by Ron Spence
Vancouver wasn’t always a hockey hotbed.
A quarter of a century after hockey was highly popular in eastern Canada, many Vancouver fans still hadn’t see a game.
“Most of [opening night fans] had never seen a hockey game before, but they became ardent enthusiasts long before the finish,”The Province wrote in 1912.
Vancouver supporters remained enthusiastic as the Millionaires (later called the Maroons) became a winning team. They took the PCHA titles in 1915, 1919, 1921 and 1923, and played for the Stanley Cup in 1915, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924.
They won Lord Stanley their first try, in 1915, but never again.
Vancouver fans were deprived of great hockey when the coast league folded in 1926, but the semi-pro PCHL circuit (which was renamed the North West Hockey League in 1933, and re-renamed the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1936) premiered two years later. The new Vancouver Lions won five titles in thirteen years, before folding in 1941 (The Vancouver Forum was built prior to the 1934-35 season, but had only 3500 seats. When the Denman Arena burnt down in 1936, it became Vancouver’s premier rink.).
A new team, the Canucks started playing after the War. Continuing the tradition of the Millionaires and Lions, the Canucks won the PCHL Championship their second season in the league. In 1953, the PCHL and the Western Canada Senior Hockey Leagues merged and formed the Western Hockey League. The Canucks won the championship Lester Patrick Cup in 1958, 1960, 1969 and 1970.
Vancouver fans supported their minor league Canucks, but still wanted a Big Tent team of their own. They were disappointed when the NHL doubled in 1967, without including a Vancouver franchise.
But, they optimistically built the 16,000-seat Pacific Coliseum, which housed the WHL’s Canucks for two and one-half years.
Finally, Vancouver along with Buffalo, were admitted to the NHL in 1970 for a $6 million fee. Norman “Bud” Poile was named the Canucks’ first GM, and Hal Laycoe their inaugural coach.
Vancouver’s first NHL game was held on October 9, 1970 against the L.A. Kings. The game was broadcast on the CBC and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Premier W.A.C. Bennett, and NHL President Clarence Campbell attended. The NHL Canucks lost their first contest 3-1, but beat Toronto 5-3 two nights later.
Vancouver finished their first season with 24 wins and 56 points, placing them ahead of California and Detroit in the standings. As would be the case for most of the franchise’s history, Vancouver finished near the bottom of the league, but never low enough to take that year’s best draft picks. Montreal had traded for California’s pick, and took Guy Lafleur, while Detroit selected Marcel Dionne. Vancouver would take Jocelyn Guevremont.
Their second season, the Canucks finished with only 20 wins and 48 points, a franchise low. The team continued to falter, and by 1981 the Canucks had yet to win more than one playoff game in a series, let alone a series.
But then things changed in 1982. With players like goalie Richard Brodeur, Tiger Williams, Thomas Gradin, Stan Smyl and Ivan Boldirev the Canucks went to the Stanley Cup finals, before being swept by the New York Islanders.
Vancouver had beaten Calgary, Los Angeles and Chicago to get a sniff of the Cup.
During the Blackhawks’ series, Vancouver coach Roger Neilson waved a white towel at referee Bob Myers, after a bad call. Tiger Williams and other Canucks then hoisted towels on their sticks, and further taunted the ref. Thus, towel power was created, and Vancouver fans have since waved white flags in support of their team.
Following the series, 100,000 fans lined Vancouver’s streets to salute their parading Canucks. It was twelve years before another parade, however.
Then, led by the offense of Russian-born Pavel Bure, Trevor Linden, Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning and Gus Adams, and the goaltending of Kirk McLean, the Canucks came back from a three to one deficit, to win three overtime games against the Calgary Flames. Next they beat Minnesota and Toronto, to represent the west in the finals.
The Canucks pushed the highly favoured Rangers to seven games, before New York ended their fifty-four year drought to win the Cup. The final 1994 game came down to a faceoff to the right of Mike Richter, with 1.6 seconds left to play.
The Canucks returned to Vancouver at 5:40 the following morning, to tens of thousands of fans.
They were every bit as ardent as the Millionaires’ supporters had been eight decades before.
The above was written for the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame