VANCOUVER, B.C. -- In the front lobby of Rogers Arena, a mural of a timeline adorns the far wall, mapping out the history of the Canucks. But besides the formation of the franchise in 1970 and the building of its arena in 1995, just two milestone years seem to be worth noting: 1982 and 1994.
1982: A Tradition Born, it reads. It was then, in the Canucks' first Stanley Cup Final appearance, that a city began to develop a hockey identity of its own. Up until that point, Vancouver had won just three playoff games in 11 years, and many of the city's hockey fans weren't necessarily rooting for the Canucks.
"I was one of the first here in 1970 when they expanded," says former Canucks player, coach and general manager Pat Quinn. "And people who came to the rink weren't necessarily Canucks fans. They were hockey fans, [but] they liked Toronto and Montreal and the old original six teams. The only reason they suffered the Canucks was because it was the place they had to go to watch the other teams play."
Like any expansion team, it took time for the Canucks to root themselves into the city's firmament; more precisely, though, it took some success. Unlike the skilled and nifty team that Vancouver will cheer on in this year's Stanley Cup Final, the 1982 Canucks were a blue-collar group, a grind-it-out sort of team that few expected to make it to the end. But in their march to the final, they began to make noise. And, of course, they were coached by Roger Neilson, a man who knew a thing about making statements.
"In the Chicago series," recalls Colin Campbell, a defenseman from the '82 team and the current Vice President of Hockey Operations for the NHL, "Roger didn't like this one referee, and he thought we were really getting screwed by the calls. So he grabbed a player's stick and put a towel on the stick and held it in the air, as a symbol of surrender. A bunch of players put it on their sticks.
"We went on from there, [beating the Blackhawks, and] we played the Islanders [in Long Island]," he continued. "When we got back to Vancouver, some entrepreneur thought he would sell towels and so when we got the rink everybody had a towel and were waving them."
"I didn't know what I was starting," Roger Neilson said later.
Those words are on the base of the statue that the Canucks erected earlier this season of the coach in that iconic pose, holding the blade of a stick with a towel hanging off the shaft.
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In Long Island, however, the hope was crushed by a dynasty.
"The Islanders could beat you any way you wanted to play," Campbell said. "We played an aggressive series, [but] they had their Gillies, and Nystrom, and Potvin was hard and tough, and Bourne. And then Bossy ... "
Still, 29 years later, Campbell chuckles in disbelieving awe as he remembers.
"We did as much as we could to stop Bossy, but he was pretty determined," he said. "He went through everything." (To see what Campbell means, check out this video of an amazing Bossy goal vs. the Canucks.)
Despite falling in a four-game sweep, for Vancouver it was the first step in legitimizing a team in a city that isn't quite like the rest of Canada. See, in the Pacific Northwest, backyard ponds don't freeze over in October. Snow doesn't dust the roads every winter morning. So geographically separated from most other Canadian cities, Vancouver stands apart, but when it comes to the hockey now, here, it stands together.
With the news of the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg next season, Canadian hockey pride has been thick this week north of the border. A CTV poll suggested that the nation is rooting to see the Stanley Cup won by a Canadian city -- no matter the fact that three of the Canucks' biggest names belong to two Swedish twins (Henrik and Daniel Sedin) and an American (Ryan Kesler). One nation, under Stanley, so to speak.
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But in Vancouver, the hopes, expectations and support are overwhelming. On the front page of Tuesday's Vancouver Sun, there was a photograph of a fan showing his enduring loyalty to his team. Sitting in an awkward pose, a young man winces as he gets the finishing touches of a massive Canucks tattoo drawn onto his leg. In his particular brand of fandom, you wear your loyalty on your thigh. For those looking to wear it in a more conventional sense, however, it's become almost as difficult to score a Canucks jersey at a store as it is to get a coveted ticket to Wednesday night's Game One. Reebok underestimated the demand and won't have replenished the jersey supply until the summer. The buzz around the city, one player remarked, may be even stronger than it was for the Olympic gold medal game, held in the same arena in February 2010.
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"Oh, it's wild here," Quinn said. "Everybody is completely stoked. But, of course, if you had taken a picture of this city two weeks ago, they all would have had cement boots on and be standing on the Lions Gate Bridge, you know?"
"When the times are tough here, you see how much people care," captain Henrik Sedin said Tuesday.
When the Canucks lost to the Islanders in '82, the city still threw the team a parade.
"Yeah, you don't see that happen too often, huh?" Campbell said.
There won't be a parade if they fall to Boston. There hasn't been a parade since. The city, perhaps a nation, awaits for that to change.
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