VANCOUVER – If you asked Jordie Benn to list the hockey heroes of his childhood, Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund would have been two giants.
Benn was a seven-year-old in Victoria watching the Vancouver Canucks on television when Linden helped carry them to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final. And Benn was in his early teenage years when Naslund led the next generation of Canucks back towards the top of the National Hockey League at the start of the 2000s.
Few people at Rogers Arena on Monday were more excited than Benn when Linden and Naslund, along with early icon Stan Smyl, were acknowledged before the game on Legends Night, as the organization honoured the four Canucks whose numbers have been retired ahead of Wednesday’s bigger ceremony for Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
The goosebumps had barely retreated from Benn when the 32-year-old, who until Oscar Fantenberg’s concussion two games ago had been a healthy scratch 16 times in 17 games, scored his first goal in a Vancouver uniform as the Canucks exploded for an early 3-0 lead and dumped the Nashville Predators 6-2 to end a 0-3-1 losing streak.
“Only having one goal, they’re probably making fun of me,” Benn said of Linden and Naslund. “They scored a lot of goals in their day. But growing up watching the Vancouver Canucks and finally getting my first goal, it was pretty cool.
“I looked up to those guys. It was pretty cool to see them on the ice and they came into the dressing room before the game.
“If any one of us standing at the bench can’t get fired up when they (introduce) Trevor Linden, and the whole crowd goes nuts, and then they do it again for Markus Naslund, if you can’t get up for that, I don’t what’s going to get you up. It was pretty cool the fans cheering that loud. When they do that, we all get fired up.”
The cheer was especially loud for Linden, a Canuck deity, who hadn’t been at a game since a clash with ownership 19 months ago ended his four-year run as president just as the team he helped rebuild was about to begin its ascent.
Smyl, a former Linden teammate and mentor who remains part of general manager Jim Benning’s hockey operations team, noted during a pre-game press conference that Linden’s “stamp” was all over the Canucks.
“Some of the success that we’re having now has to do with Trevor’s leadership,” Smyl said.
Foundational players Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko were drafted by Linden and Benning, and others like Bo Horvat and Jacob Markstrom developed under their watch.
Hughes, the 20-year-old defenceman, had three assists against the Predators, while Pettersson matched veteran J.T. Miller with a goal and assist. Another good, young player, centre Adam Gaudette, had two assists, while minor-league call-up Zack MacEwen scored his second NHL goal.
“I think everyone felt it,” Hughes said of the crackling atmosphere inside Rogers Arena. “When we got to the rink today. . . guys were in a good state of mind. Knowing we had to win tonight, everyone was pretty positive. Seeing those captains at the start was pretty inspiring.”
“The building was buzzing at the start of the game,” MacEwen agreed. “You felt the energy. To come out with a win, it’s a really good feeling.”
Everything that bounced against the Canucks the last few games went in their favour on Monday. Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne was hooked when Alex Edler’s shot caromed in off Pettersson to make it 4-0 just 58 seconds into the second period.
Nashville got rebound goals 66 seconds apart from Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund to cut the deficit in half and give everyone pause. But Markstrom made another pile of five-star saves, including breakaway stops on Viktor Arvidsson and Rocco Grimaldi, before late goals from Miller and Jake Virtanen clinched a victory that kept the Canucks in first place in the Pacific Division.
Even Linden probably did not expect that this season.
He claimed his return to civilian life has not been difficult, citing his two-year-old son, Roman, and wife, Christina.
“The time in the president’s role was obviously challenging,” Linden, who turns 50 in April, told reporters before the game. “Certainly came into a really tough spot and worked hard and did the best that I could. But since I’ve left, life’s been great.
“I root for this group. . . because they’re fun to watch and I think Travis (coach Travis Green) and his staff have done a great job. I don’t think they’re getting the credit they deserve because this team is young, and they’re at the top of the division right now. So, it hasn’t been difficult at all. I mean, my life is great. I’ve loved the path it’s taken and I can sit down in front of the TV on a Saturday night and root for the Vancouver Canucks, and that’s a good thing.”