Life

Hockey Nut in Canada

These are my memories from a bittersweet lifetime of rooting for the Canucks. What are yours?

By Mark Leiren-Young 1 Jun 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Mark Leiren-Young is a writer/director/performer who spends too much of his free time worrying about the environment, the Canadian political scene, and the Vancouver Canucks (not necessarily in that order). Mark won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his comic memoir, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo. He was a finalist for the WGC Award for screenwriting for his first feature film, The Green Chain. His most recent book, This Crazy Time, was written with/about controversial environmentalist, Tzeporah Berman. He's half of the satirical duo Local Anxiety. Their latest comedy CD, Greenpieces, is available on iTunes and their 21st century version of O Christmas Tree is becoming a holiday favourite thanks to The Tyee.

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The writer at work: 'I'm not a hardcore fan, really.'

Growing up in Vancouver in the 1970s every kid I knew had two hockey teams they cheered for -- the Canucks and their playoff team. We all just accepted that the Canucks weren't going to win the Stanley Cup, not yet, maybe not ever.

As much as we loved Orland Kurtenbach and Barry Wilkins and Dunc Wilson, we knew that the other teams had Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull, Henri Richard, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden... The Rangers hadn't won the Cup since dinosaurs roamed the earth and goalies stopped pucks with their teeth and they had Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Brad Park. Even those of us who still believed in Santa Claus didn't believe that Bobby Lalonde was going to beat Bobby Orr.

We had players. Everyone else had legends.

My playoff team was the Boston Bruins -- not because I had anything against Toronto or Montreal, at least not when I was eight (when I played street hockey, or table top hockey, or hockey with an orange plastic puck in the school gym I was Yvan Cournoyer, the Roadrunner), but because my grandfather had met Bobby Orr -- so I had a picture of him with Bobby Orr. Then my great uncle got me an autographed Bruins stick, Johnny Bucyk's, signed by the whole team (including Bobby Orr) and that clinched it. The Bruins were my playoff team.

Years wandering the desert

When the Canucks joined the NHL in 1970, hockey started with Esso and their Power Play stickers featuring the rosters from every team. My brother David and I demanded that our parents, our grandparents, our uncles, aunts and any adult we even vaguely knew stop at Esso to refuel every time they drove and if we were in the car God help them if they tried to pass the station at 49th and Oak without stopping for a fill-up. In 1970 gasoline was 36 cents a gallon. It's possible Canadian children caused the energy crisis in '73 and doomed Jimmy Carter's presidency because of our desperate need to not just collect every sticker for every member of our home (and playoff) teams, but for every other team including the illustrious California Golden Seals.

I don't recall the first games I saw, or even the first games I attended, but I remember David and I dragging our mom to the cold, cement basement of the Pacific Coliseum after those games to wait on the wrong side of the velvet rope protecting the Canucks' dressing room so my heroes could autograph my program. It didn't matter if the Bruins, the Habs, the Wings or the Hawks were playing -- it was the Canucks I desperately wanted signatures from. So if you're a collector who's bored of Jean Beliveau and Bobby Clarke and what you really need is a signature from Charlie Hodge or Gary Doak I'm your man.

David and I watched every All Star game praying for the lone Canuck on the team to do something, anything. And until a few years ago it was always a lone Canuck -- usually one of the token picks designed to make sure fans in every city had someone to root for. The biggest All-Star thrill was when Dennis Ververgaert scored two goals in 10 seconds in the 75-76 game. Even if Denis Ververgaert wasn't better than Denis Potvin, at least for one brief moment he outshone him and Canucks fans lived for triumphs like that.

After Bobby Orr's knee stopped bending and Esposito became a Ranger I stopped cheering for Boston in the playoffs and started rooting for underdogs, any team (except the Broad Street Bullies) that gave me hope that one day my Canucks might one day do something -- anything -- in the playoffs.

But when the season ended in 1981 my Canucks had won exactly three playoff games -- and those were spread over five different series. Winning one game against Montreal in a best of five contest in '75 was as good as life got. The next year the Islanders won two straight in a best of three. We took one game against the dirty Flyers in a best of three in '79 and we were humiliated by Buffalo, playing them in two straight best of five showdowns in '80 and '81 -- winning only one game in 1980.

Virginal hopes

Then, in 1982, the impossible happened. Thomas Gradin, Stan Smyl and Tiger Williams caught fire against the Flames and for the first time in my life my playoff team was the Canucks.

I lost my virginity at the start of the '82 playoffs. Even at the time I wasn't sure what was more momentous. It took 10 years for the Canucks to win another playoff round. It took me far less time to do the same.

After the Canucks took out Los Angeles four to one, Richard became King and Roger Neilson waved a white towel to surrender to the referee, I think the Canucks became everybody's playoff team.

Ever since then, no matter how unbeatable the Islanders, the Oilers or the Red Wings looked, I've been one of those fans who started every season (except the one when Keenan traded Linden) with the declaration that "this is our year."

When I was working for TV Week in the '90s and got the chance to interview the Canucks' first true superstar, Pavel Bure, I think I was almost as calm, cool and collected as a 14-year-old girl meeting the studly vampire dude from Twilight. I had serious trouble getting past, "Ohymygawyourepavelbureeeee." Bure then proceeded to answer most of my questions in one word or less, supposedly because he didn't speak enough English to handle them. As soon as our conversation was done, I overheard him speaking almost fluently with Canucks' enforcer Gino Odjick.

A few years later I got to profile "the Voice of the Vancouver Canucks," Jim Robson, in the broadcast booth, and received the rare privilege of being scolded for the crime of cheering from the press box. Tommy Larscheid, the Canucks number one fan, consoled me after "the Voice" snapped at me for my breach of media etiquette. But seriously, Ohlund scored against the Wings -- what was I supposed to do?

1994 and after

In '94 I was determined not to miss a second of the Canucks' magical run. I was lucky enough to attend most of the home games and think I may still be paying off my tickets to game six against the Rangers. My life pretty much stopped that spring -- replaced by sports pages, sports conversations with friends and Sports Talk radio. A part of me still believes that if Nathan Lafayette had placed the puck a few centimeters to the left not only would Trevor Linden have scored in overtime, but it never would have rained in Vancouver again.

In 1995 I flew to Quebec for the Unity Rally and wore my Cliff Ronning jersey to show where I was from and collected delighted shouts, laughs and high fives from Quebecois and a handshake from the Premier of New Brunswick.

So after Kevin Bieksa tanked the Sharks with the invisible puck I would have been happy to wear Rogers Arena confetti on my head for the rest of my life.

Yet, as I write this I'm thinking, other than going to more games than most fans I don't even consider myself that hardcore...

Not like the four guys I ran into in Stanley Park Sunday night who were dressing up the Lord Stanley statue in Canucks' gear.

One of them, who identified himself as Michael, said they were all willing to share their first names with me but, "we are all Canucks -- so for last names I'm Michael Canuck."

Michael Canuck described himself as "a long-suffering Canucks fan," then corrected that to "a lifelong Canuck fan who remembers the days of Orland Kurtenbach." As Jack Canuck and Wes Canuck used a golf ball retriever to maneuver an XXL Ryan Kesler jersey over Lord Stanley's oversized noggin, Michael said he remembered desperately wanting to go to games as a child, not being able to afford tickets and getting into the Coliseum by working for the CKNW "Orphan's Fund" selling Christmas wreaths. He recalled selling one wreath to Dunc Wilson and two to a fur coat clad André "Superpest" Boudrias -- one for each of the two women he had on his arms.

Someone had already hung a banner around our illustrious Governor General that read "The Stanley Cup belongs here," and the Canuck brothers wanted to respect their work, so they re-set it on the base of the statue. I suggested they drop it a few more inches so it covered up most of Lord Stanley's inscription to read, "The Stanley Cup belongs here -- for all time. I name thee Stanley Park."

The delighted Canuck brothers dropped the banner to make it so.

Fan heaven

But I'm not a hardcore fan. Really, I'm not.

I actually miss the occasional game (and when Mike Keenan took over I was tempted to miss them all). I don't have an encyclopedic memory for stats. I can't recall who wore which jersey when, or whether their jersey was from the Halloween pyjamas era. I can't remember exactly who passed to whom for which epic goal, or who was traded for whom (although I do know exactly where I was and how much I cried when Glen Hanlon was traded). And I can count the number of calls I've made to sports shows on one hand with plenty of fingers left over.

Okay, so there was the time I was catching a flight to Toronto and a playoff game against the Flames went into triple overtime and my friend (Tyee contributing editor) Charles Campbell held his phone to the TV so I could hear the play-by-play as they were shutting the doors on the flight, and the stewardess was telling me I had to turn off my phone and I was ignoring her as she decided whether or not to throw me off the plane. When Brendan Morrison scored I cheered and the rest of the passengers only took a moment to catch on to what was going on and then they all cheered with me before I hung up so the flight could take off. But still... that's pretty typical, eh?

When I heard Michael Buble on Team 1040 a few days ago saying he had a jet on standby to go to either Tampa Bay or Boston to watch the away games my first thought wasn't "wow, he's got a jet" it was "ohmygawd he's got tickets to see the game in Boston."

I fully appreciate that over the next two weeks wars will be waged, politicians will do disreputable things, the earth's temperatures will continue to warm and a billion other injustices large and small will be committed -- but my nose would stretch from Vancouver to the Rockies if I told you I'd be paying as much attention to any of that as I will to Manny Malhotra's faceoff percentage.

I know some Tyee readers are more interested in politics than passes, care more about the Green Party than the green men, and would prefer to read about Kevin Falcon than Kevin Bieksa but, for the rest of you... I'm hoping you’ll share some of your fave fan moments and memories below.

Not that I'm a true believer or anything, but I only took two teams in my playoff pool -- Canucks and Bruins -- and my Facebook status just before the puck dropped in game one against Chicago was: "Kesler = Conn Smythe."

Bring on my old playoff team. Canucks in four. High five you on Granville. This is our year.  [Tyee]

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