VANCOUVER -- British Columbia is still beautiful, as one February walk through its largest city confirms. No burning cars, no broken store windows, no police officers with billy clubs held high, no foolish young men flexing phony muscles for pictures that probably will put some of them behind bars.
This week, in fact, saw the first person -- 20-year-old Ryan Dickinson -- convicted and sentenced to 17 months for the riots that disgraced Vancouver on June 15, the night the Boston Bruins beat the Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
But love is in the air again, and not just at the Sand Bar restaurant in Granville Island, where the place was packed with canoodling couples on Valentine's Day. Canucks fans are falling hard for their team again, starting to build hope that last June 15 will forever be forgotten and equated to just one really bad blind date.
Like the seaplanes that glide in to Coal Harbour next to the city skyline, Vancouver's team is still pretty to watch. The Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, are still as slippery to catch as a live salmon in oily hands, whirliing and twirling opponents into dizzying futility. A subset of speedy forwards make sure nothing gets too sedintary, er, sedentary when the identical Swedes take a breather. There are six solid defensemen, and two goaltenders who could probably be the No. 1 on at least half the teams in the league.
There is nothing not to like about these Canucks, or their city, almost a year later. Everything seems back to normal, on and off the ice. After a 3-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at Rogers Arena on Feb. 15, the Canucks' record stood at 36-15-6, just two points behind Western Conference-leading Detroit (with one game in hand). And yet, the players well know the pressure that awaits them. Once the playoffs start, all the "Can this finally be the year?" questions will start all over again.
This franchise that has been in operation since 1970 is still looking for that first Cup, after coming so painfully close last June. Those who are looking for the answer to the question, "Could this team be good enough to win that last game this time?" might do well to look at the Jan. 7 match it played this season in what proved to be its house of horrors last spring: the TD Garden in Boston. True, most regular-season wins have the equivalent in-depth meaning of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but Vancouver's 4-3 win could have real value this spring. Not only did the Canucks beat their now-bitter rival, they more than held their own in the sport's important streetfight aspect.
If there was one criticism of the Canucks that stood out in their devastating seven-game Cup defeat by the Bruins, it was that they too easily turned the other cheek when the gloves came off. Who can forget the images of Milan Lucic sticking a gloved finger into the face of Alex Burrows, in mockery of his biting Boston's Patrice Bergeron earlier in the series? Or Brad Marchand using Daniel Sedin's face as a speed bag in Game 6. Or Tim Thomas checking Henrik Sedin, slashing Burrows, and parading with the Cup on Vancouver ice?
But in their January matinee win in Boston, the Canucks played rough, tough and, yes, a little dirty. The win may have only been worth two points in the standings, but to defenseman Kevin Bieksa, it was worth more to their standing as men unafraid of a good fight.
"I think there are certain situations teams are put in that can really define them. That game in Boston was one," Bieksa says. "The way we played in the finals in their building obviously wasn't the best. To go in there and answer the critics, and stand up for ourselves, I think was a huge game and it built a lot of camaraderie in the room."
No team can make it to a Game 7 of a Cup final without a strong esprit de corps, but that nagging endnote of "Boston played with more emotion, Vancouver was too robotic and soft" was written in many verdicts of the series. The same steep mountain must be navigated again this spring, but this team has gotten closer as the years have passed. Maybe a heartbreaker of a Game 7 was just the kind of gut punch that will toughen the Canucks all the way through this time around.
"I think we wanted to show we could play in that building," Daniel Sedin says of the January win in Boston. "It was a good boost for us. We want to win the conference and have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, though."
These Canucks don't seem to need much, but there is always plenty of trade speculation in Vancouver. With the Feb. 27 trade deadline looming, many observers are guessing what GM Mike Gillis might do to strengthen the team for the playoffs. With a few contenders desperate for better goaltending, many believe that Gillis' best choice would be to trade backup Cory Schneider for what figures to be a solid bounty, and commit to veteran Roberto Luongo -- who has chalked up another robust regular season statistically. Others, mindful of Luongo's reputation for being unable to win the big one (even though he won the Olympic gold medal for Canada in 2010, in the frenzy of Vancouver yet, and three tough playoff rounds last spring) say that counting on him would be folly.
Whatever happens, forward David Booth sure is glad to be in Vancouver. After five-plus seasons of hockey obscurity in Florida with the Panthers, Booth has come to love the hockey-is-everything Canadian atmosphere. Yeah, that passion for the sport can spill out in stupid ways, as last June 15 illustrated. But 24/7 hockey scrutiny from fans and media is a toll Booth is happy to pay at this stage of his career.
"It's just really fun to come to a winning team, where every game is of huge importance. The ends of the spectrum here (from Florida) are the greatest, from not really being a hockey market in Fort Lauderdale to one of the biggest here," says Booth, who had scored a goal in three straight games entering the games of Friday, Feb. 17. "We have a great team here, and we play a tough game, too. We don't get pushed around."
Indeed, Vancouver looks ready to rumble this spring. On the ice, not off.