VANCOUVER – There is no one thing about Alex Burrows that fully explains the outpouring of love that cascaded down upon him Tuesday when the heart-and-soul winger returned to Rogers Arena with the Ottawa Senators after spending the last 12 years with the Vancouver Canucks.
But when the crowd of 17,273 stood simultaneously and started roaring for Burrows the moment the Canucks’ tribute video to him began on the scoreboard, it was clear that fans felt a connection to the 36-year-old player who climbed to near the top of the National Hockey League from an East Coast League tryout.
There is an identity with Burrows, and it’s not about biting or whining or saying things on the ice that he shouldn’t have at a time when the only “lines” about trash-talking in hockey were painted on the playing surface.
Burrows gave everything he had to the Canucks. He never took for granted for even one day the NHL career he earned after nearly quitting hockey. And even when he departed in last spring’s trade to the Senators, he was still thinking partly about the Canucks.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Burrows admitted after the morning skate. “I think so. That was a little bit of my reasoning for sure (to accept a trade). I want these next generation (of Canucks players) – the young Bos, Hutton … and Jake – to play well in a few years and have good prospects coming back and help them achieve a Stanley Cup in Vancouver. I’d be really happy for those guys and all the fans in B.C. and Vancouver.”
Bo Horvat and Ben Hutton and Jake Virtanen are a long way from a Stanley Cup with the Canucks these days. But the Canucks, at least, are finally inching back in the right direction. And the elite prospect leveraged from Ottawa for Burrows, Swedish scorer Jonathan Dahlen, will help in a season or two.
What the Canucks are trying to do now is achieve what Burrows did: an identity, a re-connection to fans.
In this, too, they are making progress.
Through two games of a season in which they are almost universally picked to finish near the bottom of the NHL, the Canucks have beaten the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 and lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Senators.
There have been a lot of Vancouver turnovers the first two games, something of a by-product of the more aggressive style new coach Travis Green has the Canucks playing.
The Canucks do not skate fast, but Green wants them to play fast hockey. He also wants them to be harder to play against, more numerous in attack and fully engaged at all times. These changes in ideology have been noticeable the first two games.
“I wouldn’t call it risk-and-reward (hockey),” Canucks defenceman Erik Gudbranson said after the game. “I would say it’s just playing proactively. With everything we try to create offensively, there’s just as much work going back and taking care of your own end. If we’re to have a good season this year, we’re going to have to build from the back end. It’s a lot of work the system we play. But we’re working hard to get good at it and we’re going to continue to get better.”
On Day 1 of training camp, Green halted practice and berated his players for their lack of intensity and execution. They have been skating and practising hard since then. They’re playing hard now.
“That’s always the case before every year — you talk about (identity),” captain Henrik Sedin said. “I think you see a little bit of that where we’re trying to create a team where we’re not going to be the biggest team or the fastest team, but we play fast and we’re tenacious on the puck. Intensity is high. I think that’s going to be our identity.”
And the turnovers that helped the Senators amass 42 shots against Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom?
“We’re making some poor decisions with the puck,” Sedin said. “That’s on the players; it’s not on the system.”
Markstrom robbed Burrows after a ghastly turnover by Troy Stecher early in the game, and the former Canuck failed to score in the shootout. But Burrows’ presence was still felt, and not only because of the fans’ salute to him and the emotions it generated.
“The one thing that stood out is he did everything he could to stay on this team,” Canuck Danny Sedin said of Burrows. “And when he moved up the ranks, he didn’t change. He was the same guy. He worked hard in practice, he listened to the coaches. He would never cheat on drills or during games. He would always do the right things.”
A blueprint to build an identity.