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We are gathered, dear friends, to lament the passing of one of the more amusing nicknames in sport. In bumbling their way to a .413 winning percentage in the first 20 years of their existence, the Vancouver Canucks came to be known around the NHL as the Canuckleheads. Alas, all good things must end.
At the beginning of the week, Vancouver, at 8-3-1, had 17 points, tied for tops in the NHL. Are Vancouverites excited by this? Last weekend local columnist Archie McDonald suggested that his city's name be changed to Wincouver.
True, the season had five months to go, but Canucks fans celebrated anyway. Theirs, after all, is a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 1975-76. That's the longest losing streak in pro sports in North America. "The last time we were in first place," says veteran Vancouver trainer Larry Ashley, "I was reading the newspaper upside down."
Even with their newfound, giddy success, skeptics remained. They recalled that Vancouver also started strongly in each of the two previous seasons. "I know, I know," says the Canucks' president, general manager and coach, Pat Quinn, a former NHL defenseman with a lantern jaw and a weakness for nightstick-sized Partagas cigars. "Both times we, well, I wouldn't say disintegrated is the right word." Then Quinn sighs and says, "Aw hell, yes, it is."
Virtually all of the Canucks stress that they are a team with no superstar—which is not to say they are without a celebrity. Trilingual goon Gino Odjick, a full-blooded Algonquin whose one goal this season came on a penalty shot, has attracted a substantial following. But besides outstanding young center Trevor Linden, the closest Vancouver comes to a marquee name is goaltender Kirk McLean. Last season McLean allowed 3.99 goals a game; this season, McLean's goals-against average was 2.31 through Sunday. Says the modest McLean, "I'm not doing it by myself."
No, he's not. Many Vancouver players trace this season's success to last Jan. 31, when Quinn, who has been with the Canucks since 1987, took over the coaching duties from Bob McCammon. Quinn's toughest job has been sandblasting the Canucks' institutionalized complacency. By the time Quinn arrived, the Canucks had become synonymous with mediocrity. Even when they reached the 1982 Stanley Cup finals, in which they went down in four straight games to the New York Islanders, Vancouver finished with a 30-33-17 regular-season record.
Of the many canny deals Quinn has cut, none was as lopsided as the trade that brought defenseman Robert Dirk and forwards Geoff Courtnall, Sergio Momesso and Cliff Ronning from St. Louis in exchange for defenseman Garth Butcher and center Dan Quinn. At week's end, Ronning, who humbly describes himself as a "throw-in" in the trade, had a team-high 17 points.
"What Pat is doing with this team reminds me of what [ Edmonton general manager] Glen Sather did in the early '80s," says onetime Oiler defenseman Randy Gregg, who now plays for Vancouver. "Need some leadership? Trade for older guys. Need some size on defense? Make the trades to get it. Sather had a great eye for recognizing holes and the ability to fill them. Pat's like that."
Quinn has filled several holes for the Canucks, but his most impressive achievement has been creating a new one. Vancouver has no nickname now. They are Canuckleheads no more.
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