It’s that time of year again in Vancouver. You can smell it in the air. Barbecues are being fired up, white towels are waving and car flags are flapping in the wind as televisions and radios are locked on Canucks playoff hockey.
Enjoy the moment, British Columbia, because it doesn’t happen every year. In 38 NHL seasons this is only Vancouver’s 22nd appearance in Lord Stanley’s postseason dance, after missing last year’s festivities.This time around has a different feel, though, after the ‘Nucks sweep of the St. Louis Blues in the first round. Playoff fever is at an all-time high and from now until the final chapter everyone is on the bandwagon.
“The feeling in Vancouver is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before; we have a team with a legitimate chance,” says Ryan Sullivan, a season ticket holder since 1990. “Nobody will give you the prediction for this team’s run because we’re all afraid of jinxing our chances, but the city is alive and electric.”
In an economy that has seen better days, playoff hockey is great for business in Vancouver. The team owner can be nothing but happy with profits from home playoff dates, concessions and souvenirs and a jampacked GM place. Beer companies are happy, too, hoping a Canadian team can last until the end because alcohol sales are up. “It makes or breaks your year as a sales rep, with consumption and sales way up in any Canadian city with a Canadian team involved.” says Sleeman rep Chris Rendell.
Not since the Millionaires and Fred (Cyclone) Taylor in 1915 has a team from Vancouver won the Stanley Cup. The Canucks made it to the final against the Islanders in 1982 but were swept in four straight, then made it again in l994 only to fall to the Rangers in seven. Police and city officials’ biggest fear now is a recurrence of the riots that happened after the ’94 loss, but hopefully we have learned from our mistakes and following the lead of world-class goalie Roberto Luongo, Vancouverites should remain classy—win or lose.
“It’s nice to see your name engraved on it, no other sport has that and it’s something that’s going to be there forever. This is what hockey is all about, and given the fact I haven’t spent much time in the playoffs you try to take it in as much as you can and enjoy the moment and do the best you can,” said Luongo. “Half my career is done with and I haven’t come close so time is ticking and this year I feel is my best chance so far and that’s really exciting to me.”
Win or lose, you know he will always give it his best— not only to stop the rubber biscuit, but also the opposing players who bash and crash his crease. Vancouver was once called a “graveyard
for goaltenders” with the likes of Felix Potvin, Dan Cloutier, Sean Burke, Kevin Weeks and Arturs Irbe passing through. Not that anyone needs any reminding, however, but Luongo is the real deal.
In my time covering the NHL as a reporter, I’ve never seen a goalie more competitive on and off the ice, and it is only fitting he was named team captain this year. Someone who hates to lose and loves to battle is always refreshing in a pro sports world all too often populated by overpaid prima donnas. Another great thing about the guy they call Bobby Lu is how he can get into the heads of playoff opponents.
“When a goalie is hot against you and he makes a couple of big saves, you start hanging your head a little bit and give a couple of sighs,” says defenseman Kevin Bieksa, “kind of like—are we ever going to beat this guy? It wears on them after a while.” “That’s the whole fun of it,” said Luongo. “When you try to get in their heads, they try to get in your head and get you off your game, and that’s great. It’s a good challenge for me and I enjoy those tasks.”
Next season will be the final year on his four-year contract that will pay him $7.5 million, more than enough to enjoy his favourite Italian restaurants in Yaletown and the best Vancouver real estate has to offer. With the team they’ve built around him and the love he enjoys from the fans and the city, it seems unlikely he won’t re-sign for the long term. With gold medals from the World Cup and World Championship, there are only a few things missing from his stellar resume—a Stanley Cup, and a gold medal at the Olympics. He has a chance now to get them both in front of his adoring West Coast fans.