Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the fourth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists–or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Canucks, a Stanley Cup finalist just three years ago that is now staring into the abyss of irrelevancy.
The Canucks are forever the NHL’s bridesmaids, the league leaders in might-have-beens. They’ve made an art of elevating the expectations of their passionate, demanding fans to lofty heights, only to painfully underachieve when it matters most.
Three times Vancouver has earned a spot in the Stanley Cup finals. Three times the Canucks have come up short. In 1982, they were steamrolled by an Islanders squad in the fullness of its dynastic dominance, but Vancouver’s fans could argue that they and their team were just happy to be there. The last two times? You only need to name-check Nathan Lafayette in order to rekindle the memories of what might have been in the third period of Game 7 against the Rangers in 1994. And then there was that 2-0 series lead against the Bruins in 2011. It was wasted when the Canucks scored all of four goals in the next five games and allowed Boston’s Zdeno Chara to hoist the Cup in their own rink. Vancouver took an additional black eye when fans rioted in the streets after the game.
Such heartbreak makes the experience of being a Canucks fan something akin to walking down a dark alley in a bad part of town. It’s thrilling, but you know something awful is probably going to happen before you make it to the other side.
Most notorious moments
• The spinning wheel of doom: Local legend suggests that the Hockey Gods hold a grudge against Vancouver for moving the game indoors. (The city’s Denman Arena in 1911 was the first to offer indoor ice.) That goes a long way toward explaining the worst day in franchise history: June 9, 1970. Two expansion teams, the Canucks and the Sabres, were vying for first choice in a trio of drafts. A coin toss determined which team would choose first in the waiver draft. Buffalo won. A spinning wheel was then used to decide which one would get the first pick in the expansion draft. The Sabres won again, and took forward Tom Webster. Vancouver took defenseman Gary Doak. Neither player was bound for glory, but it was a second spin of the wheel that set the Canucks’ fans up for a lifetime of disappointment — it determined who would get the first pick in the entry draft.
According to this report by Pat Curran of The Gazette, Vancouver was mistakenly informed that it had won the second spin of the wheel. But that was incorrect. When the error was spotted, Buffalo was awarded the right to select future Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault. The Canucks, in another of what would become a long string of deflating setbacks, took defenseman Dale Tallon with the No. 2 pick. He lasted three seasons in Vancouver before being traded.
• The Mark Messier debacle: He may be revered by the rest of the hockey world, but Canucks fans despise Messier with the white-hot passion of a thousand burning suns. Signed as a 36-year-old free agent in 1997 — just three years after he’d led the Rangers past Vancouver in the Stanley Cup finals — Messier came to town with a “Don’t you know who I am?” attitude, demanding the captain’s C (general manager Mike Kennan stripped it off the sweater of well-respected Trevor Linden) and uniform number 11 (which had been unofficially retired by the Canucks in honor of Wayne Maki). Fans quickly turned on him, but even those transgressions might have been forgiven if Messier had made any kind of impact on the ice. He didn’t. The team eventually bought him out after the third year of a five-year deal, leaving a legacy that angers fans to this day.
• The Cam Neely trade: It might not have been the worst swap in NHL history, but ask any fan to come up with a list of raw deals and this one won’t be far from the top. It was June 6, 1986, when the Canucks identified the Bruins’ Barry Pederson as the solution to their obvious need at center. In exchange, they sent Neely, who had been the ninth pick in the ’83 draft, to Boston along with a ’87 first rounder (which the Bruins used to take defenseman Glen Wesley). Pederson — who never fully recovered from the 1984 surgery that had removed a tumor from his shoulder — scored 197 points in just 233 games with Vancouver before being foisted off on the Penguins. Things went a little better on Boston’s end of the trade …
• The speed bag incident: This very well could have been the moment that the Stanley Cup dream died for the Canucks in 2011. The Bruins had come back from a two-games-to-none deficit and were about to tie the series at three games apiece when, in the dying moments of Game 6, Daniel Sedin and Boston’s Brad Marchand paired up on one side of Vancouver’s net as chaos ensued on the other. Marchand rabbit punched the larger Sedin in the face … then again … and again … seven times in all, with no response from Sedin other than to return his mug to a position that made it convenient for Marchand to continue abusing it. It wasn’t that Sedin wouldn’t fight Marchand — no one expected him to do that. It was his and the team’s utter lack of push-back, the complete absence of venom late in a blown opportunity to clinch the Cup. Sedin had given up and so, really, had the Canucks.
• Nick Lidstrom scores from center ice: It was the play that sent everyone with Photoshop scurrying for a stock image of a beach ball. With the Canucks up on the Red Wings 2-0 in their 2002 Western Confernece quarterfinal series, and with Game 3 tied at 1-1, Detroit defenseman Lidstrom launched a seemingly harmless shot from the red line toward Vancouver’s net. A skip later and the puck was behind baffled Dan Cloutier, turning the tide of the series and leaving a mental scar from which the goalie, and the team’s fans, have never really recovered.
After an offseason consumed by the Roberto “my contract sucks” Luongo trade melodrama, the departure of his heir apparent, Cory Schneider, to the Devils and the great coach swap with the Rangers that brought the incendiary John Tortorella to town, the Canucks went into a death spiral in January, wining just twice in regulation. Improbably, they still have a grip on the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Despite their struggles, Sportsclubstats.com sets their postseason chances at a solid 72.6 percent, ample odds for inflicting more springtime suffering on the Vancouver faithful.
In the system
The Canucks’ system is ranked 20th by Hockey Prospectus, but the picture would be uglier if not for the fact that they had two first-round picks in the 2013 draft. But this is the only team in the league that has less than 100 NHL games to show for its past five (!) draft classes, and out of Vancouver’s last eight drafts, only two players — Cody Hodgson (now with Buffalo) and Michael Grabner (who skates for the Islanders) — have emerged as full-timers in the league.
A track record like that doesn’t bode well for the current crop of hopefuls. Undersized forward Hunter Shinkaruk (24th in 2013) is a dynamic offensive talent (86 goals and 177 points combined in his past two junior seasons), but his season was ended after 18 games by major hip surgery, pushing his development back a year. Bo Horvat (ninth, ’13) is a solid, though not big, center who plays a smart, heavy game. His touch is improving at the junior level, but the consensus suggests he will top out as a second-liner. Danish winger Nicklas Jensen (29th, ’11) has the size Vancouver needs (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) and a decent bag of tools, but his skating is average at best and he has yet to figure out how to score at the AHL level (8-6-14 in 55 games). Brendan Gaunce (26th, ’12) brings a promising power game, but he projects as more of a third-line banger with 15-goal potential than as a legitimate top-six power forward. Frankie Corrado (150th, ’11) is the team’s best defensive prospect, a smart, two-way blueliner with some offensive upside.
It’s not a bad group at the top end, but beyond that, there are a lot of question marks, and few prospects who have given any hint of having top-six/top-four potential.
Better Days Ahead?
We’ve all seen this play out before, haven’t we? A team comes close to winning the Cup, then watches the dream of returning to finish the job fade away as the core players age out. These Canucks aren’t a bad team now, but they don’t have to look too far (hello, Flames) to see what can happen when assets are allowed to deteriorate. The current group, the backbone of Vancouver’s two consecutive Presidents’ Trophy-winning teams (2011, ’12) is aging fast — the Sedin twins, Luongo, Alex Burrows, and Kevin Bieksa are all 32 or older, and Ryan Kesler is closing in on 30 — and there’s not one player under 25 on the roster who appears to have what it takes to carry the torch into the future.
In short, this a poorly constructed team, one that has too many depreciating assets with costly, restrictive (as in no-movement clause) contracts and no viable plan for succession. The situation calls for bold action — how about sending Kesler to Chicago, a team desperate for a second-line center and loaded with young talent? — but that hasn’t been GM Mike Gillis’ style. And that’s precisely why the future is so bleak for a franchise that’s steaming toward 50 years without a championship.
Are you a Canucks fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.