The rest of this story, like the Russian Rocket himself, is a mercurial blur. After the hangover of the ’94 Stanley Cup finals, the prevailing discussion is not of repeat finalists, or another 60 goal season for Pavel Bure, but rather of a lockout threatening the 1994/1995 season. At stake is a number of now familiar issues. Gary Bettman seeks to wrest fiscal control from the players. Salary caps, revenue sharing, salary arbitration are all at on the table. Bettman even wants to strip players of disability and life insurance, as well as have players pay their own expenses to and from training camp. Bure, his own career seemingly dogged by legal battles, reads the reports every day, wondering if he is back in Soviet Russia.
104 days of negotiation later, the league resumes play on January 20th, 1995 with tighter stipulations for rookie contracts and some concessions for the players, but it is clear that the NHL with Bettman has entered a new level of business scruples, one which the Russian Rocket understands well — “money first, play later”. If this sounds all too familiar, remember that back then this was unheard of.
That said, Bure remains as loyal as anyone you’ll find to his teammates and his coach, Pat Quinn. But, while the team’s core is largely intact from the Stanley Cup run of a year ago, Quinn steps back into the managerial role and places Rick Ley at the helm of the Canucks. It is a tumultuous season filled with frustration, but the Canucks manage to make another playoff appearance, this time bowing out in the second round. Bure’s longtime linemate and friend Greg Adams is traded to Dallas in a pointless deal which yields the incompatible and oft-injured Russ Courtnall, the first in a slow trickle of trades which would change the allegiances and friendships forged by battle into a team without direction and split by personality clashes.
Bure’s contributions remain steady and spectacular. He dazzles fans game in and game out with an array of shots, dekes and crunch time plays which entrench Bure as a local hero. He transcends the sport, with every passing day. But the Canucks are beginning to fade.
In the next three seasons, what was once a Stanley Cup contending team, is attempting to rekindle the magic from the 1994 run. Most notably, the team’s goaltending is not the same. Kirk McLean’s game is visibly absent amid whispers and rumours that teammate, Jeff Brown, is causing McLean’s marriage to fall apart. Injuries to Gino Odjick limit his production, but before Brown is suspended for “disorderly conduct detrimental to the team” and covertly traded to Hartford, legend has it that Gino still makes time for a couple of parting gifts for Brown on behalf of his goaltender — two black eyes.
Loyalty defined the Canucks, but this too is cracking. Enigma, Alex Mogilny signs with the team for enormous dollars. Controversial pugilist Donald Brashear joins the team because the Canucks have traded young goon, Alex Stojanov for a skilled, but raw Swede named Markus Naslund. The team then flirts with injury and dressing room disaster by acquiring veterans such as Mike Ridley and Esa Tikannen whose better days are behind them but, like many aging players, fill the room with their voice. All this is to cover up the massive hole that Bure leaves when he is out of the lineup, which is often now, for Bure is now plagued by a chronic knee problem.
Much like the space programs in the 90’s, the Russian Rocket is grounded. After playing the full lockout season, Bure is never the same. He plays a mere 15 games in 1995-1996, due to a crippling knee injury. In 1996-1997, Bure plays just 63 games, looking a shadow of his former self. Not by coincidence, the team misses the playoffs for the first time since Bure’s arrival. It is the rock bottom the fans are all too accustomed to. It is the cold, hard reality of physics. What goes up, must come down.
Bure watches and hears the rumours as players leave through free agency and trades. Coaching, from Rick Ley to Tom Renney, just isn’t as strong. Pat Quinn leaves the Canucks. Brian Burke takes over. New players come in. Experiments are attempted, and mostly fail.
In 1997-1998, the Canucks attempt a measure of desperation never seen in this market. A mere three seasons displaced from losing to the New York Rangers in the finals, the Canucks do the unthinkable. They invite Mark Messier to the city to speak of a contract. Most fans don’t know what to think. “The Moose” comes with pedigree and the associated tag of instant leadership, but are the Canucks willing to forgive and forget, particularly current captain Trevor Linden, who was the recipient of a Messier cheap shot in 1994, or was the cheap shot a sign of things to come?
Messier is signed, but this move has everything to do with Bure and the new arena in downtown Vancouver, at the time, GM Place. Bure does not say much, but he does listen. He listens to the sudden knocks on the team’s foundation. Words like “character”, “leadership” and “poise” are bandied about in media forums. People say the Canucks need someone to push the team further than before. The signing is cloaked in the veil of wanting to get the most out of Bure on the ice, but silently there are whispers of Bure’s commitment to the team. After two injury riddled, unsuccessful seasons, Bure once again must answer the resurfaced questions related to his character, his commitment, his leadership.
And Bure listens.
He hears the media when Jim Coleman writes: “With due deference to Linden, Messier’s presence in the Canucks lineup is going to provide the team with the type of on-ice leadership Bobby Clarke gave to the Philadelphia Flyers when the Broad Street Bullies won the Stanley Cup two years in a row.”
He listens to teammates, like veteran Dave Babych who says, half jokingly, half seriously: “I’m going to play left wing this year! This takes us to the next level. It put us over the hump.” What hump? What level? “To the level we all want to be at. To the level we should be at.”
Even long time Canucks journalist Tony Gallagher applauds the move when he labels Mark Messier as “Mark Messier is a great player and perhaps the greatest leader in team sports in North America today.”
And who could argue? Messier’s resume speaks for itself. But Canucks fans do not know how he operates yet.
The season, Bure’s last as a member of the Canucks, is a return to vintage form. Once again, Canucks fans witness the explosiveness, as once again Bure dons the #10 on the team’s new jerseys. He plays a similar fearless game, but there is something missing. Gone is the smile. Gone is the passion. Bure seems to be playing because he must. Fans celebrate his every goal, but after the team returns from Nagano, where captain, Trevor Linden delivered a teary eyed address to the team in relinquishing his captaincy to Mark Messier, they see that his heart isn’t in it.
Writes Frank Brown of the New York Daily News: “Linden, asked to deal with Mark Messier’s hostile takeover of the dressing room, responded by surrendering the captaincy. Linden had been captain and leader, but the team Linden led never won a thing that mattered. Winning is a Messier trademark, winning has a price; and in this matter Linden paid with his pride”
To this too, Bure listens.
Fans begin to suspect a nefarious side to Messier which they never encountered from a satellite perspective. Whispers of Messier beginning to “take over” abound. The whispers become screams of panic when, after 19 games and the Canucks mired in a ten game losing streak, GM and president Pat Quinn is fired. Coach, Tom Renney is fired soon after an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings and the Canucks at 3-13-2. Replacing Quinn is Brian Burke, and replacing Renney is none other than former Rangers’ coach, and Messier henchman, Mike Keenan.
With the Messier/Keenan combination, a combination sturdily in the ears of new owner, John McCaw, the team is destined to move in a new direction. The team’s “culture” is now in serious doubt. This is the coach whose favourite son, Jeremy Roenick, wrote about him years later as being Mike Keenan, The NHL’s Last Great Asshole Coach. It doesn’t take long for “Iron Mike” to prove this sentiment. More dressing room leaks and rumours emerge.
According to the myth that is Mike Keenan, following a spotty period of play now former captain, Trevor Linden, stands up in the middle of the dressing room to address his teammates. Keenan coolly responds, “Trevor shut the f___ up. What the h___ have you ever done?”. Messier doesn’t even look up from taping his stick.
And Bure watches, and listens.
It would spell the beginning of the end for Linden’s departure from Vancouver, as a week later the Canucks send him to Long Island for a young behemoth of a player named Todd Bertuzzi. Kirk McLean, a player Keenan publicly describes as “the worst conditioned athlete he’s ever seen” is also sent packing to Carolina, and the Canucks begin an audition at the goaltending position that would last until the team would acquire Roberto Luongo. Arturs Irbe, Garth Snow, Corey Hirsch and Sean Burke all play between the pipes for Vancouver this season, sometimes being pulled twice in one game. McLean’s performance of game 1 in New York, the greatest single game any Canuck has ever played, is a distant memory.
Even Bure’s best friend, Gino Odjick, isn’t safe.
The following is one of many possibilities, but one which Odjick hinted at in a team 1040 interview some years after retirement. It is not impossible to imagine.
A few months after the Linden trade, and after not receiving much playing time, the always outspoken fan favourite Gino Odjick marches into Keenan’s office two days before a game with the New York Islanders, demanding to know why he isn’t playing. In the middle of the conversation, Keenan’s phone rings. As Keenan attempts to answer it, Odjick glowers at him and threatens, “You better not pick up that goddamned phone. I’m in the middle of f___ing talking to you.” Keenan smirks and withdraws his hand away from the phone and a day later Odjick is traded for defenseman Jason Strudwick, in another deal with the Islanders.
Ironically the Canucks play New York in Vancouver, and the teams suit up both players. Odjick lays a beating on Strudwick for good measure, and the fans at GM Place chant his name, one last time.
Later, Odjick would have this to say about Keenan and Messier:
He (Messier) just wants to destroy everything so he gets the power. He didn’t break a sweat for the first 10 games and just waited for Tom Renney and Pat Quinn to get fired. He talks to ownership all the time and he’s responsible for Keenan, and he’s part of most of the trades. Look what happened with (ex-Canuck and current Islander) Trevor (Linden) when Keenan gave him (hell). Did (Messier) come over to him and say, ‘Look, Trev, we’re with you?’ He didn’t say a word. How can you be captain like that? How can the team be together that way? He’s not with the players. He’s the one who controls everything. I don’t blame Keenan for what’s happened. Everything he does, he does in the name of winning. But everything that . . . Messier does is for more power. They signed him to help us, but all he wanted was most of us out of there so he could bring in his own people. He just wanted to tear it apart and do it his way.
And Bure watches, and still listens.
The destruction of the team everyone has grown to love is complete by season’s end. Even Alex Mogilny seems hostile and wants out. Bure has seen, has heard enough. He no longer cares about a team that has lost respect for the blood that loyal Vancouver Canucks have shed on behalf of a city. He looks around and sees betrayal at every turn.
There are newcomers in Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi ready to step in and take his place. A “C” on an enemy’s jersey.
There is a distant memory, fans chanting his name and a goal against Calgary… an old Arena on Renfrew… a GM and owners who fought tooth and nail for him, but now won’t pay him what he’s worth… best friends now on other teams… Jim Robson’s voice… even that has become Jim Hughson now…
the ring of a goalpoast.
In Bure’s head Jim Robson’s voice goes on perpetually, jumping into the rush alongside him as the fans, the same fans who loved him, turn on the radios and televisions to lament about Bure’s holdout season. They hate him. He’s turned on the city. Messier talking about continuing on for the love of the game, for loyalty to his teammates. Something about commitment… leadership.
Bure’s last game as a Vancouver Canuck is as a captain of the team. It is not the captain of the Canucks, mind you, but the captain of the team that brought him all this way. The curtain fully fallen, and the soviets fully exposed, a team laden with Russian talent takes to the ice in Nagano for the Olympic games. They are playing rival Finland. Most Canucks fans are glued to the screens, waiting for Bure to fail. Wishing him malice. Hoping his knee gives out. But Bure, the captain, shows everyone what it meant when an aging star was given the captaincy over him. The captain of Russia puts on a show. He scores.
And then he scores again. And again. And again.And again.
The five goal outburst serves notice to the NHL that Bure does indeed have game left in his legs, provided his heart is in it. Shortly thereafter, the Canucks do trade the Russian Rocket to the Florida Panthers. Bure’s legacy there, playing with his brother Valeri, and shortly afterwards, in New York where his first goal is setup by none other than Petr Nedved showcased Bure for the rest of the league as a hall-of-famer. But in Vancouver, only the smoldering wreckage of a potential dynasty remains.Some fans perennially wishing he were back in Vancouver, wearing the number 10, others, like Don Cherry on CBC’s Coaches’ Corner, embittered to their grave. There is no in-between.
Don’t just take it from me. Hear what those who really know him have to say in Audio of Pavel Bure and Jim Robson featuring the voices of Trevor Linden, Jim Robson, Pat Quinn, Arthur Griffiths and Pavel Bure himself. Perhaps the quote of the clip is Robson’s own voice who simply expresses the fact that Canucks fans “forgot”.
Retiring Bure’s number restores the gap that exists, ties in the brilliance of a franchise’s best player to the most tumultuous time in the city’s history – a time of great change equivalent to a revolution. On the one hand it is a time of old-time hockey, when players had no say and played because they were lucky to be here, but on the other it is a time of a growing empowerment of the worker, a realization that without the player, there can be no league, and surely, that without Bure there would be no Canucks, no Rogers Arena, and no expectations in Vancouver.
And what expectations do we have? Winning, yes, but also that hockey is more than mere sport. It is the world’s most beautiful sport, when played the right way. And what is it to play it the right way? It is to be loyal to one another, to play, and live as Bure did — fearlessly. Bure was loyal to his teammates, and yes, to a Vancouver he believed in, perhaps even, one which we have discovered only now. Pavel Bure. All we wanted was forever.
And now we can have it.