In 1992, the Canucks begin their season with Pat Quinn as their full-time head coach, President and GM and under the watch of Stan Smyl‘s #12 now hanging in the rafters of the Pacific Coliseum. Smyl, now serving as an assistant coach with Rick Ley, leaves a legacy as an exemplary leader with a rare combination of skill, brawn and effort — a role which young Trevor Linden appears to be embracing with aplomb. Canucks fans, while they don’t realize it at the time, are spoiled with two of sports greatest leaders, Smyl and Linden, holding the mantle for the team in consecutive decades.
Not to be outdone, Pavel Bure has impressed his teammates as well as millions of fans from all around the continent. His gifts are many: uncanny acceleration, deft stick handling, accurate and booming shot combined with a powerful skating stride. This is what we notice. What goes slightly unnoticed is his loyalty to his teammates, and his ability to elevate his game when it matters the most.
Playoffs are not kind to rookies, but the Calder Cup winning Bure notches 6 goals and 4 assists in a two round playoff run a season ago, after a 34 goal in 65 game regular season campaign. He seems itching to get going as the ’92 season commences. After each practice, Bure reminds the goalies of how many goals he scores by drawing a massive number on the chalkboard in the dressing room.
The number before the season begins is a different one. It reads “50”, or, the amount of goals Pasha plans on scoring in the NHL this year.
Most people feel the feat is impossible for a variety of reasons. Chief among these reasons is the dreaded “sophomore slump” which occupies the lines on a local radio station called “Sportstalk” with then-host, Dan Russel. The question is on everyone’s mind.
“Go ahead caller, you’re on the air…”
“Uhh, hi. Long time listener, first time caller…”
“Hi. Go ahead”
“How many goals do you think Pavel Bure can get this season?”
Pushed to the exterior regions of fan consciousness are the questions of player movement. The team is expected to score in bundles. They are expected to win games. People are talking about the Stanley Cup, not as an obscure possibility, but as though it is a matter of time.
But a 50 goal season still seems unthinkable. It has never happened in Vancouver before. The closest any Canuck player has ever gotten was Tony Tanti‘s 45 goals. This is the 90’s. Canucks teams are more known for futility in the scoring department than productivity. 50 goals is a marker reserved for other players — those special players that other teams have, with names like Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, or Mario Lemieux.
For Bure, however, the hastily scrawled “50” on the Canucks dressing room chalkboard is no mere pipe dream or brash dream of a trash-talking youngster. It is more like a rough estimate.
When the Canucks open the season at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, the Oilers are a shadow of their cup-winning 80’s teams while the Canucks are sporting a lineup that would quickly become, arguably, the best lineup the city has ever known. And, in what would become a fairly typical evening for Pavel Bure, he scores a goal and sets up another in a tightly contested 5-4 win for his team. Picking up where he left off from last season, Bure steals pucks from unsuspecting forwards, and carves up the Oiler defence all night en route to terrorizing goalie Bill Ranford.
As usual, Trevor Linden leads the media scrum after the game, and as is quickly becoming evident, serves as Pavel Bure’s media buffer, fielding more questions about the Russian Rocket than he fields about his own game. The answers are typically Lindenesque:
“Well, he’s a pretty special player.”
“We knew as soon as he stepped on the ice he was ready.”
“You can see he really wants to be here.”
“He’s just one of the guys, and we’re glad he’s here.”
“You have to be patient. He’s a young guy.”
Canucks fans are glad for it as well. A few days later, the Canucks win the second leg of the back-to-back series with the hated Oilers and score another 5 goals on Ranford, this time allowing only 2. Bure registers an assist and looks threatening all night, but fans at the home opener are unimpressed. Again, the intense Vancouver media scrums ensue.
Bure is asked about the “sophomore slump”, even though he doesn’t even know what the word “sophomore” means. Reporters question his commitment. Are Russians truly suited to the NHL game? Fans wonder if the previous season was a mirage. Linden defends Pavel again. Quinn reminds everyone that it’s early in the season. The frailty of the Vancouver market’s psyche emerges.
The following game against division rivals, the Winnipeg Jets, proves to silence the critics for a long time thereafter.
As the first line of Linden, Geoff Courtnall and Sergio Momesso get off the ice for their first change, Bure’s line of himself, Cliff Ronning and Greg Adams emerge. Bure takes off like a greyhound chasing a rabbit. Receiving a Ronning pass from almost behind him, Bure kicks it up past a defender at the Winnipeg blue line. Greg Adams, attempting to cross over to create an another angle for a pass or rebound, should there be one, unwittingly draws a third defender to Bure.
Any other player would be sandwiched between two defenders. But not Bure.
Bure, meanwhile is already thinking about how to slip past two large men who see a brief opportunity to ground the rocket. A new gear emerges. A powerful stride out of nowhere. A lunge. A blur. Gasps from the crowd. With a move straight out of the future of the game itself, Bure times a gap between the two defenders, and breaks in alone on Bob Essensa. Within seconds the score is 1-0 while the party at the Pacific Coliseum is on, defenders still trying to figure out who to blame.
By the end of the game, the Canucks have 8 goals on two different goalies, and Pavel Bure has half of them. 4 goals on 10 shots on net and one helper. Winnipeg Jets own exciting rookie nicknamed “The Finnish Flash”, soon to shatter rookie scoring records in the NHL, is held off the scoresheet. The notion of Bure’s supposed sophomore slump is not even an afterthought. Through three games, Pavel Bure has 5 goals, and 3 assists.
Somewhere, behind a cherry wood desk in Vancouver, sits a big silver-haired Irishman snipping the end off of a Havana cigar.
Doubters and cynics fall from the radar of the Vancouver sports scene like cockroaches after a fumigation as do the myriad of goaltenders who fall prostrate at Pavel Bure’s knees all season long, en route to what is the greatest single season performance in Canucks history. The brash, gum-chewing Russian Rocket electrifies fans everywhere. Sometimes he does it because he must, and other times he does it because he can. Canucks win lopsided results and run-and-gun games on the strength of a back end led by Vezina candidate Kirk McClean and loyal blue-liner Doug Lidster, but mostly on the backs of the potent offense Pat Quinn has assembled.
In what would go down as the highest scoring season in NHL history, 14 players tally at least 50 goals, and 20 players go over the 100 point marker. As future hall-of-famers in their prime abound on every team, goaltenders and defenders are under siege everywhere teams go. It is the perfect climate for Bure to accomplish his goal of a 50 goal season. Canucks fans are gushing with pride and tickets are very hard to come by. Bure dangles, rifles, dodges and dekes his way to not just 50, but a staggering 60 goals. He finishes the season fifth on the list of scorers behind Mogilny and Selanne’s amazing 76 goals, Mario Lemieux’s 69 and Luc Robitaille‘s 63.
The 46 wins and 101 points are both Canucks records. The 346 goals they score is a feat never since duplicated by the franchise and stands as the team record. Bure’s fingerprints are all over the season’s accomplishments. Despite the promising record and impressive goal differentials, the Canucks are, again, eliminated by what is this time an inferior L.A. Kings team. An impressive season seems all for naught as Canucks fans ponder how an L.A. Kings team that lets in more goals than they score against the Canucks can go on to the Stanley Cup finals to fall to a team which Vancouver stood a chance of beating.
Another year, another disappointment… same, sad old tale.
The following season sees the Canucks embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with young Czech centre Petr Nedved, who has asked for more money than the team seems willing to part with. In fairness to Nedved, the third year player is fresh off of a 39 goal season of his own and, in the shadow of Bure’s immense campaign, has not truly received the recognition he perhaps deserves. It hasn’t helped that at the end of last season’s playoff loss with the Kings, Nedved, like a sentimental 11 year-old fan, asked for Wayne Gretzky‘s stick. It was a request even the Great One himself, likely dimly aware of the social repercussions which would ensue for the young Czech, hesitated to fulfill at the time. To the general disgust of his teammates and his fans, Nedved skates away triumphantly with Gretzky’s shining silver stick after the handshake lineup, visions of millions of dollars worth of a new contract dancing in his mind.
It proves to be his final game as a Canuck.
Nedved coincidentally becomes a Canadian citizen, and latches onto the national hockey program. While the Canucks open their ’93 season, he fills out a roster of misfits on their way to a silver medal performance at the World Championship. The contract negotiation is hostile. In any other year, a young 39 goal scorer with 73 points in a season would be a player to lock up for a very long time. The Canucks, for the first time, have an embarrassment of riches on offense. The team plays hardball. The fans watch. They know. Bure is next.
The Canucks prove to be a difficult negotiator. The owners are still small-time in a small market. They do not cave to Nedved’s demands. Without warning, the St. Louis Blues sign Nedved to a contract well over what the Canucks are offering. Furious, the Canucks demand serious recompense for the promising rookie. Now Nedved is worth a name like Brendan Shanahan. He yields Craig Janney, who later becomes defenders Jeff Brown, and Brett Hedican as well as young grinder Nathan Lafayette. At first, it makes little sense, but soon the pieces prove to put the Canucks over the top.
Another season of highlights ensues for Pavel Bure. This time no one in the league can match his pace. The precision with which he times his bursts of speed is uncanny. He finds holes where there are seemingly none. He exposes goalies for weaknesses which previously did not exist. He is a work of athletic art, a composer of hockey brilliance. Canucks fans are transfixed by his every move. We feel the game with Linden’s heart, but we play it with Bure’s passion, his willingness, and his ferocity of spirit. He is as brave as another Canuck who we love dearly, his best friend off the ice, Gino Odjick.
If we can make any judgement on the person who is Bure, we must rely on his friends. Thus far beloved captain Trevor Linden has supported and applauded Bure as a teammate throughout his entire young career. But now, the Canucks have another superstar on the team, one known for destroying the morale of his opponents not with his stick, but with his hands. In an interview with the Vancouver Province, diminutive centre Cliff Ronning explains how important the role of the enforcer is to the team, a message the current-day Canucks would be wise to understand:
Having a guy like Gino around really makes all of us play bigger and tougher. We aren’t afraid of initiating battles, because we know Gino is with us. There is a noticeable difference in team mentality since Gino’s arrival. ~Cliff Ronning
In case you’ve forgotten the kind of man Gino was, click here: classic gino odjick _ and prepare to be amazed, either again, or for the first time.
The tale of Gino Odjick and Pavel Bure’s friendship is one which Jason Botchford has already eloquently described in his November 8, 2012 article for the Vancouver Province, but what is left unmentioned is what this says of Bure and the real reason why the jersey retirement needs to be done. Where people fail to see the connection lies herein.
No matter what, Gino represents what every Canadian who has ever played the sport has always known. Gino is the guy who lacks the skill, but you love to play with him and never deny him an opportunity because of his loyalty and friendship. He is your favourite teammate, and our favourite Canuck. With each Canuck goal is a picture of Gino, his gap-toothed grin celebrating his best friend’s every success. It is as though the Bure goals and Gino fights go hand in hand.
Gino wreaks havoc on games not to prove himself, but to make sure that his teammates are supported. And, if anyone is to make the mistake of handling his best friend in a way he doesn’t like, it is that unfortunate player’s turn to take the beating of his life. It is the way the NHL has always been and what allows the stars to be stars. Pavel’s role as unstoppable hockey force, is only made possible by the immovable hockey object that is Gino.
Now, during every Canucks game, even before a referee blows a whistle, the game is played under Pavel Bure’s law, and Gino is the enforcer.
The season is up and down for the team, but Bure is not to be denied. As the Canucks enter the 1994 playoffs, no one is better than Pavel this year. A second consecutive 60 goal season this time leaves him standing alone atop the leaderboard of goal-scorers. Of the 60 goals, most are scored at even strength, during meaningful moments of meaningful games. He stretches defenders everywhere and embarrasses world-class and sub-par goalies equally. The team finishes with fewer points than a season ago, but seem more resilient, more tested and more hungry than ever before.
In the first round of the playoffs the favoured Calgary Flames are giving the Canucks everything they can handle. The series goes seven games, and is played in Calgary’s Saddledome. Pavel Bure already has 2 goals in the game, now into its third overtime, with Vancouver fans back home having visions of another early round exit. Years of doubt and being down 3-1 in the series early on will do this.
But then this happens: Canucks Classics_ Pavel Bure Game 7 OT Goal – 4.30.94 – HD.
Like he has done so many times before, Bure finds space in the middle of the blue line to receive a perfect pass, and speeds in cold on Calgary netminder, Mike Vernon. He makes absolutely no mistake, as he undresses the Flames legend and former Conn Smythe trophy winner, sending the Canucks on the wild ride that would be the Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers. Tom Larscheid’s call as “the biggest goal in the history of the franchise” is no mere hyperbole.
On the way to one of the best Stanley Cup Finals in the history of the NHL, Bure leads the team in scoring with 16 goals and 31 points, falling a Nathan Lafayette goalpost away from winning it all for the city.
Immediately following the close loss, the city’s fans, unsure of what to make of it all, fracture in a delirious drunken party, destroying property and cascading mayhem onto the city’s streets until the late hours of the night. Chaos is everywhere, but so too is the feeling that what is lost in the night’s finals is much more than the Stanley Cup.
The prevailing feeling is that what was just witnessed was nothing short of magic, a fairytale ride that wasn’t supposed to end this way — that the best player the Canucks have ever known, was supposed to end the suffering, supposed to bring the cup home. Instead, the next morning, amid the physical ruins of Robson street, the hungover fans waking up in holding cells, the peaceful observers still sleeping in their Bure #10 jerseys, is the breeze of another Spring in Vancouver searching for answers.
Next and final segment: Forever a Canuck