcy Rota's hat trick. Two nights later Neale led a charge into the Quebec stands when a fan took a swipe at one of his players. The league suspended Neale for 10 games, and he immediately decided he wouldn't go back behind the bench even if the team were still alive in the playoffs when he returned. Associate Coach Roger Neilson took over—he was scheduled to do so next year anyway, and Neale was to move up to general manager—and the revived Canucks finished the regular schedule with a nine-game unbeaten streak and a 30-33-17 record. Eliminating the Black Hawks meant Vancouver could become the first sub-.500 team to win the Cup in 33 years.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Vancouver defeated Calgary in three straight games and Los Angeles four games to one, thanks in good part to the spectacular goal-tending of Richard Brodeur. At week's end he had an 11-3 playoff record and a 2.51 goals-against average. Vancouver's one legitimate star, Brodeur, 29, came to the team with zero fanfare. Just before the start of last season, the Islanders dealt him to the Canucks for a song—an exchange of fifth-round draft choices. Defenseman Colin Campbell remembers Brodeur's arrival well. "I had just been waived by Edmonton," says Campbell. "Vancouver picked me up and when I walked into my hotel room this fat little guy was sitting there. That was Brodeur. He didn't have a contract, and he thought they were going to send him down to the minor league team in Dallas. He said he was too old to go back to the minors, and if it came to that he'd give up the game. They had him dressing in the visitors' dressing room. This whole team is made up of castoffs. You can go right around the room, and none of us should be here."
Indeed, while the prevailing wisdom in the NHL maintains that the only way to build a team is through the draft, 13 Canucks have been traded for, six have been signed as free agents and only six were originally drafted by Vancouver. "We've gotten as far as we have because the one thing we could do was outwork and outhit anybody we played," says Neilson. "And, let's face it, when Minnesota and Edmonton were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs, the teams that were left were ones we should have been able to beat. It's not like we've been pulling major upsets."