On this day 10 years ago, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa scored a wild goal off the stanchion in double overtime, defeating the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Final. A physical blueliner who had been a mainstay on Vancouver’s defensive corps for years, Bieksa was the only player on the ice who knew where the puck was when he scored the game winner. Compared to the way Burrows had finished off the Blackhawks in the opening round, Bieksa’s goal could not have been more anticlimactic. But Canucks fans did not care—their team was off to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1994.
As confetti rained from the rafters in a boisterous Rogers Arena, little did Canucks fans know at that time that it would be the last stretches of playoff success the franchise would enjoy in a long time. Even today, with Bieksa now a Hockey Night in Canada co-host three years retired from the game, Vancouver has yet to celebrate a playoff series win in front of their fans. In the second part of my series remembering the 2011 playoff run as a Canucks fan, I look back at the height of Vancouver’s playoff dominance that year.
Before the Canucks embarked on their storied run that year, the organisation had celebrated its 40th Anniversary. As one of the most valuable franchises in the league with a passionate and devoted following, Canucks fans are fiercely proud of their team and with good reason. From the era of flying skate logos to the current orca, the franchise has had its fair share of legendary players such as Trevor Linden, Stan Smyl, Markus Näslund, and Pavel ‘the Russian Rocket’ Bure. In the first decade of the 21st Century, Vancouver has also won more divisional titles than any other franchise Canada. Furthermore, the Canucks have also staged more 3–1 series comebacks than any team in the NHL. But at the end of the day, to critics, onlookers, and fans of opposing teams, these achievements fell on deaf ears, as since the franchise’s inception in 1970, the Canucks have never hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup.
And it’s not for a lack of effort as well. Sports media outlets have often noted that the Canucks follow ‘The Decade Rule,’ where approximately every 10 years, Vancouver would make a run at the Stanley Cup. Twelve years after its inaugural season, Vancouver made an unlikely run at the Cup off fantastic performances from Stan Smyl and Thomas Gardin. But as heavy underdogs, they were swept by the New York Islanders team with a core that consisted of Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier. Another 12 years after, the Canucks would inspire a new generation of fans with yet another Cinderella run to the Final, this time against the powerhouse New York Rangers with a roster that included Mike Messier, Brian Leetch, and Alexei Kovalev. As the seventh seed from the west that year, a never-say-die attitude from the Canucks’ top forwards in Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden, as well as a phenomenal showing from netminder Kirk McLean allowed the Canucks to push the Rangers to seven games. But Vancouver would come up short in one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history.
Prior to the start of the 2010-11 NHL season, The Hockey News predicted the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup in their annual yearbook. THN’s Adam Proteau, who authored the article on the prediction, emphasised the stellar Canucks offence led by the Sedins, a revamped blueline with more depth, and the ever-elite goaltending from Roberto Luongo. However, Proteau also pointed out that the Canucks should be a much more composed and levelheaded team—they would have surely learned painful lessons from their playoff exits at the hands of the Blackhawks for two consecutive years. However, the most poignant insights from Proteau’s article was this passage outlining the frustration of Canucks fans over the years:
“…the organisation has had some tantalising brushes with greatness (including Stanley Cup final appearances in 1982 and 1994), but for the most part, NHL hockey in Vancouver has been far more about disappointment and disgust than rejoicing and revenge.”
To this day, this passage still resonates with me because of how much the hammer hit the nail in describing the collective psyche of Vancouver’s fanbase. What I said earlier about Canucks fans being fiercely proud of their team? For every moment that left us beaming there were also plenty of occasions that outlined the innate frustration of every longtime fan.
In 1994, after falling to the Rangers in the Final, Canucks fans were gutted further when the city rioted in the aftermath of the loss. The disgust would linger past the turn of the Millennium, as Vancouver signed Mark Messier, who in a span of three years, personally influenced several executive decisions that has still made him largely reviled in Vancouver. In the early 2000s during the era of the West Coast Express, where the Canucks were paced by the top line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, and Markus Näslund, the team never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. During the 2002-03 season with one of the easiest paths to the Stanley Cup, Vancouver squandered their precious opportunity by blowing a 3–1 series lead to the Minnesota Wild in the second round. Näslund, who was the beloved captain of the Canucks that time, famously uttered the words “we blew it” in the exit interview. His comment did not sit well with fans, but was he really wrong? To me, the fan response only highlighted the years of their frustration.
Being a Canucks fan has always started with sensible hope—hope that a Cinderella team would be able to finish off a storybook season, hope that a generational player would take the team to the next level, hope that a solid powerhouse team will finally be the squad that will finish the job. But every time, all of the emotional investment has always ended in disappointment.
Now another 17 years later, Vancouver has qualified for the Final once more, but this time as the favourites and as a team that has repeatedly fought off adversity. A Stanley Cup would change everything—the years of embarrassment will all be forgotten. And to make the circumstances sweeter, Vancouver would become the first Canadian team to hoist the Cup since 1993, bragging rights that every Canadian fan has dreamed of since the Canadian Stanley Cup drought became an acknowledged phenomenon.
Despite the degree of hatred opposing teams had for Vancouver, it seemed inevitable that the Canucks would be the season’s eventual champions. After overcoming the beast that was the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks faced the Nashville Predators in the second round. Vancouver would dispatch Nashville in six games, fulfilling the Canucks’ Twitter hashtag of #Tenneseeya. Vancouver was also propelled by the best hockey Ryan Kesler had ever played in his career, who recorded 11 points. In the Western Conference Finals, the Canucks also made good on their new Twitter hashtag, #NoWayJose, when they eliminated the San Jose Sharks in five games. After their mental lapses against Chicago and a slow start against Nashville, the prime Canucks were finally on display in the series against the Sharks, as San Jose was lit up for nine power play goals in the series while the Sedins combined for 17 points. Though anticlimactic, a double overtime winner in Game 5 from Bieksa was the icing on the cake.
Again, thanks to the brilliant voices of CBC’s Jim Hughson and Sportsnet’s John Shorthouse, two amazing calls were also borne from the moment. “The puck looked like it was out of play but it stayed in! Kevin Bieksa took the shot, Vancouver’s won it in double overtime! And the Vancouver Canucks… Are going to the Stanley Cup Final!” was the call from Hughson after a brief moment of confusion. Shorthouse managed to keep up with the action every second through the play to the series-clinching goal. “Kevin Bieksa! 10:18 into overtime, the double overtime goal! And the Canucks, for the third time in their history, will play for the Stanley Cup!”
Referring back to the first part of my series, this was by far the happiest stretch of time for any Canucks fan in history. An Olympic gold medal performance from Team Canada in your building the year before, and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final for the Canucks this year. As expected from fans of a major Canadian team, thousands poured in front of Rogers Arena to watch the game in a reenactment of the 2010 Games, while most Vancouverites found it hard to leave out of hockey of daily discussions at school and work.
However, in what seems to be a perpetual theme for Canucks fans, the good times always seem to end a little bit too early. The Canucks would later be defeated by the Boston Bruins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final, a series that looked much more lopsided than it seemed.
I’ll see you here next month for the final segment of the series.
Above Featured Photo: Henrik Sedin salutes Canucks fans following the Clarence Campbell Bowl presentation crowning the Vancouver Canucks as the 2011 Western Conference Champions. (Harry How/Getty Images)