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SportsGhosts of '94: Vancouver's Pursuit of Stanley

Ghosts of '94: Vancouver's Pursuit of Stanley

The names on the back of their jerseys read BURE, LINDEN, COURTNALL, ADAMS, MCLEAN – names that would be cemented in the brief history of the Vancouver Canucks, the men who spurred the charge to bring the Stanley Cup to British Columbia for the very first time. They had performed nothing short of miracles to even reach this point, trudging to a 41-40-3 record in the 1993-94 regular season, good for 85 points and seventh in the NHL’s Western Conference, and a match-up in the first round with the powerful Calgary Flames. That series would go the distance, seven games, the final three all requiring overtime, the seventh needing double. The Canucks won all three of those games, Geoff Courtnall scoring the winner in Game 5, Trevor Linden clinching Game 6, and finally, eighty-two minutes into Game 7, Pavel Bure scoring to win a series that had simply refused to end.

From there, Vancouver would face the Dallas Stars and, later, the Toronto Maple Leafs; perhaps encouraged by their exhausting upset of their Alberta rivals, the Canucks dispatched both the Stars and Leafs in five games apiece, with a veteran winger named Greg Adams scoring the double-overtime winner in Game 5 against Toronto to send Vancouver to the Stanley Cup final. They would face an impossible task in the final round: the 85-point Cinderella from Western Canada trying to keep pace with the heavily-favoured New York Rangers, winners of the President’s Trophy as the owners of the league’s best regular-season record, led by their legendary captain, Mark Messier, supported by the dynamic defensive pairing of Sergei Zubov and Brian Leetch, 52-goal scorer Adam Graves, phenoms Alex Kovalev and Tony Amonte, battle-tested veterans Steve Larmer, Mike Gartner and Esa Tikkanen, and backstopped by an up-and-coming netminder by the name of Mike Richter.

And yet, unfathomably, inconceivably, after falling behind three games to one, with Madison Square Garden poised to erupt in celebration of the Rangers’ first Cup victory since 1940, the Canucks did something funny: they won Game 5 on the road, on the strength of five third-period goals, two each from Bure and Courtnall. Back in Vancouver for Game 6, Courtnall scored twice more as the Canucks stunned the Rangers 4-1, equalizing the series and setting up a do-or-die Game 7 on June 14th, 1994, with the highest of stakes: the Rangers, playing at home, trying to avoid a massive choke job and win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years; and the Canucks, the 27-point underdogs, a team of veteran misfits and unproven youngsters, trying to complete the most unlikely playoff run in the history of their sport, trying to win the first Stanley Cup in the 24-year history of their franchise.

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The Vancouver Canucks didn’t win the Stanley Cup that day, of course. That was the year after the Montreal Canadiens topped Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings to take home the championship, a triumph that has been rehashed every spring since by Canadian hockey fans, as the last Canadian team to claim the Stanley Cup. Instead of Bure and Linden and Courtnall and Adams and Kirk McLean, the Canucks’ embattled goaltender who stood on his head during the ’94 playoff run, Canadian fans deify Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, Eric Desjardins and Patrick Roy, the harbingers of our nation’s most recent victory over the scourge of expansionist Americans and non-traditional hockey markets.

17 years after New York’s 3-2 Game 7 victory, Canada has its first veritable shot at returning Lord Stanley’s grail to its rightful home north of the border. Since 1994, there have been just three Canadian Cup finalists, each of whom entered the final round as a significant underdog: the 2004 Calgary Flames, a sixth-seed that fell in seven games to the Martin St. Louis-Brad Richards-Vincent Lecavlier-led Tampa Bay Lightning (notably, Martin Gelinas, a member of the ’94 Canucks, scored the series winner in each of Calgary’s three series victories); the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, an eighth-seed that lost in seven games to the Eric Staal-Cory Stillman-Rod Brind’Amour-led Carolina Hurricanes; and the 2007 Ottawa Senators, a four-seed that breezed through the Eastern Conference but fell in five games to the Teemu Selanne-Chris Pronger-Scott Niedermayer-led Anaheim Ducks.

The same cannot be said for the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks. Unlike their Canadian Cup final forerunners, Vancouver has been one of the favourites since the drop of the puck in October. The winners of this season’s President’s Trophy, the Canucks’ explosive offensive attack and stout defensive game have been supplemented by the sudden erosion of their top rivals. With the gutting of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, the age of the Detroit Red Wings and the third-round implosion of the San Jose Sharks, it’s no surprise that Vancouver found itself with a clear path to the final, and with the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins and the annual playoff collapse of the Washington Capitals conceding the East to the Boston Bruins, it’s no surprise that the Canucks are favoured to win it all.

Vancouver’s jerseys have changed drastically since 1994 – the black-red-and-gold amalgamation of old has given way to a blue-and-green motif – and the names on the back of the sweaters reflect the passing of time. In place of Bure and Linden are two Swedish twins, ten-year veterans that have only recently began to entrench themselves among the NHL’s elite skaters. Courtnall, the tough-as-nails leader with scoring punch from Duncan, BC, has been replaced by a young centre from Michigan, equally adept at battling in the corners and potting clutch goals. One man in particular has been able to duplicate the impact of Adams, the journeyman winger from nearby Nelson: a former ball-hockey standout that paid his dues in the minor leagues and has emerged as Vancouver’s go-to guy in a variety of high-pressure situations. And McLean, the flawed-yet-beloved backstop, has been succeeded by a considerably more accomplished netminder, one that has silenced his fair share of critics at both the NHL and Olympic levels. If Vancouver is to claim the Cup this season, the heroes will be Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, and, of course, Roberto Luongo.

Like the ’94 Canucks, they faced tribulations early on, edging out the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games after squandering a 3-0 series lead, before outlasting the Nashville Predators in six and annihilating the overmatched San Jose Sharks in five. Burrows’ overtime tally to oust Chicago saved Vancouver from a tragic downfall and set the tone for the rest of the postseason; Kesler was the only Canuck to muster any semblance of offense against the stingy Predators; both Sedins have been quietly consistent, sitting at the top in the league for playoff scoring; while Luongo has been absolutely stellar, posting a .928 SV% and a 2.16 GAA through Game 2 of the Cup final.

Statistically speaking, this is the strongest Canucks team of all time – they earned 117 points during the regular season, 12 more than any other team in their history. They won 54 games, another franchise high, en route to claiming their eighth division title. They ranked first in the NHL in both goals for (262) and against (185). As the series moves eastward to the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Canuck fans sit breathless in anticipation, waiting for Lord Stanley to visit for the first time in 40 years. For other Canadian hockey fans, the more relevant figure is 18: the prolonged drought of Canadian hockey supremacy that could be erased as early as Friday. From the immeasurable forests of Stanley Park to the Alberta oil fields, from the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg to Parliament Hill, from Montreal’s Underground City all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, hockey fans across the nation are rooting for the Canucks to exorcise the ghost of Mark Messier and the ’94 Rangers; to do it for Bure, for Linden, for Courtnall, for Adams, for McLean; to win not only for Vancouver, a city living and dying for hockey glory, but also for Canada itself, a country starving for order to return to the hockey world, to return to the pinnacle of the game we love.

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