VANCOUVER – The #MeToo movement in the National Hockey League has exposed a stain on the game that needs cleaning. Hockey, like society, still has a way to go in dealing with racism and physical abuse.
But on the ice, it’s still a beautiful game capable of providing uplifting moments like Tuesday, when Antoine Roussel played his first game in 264 days — since blowing out anterior crucial and medial collateral ligaments in his knee last March 13 — and scored on his first shift for the Vancouver Canucks.
Then, in celebration, he patted his heart with his hand and pointed towards the top of Rogers Arena where the name and image of Alex Burrows had just been added to the Canucks’ Ring of Honour in a pre-game ceremony.
“This (game) was a big target on my calendar to come back,” Roussel told a couple of reporters Tuesday morning. “He’s been a big inspiration for me, a big brother. We trained together for 10 years in the summer. I learned so much from him. It’s a huge night and I wanted to be part of it.”
Roussel said Burrows took him “under his wing” during off-seasons in Montreal. They trained together and Roussel said Burrows became “the big brother I never had.”
“You don’t need to have the best skills to play the game; you just need to have the big heart to do whatever it takes,” Roussel explained. “That’s what he had.”
Just 1:50 after puck drop, Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Brannstrom lost the puck to Adam Gaudette, who slid a backhand pass to Roussel on a two-on-one that that the 30-year-old lifted behind goalie Anders Nilsson to begin a 5-2 Vancouver victory.
“I would have never believed it,” Roussel said after the game. “It was just a perfect night.”
Not entirely, but the start was close to perfection for the Canucks and perfectly awful for the Senators, who trailed 4-0 by the first intermission and, despite firing 42 pucks on Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko, lost for the fifth straight game.
There was a lot of Burrows evident in the Canucks.
Roussel, too, was an undrafted underdog from France and the Quebec Junior Hockey League.
The first-period tsunami included the first NHL goal from Canucks call-up Zack MacEwen, a free-agent out of the Ontario League who is trying to now cobble together the start of a career the way Burrows did at the beginning of this century. Burrows eventually played 922 NHL games, the last of them with the Senators.
MacEwen, 23, has played 11.
“I was undrafted; he was undrafted and he had a long, illustrious career,” MacEwen said after posing for a photo with the puck from his first NHL goal — a deflection of Jordie Benn’s point shot that made it 4-0 at 17:23. “It’s definitely something I’ve had my eye on. Being able to play in front of him and represent that way was great.
“There was a lot of good energy in the building before the puck even dropped. It had everybody kind of ready to play.”
MacEwen said he met Burrows at a restaurant on Monday night. Burrows recognized the Canucks rookie.
“He came up and introduced himself,” MacEwen said. “It speaks a lot about him.”
And then there was Canucks defenceman Oscar Fantenberg, signed as a free-agent last summer to provide depth on Vancouver’s blue line. Until he scored on a third period point-shot that provided some relief to the Canucks after Senators goals by Tyler Ennis and Jean-Gabriel Pageau had reduced Vancouver’s lead to 4-2, depth was all Fantenberg had provided.
He had to wait 28 games to make his Canucks debut. Tuesday was Game No. 2 for him.
“I knew when I came here it was going to be a battle to get in the lineup,” the 28-year-old journeyman said. “I mean, look at our D-corps. I knew it was going to be a battle. But I’ve also never been on a team where you go almost 30 games without an injury (on defence). I thought I was going to get in sooner, but it’s nice to be back in now.”
It’s uncertain how long it will last. The Canucks do not play again until Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres but top defenceman Alexander Edler will be out at least two weeks, keeping the door open for Fantenberg.
Roussel is merely the first of several forwards expected to storm the lineup in the next couple of weeks. Injured centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle could play Saturday or next Tuesday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit.
“It was great to get the win on Burr’s night here,” veteran Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev said.
Great for the Canucks, at least.