Three trips to the Stanley Cup final in 42 seasons isn’t bad. Nor are two game sevens where the puck is dropped with a championship in the balance.
Look through the NHL annals since the Canucks and Sabres became the 13th and 14th teams in hockey’s top league and a lot of franchises don’t have even those modest accomplishments on their resumes. Not bad, but not necessarily that good either if your goal is to raise a Stanley Cup banner to the rafters.
On Saturday night there will be an addition to the rafters at Rogers Arena, and while it will be a reminder of how close to the Stanley Cup the Canucks came in the memorable spring of 1994, it will also stand on its own as a tribute to the best player the franchise has ever known.
The term “worth the price of admission” was never uttered at the old Pacific Coliseum — at least in reference to the home team — before Pavel Bure hit town.
And while the Russian Rocket’s considerable exploits have been recalled, celebrated and counted down in this week leading up to his jersey ceremony, I look beyond the double-OT winner against Calgary or the pre-season breakaway trick shot that became the most aired replay in Vancouver sports history.
For me, Bure’s finest moment is also the earliest: Nov. 5, 1991.
In the age before YouTube and Twitter, it’s safe to say a majority of the 16,000-plus in the Coliseum that night for Bure’s NHL debut against the Jets had never seen him on TV in game action. Even the world junior tournament which he’d dominated (27 goals in 21 career games) wasn’t given the same exposure it is today. And it’s worth noting Canucks fans had tempered expectations thanks to the flameout of Russian superstar Vladimir Krutov a couple of seasons earlier.
All the paying public had to go on that night were the glowing media reports they’d read and heard in the days after the announcement that the Russian was, in fact, coming. Yes, there was anticipation in the building but the underlying attitude that night seemed to be more along the lines of “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Suffice to say, they saw and they believed. Those who experienced it can describe the jaw-dropping awe that ran rampant at the Coliseum that night and how No. 10 in white seemed to be moving like you were watching him in fast-forward mode on your VCR, while the other nine skaters looked to be stuck on pause. It was mind blowing, shift after shift, and most incredibly — despite a near handful of point-blank chances he created himself — Bure didn’t register a point. It didn’t matter because what he did register, at the risk of sounding trite, was hope.
Hope for a fan base who’d never had such a skilled and electrifying player they could call their own. And perhaps most of all, hope for the possibility of one player forever altering the image of a franchise which had only really known losing. Consider this was a team that had enjoyed more uniform changes in its first 21 years of existence than seasons with a record above .500 (four uniforms versus two winning seasons, if you’re scoring at home.) Bure’s arrival coincided with four straight campaigns of break even or better and included that near miss at Madison Square Garden in ’94.
And about that whole image and culture altering thing? Bure arrived exactly halfway through the Canucks history as it stands today, and after those two winning seasons in the 21 that preceded him, the Canucks have racked up 17 such campaigns in the 21 since he touched down in Vancouver. Is it a stretch to attach credit to him? Likely, but there’s at least something to be said for setting a standard that never existed in town before him.
Either way, that stunning night was a watershed for the franchise, and the most memorable regular season game in Canucks history.