VANCOUVER–On Tuesday night, during a break in play, the big screen at Rogers Arena flickered to life with a tribute to Alexandre Burrows, now a member of the Ottawa Senators, returning to the place that was his hockey home for the better part of a dozen seasons.
The ovation that followed was long and warm and heartfelt and real, delaying the resumption of play while Burrows acknowledged the crowd.
That day, during and after the game, the number one topic in town (or perhaps 1A, along with the question of when potential wunderkind Brock Boeser would be allowed to crack the Canucks’ starting line-up) was whether Burrows merits a place on the team’s Ring of Honour.
The consensus: absolutely, yes.
That might come as a surprise to the Rest of Canada, who think of Burrows as an agitator, as the kind of the guy you hate when’s he’s playing for another team, who know him for being borderline (or just plain) dirty; for getting into a memorable beef with referee Stephane Auger over embellishment and retribution; for biting Patrice Bergeron’s finger during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
A useful player on a good team, sure, and a significant member of the Canucks’ side that came within a hair of winning a championship, without question. But an all-timer?
And then you look at some of the other names on the ring, like Harold Snepts, and you look at those who have received the higher honour of having their numbers retired, and you see Stan Smyl, who all these years later is right next to Trevor Linden as the most popular Canuck with Canucks’ fans, ever, and you understand that in this country made up of a whole lot of distinct societies, things change when you cross the Alberta border, cross the mountains and drop in here.
Alex Burrows is every bit worthy of a place in the Canucks’ pantheon – at least he is once you start to think about how it is we choose our sports heroes.
If it was just about being the best of the best – well, they wouldn’t have had that big night for Tie Domi in Toronto, would they? If it mattered what other teams and other players thought, then you wouldn’t hear Blue Jays’ fans clamouring for a statue of Jose Bautista flipping his bat.
What bonds an athlete and the people who cheer for them is a sense of shared purpose, caring in the same way about the town, about the uniform, about the team, about winning. Sometimes there’s a large dollop of suspended disbelief in there, given the mercenary nature of the business, but that bond is real, and in many ways, it is what makes the sports world go ‘round.
Why love Alex Burrows? Because his is an unlikely success story, a classic underdog tale. He was undrafted, beginning his professional hockey life in the East Coast Hockey League as nobody’s baby, nobody’s favoured prospect. Because once he got here he worked like crazy and he succeeded. He helped the team win by any means necessary. He thrived playing next to the Sedins when they were still The Sedins. He was a key cog in what became a great Vancouver team, and especially because he scored an overtime goal in Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs that shook a monkey off the franchise’s back.
“For Vancouver,” Jim Hughson said, in his memorable call, “it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.”
That moment, all by itself, would almost merit enshrinement. But also factor in how just about anyone who encountered him here – other than the opponents he aggravated on the ice – speaks highly of Burrows as a person and as a member of the community. And there is also the manner of his exit, which in the modern world of sport can often sour an otherwise beautiful relationship (that’s the reason, for instance, that you won’t hear much talk about Ryan Kesler and the Canucks’ Ring of Honour, even though by pretty much any measure he’s the better player.)
When the time came last season and the team was clearly on the verge of a rebuild, when his value in a trade could help that process along, Burrows gave up his right to block a move in the interests of the greater good.
On Tuesday night, they were cheering him for all of that. Soon enough they’ll cheer him again when they put his name up in the rafters.
And it doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t get it, because the people that matter do.