VANCOUVER – After 50 years in the National Hockey League, the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres are still tied in Stanley Cups: zero.
The Sabres made their first of two appearances in the final in 1975, but the Canucks have since overtaken them by finishing second in the Stanley Cup tournament three times.
The 2011 Canucks team was the best in franchise history, and its loss in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins will never be viewed on the West Coast as anything but excruciating. The 1994 Canucks took everyone on a joyride that ended in another Game 7, against the New York Rangers.
But for pure magic, an unexpected gift from the hockey gods, who seemed to have forsaken the Canucks the day in 1970 they lost to the Sabres the expansion roulette-wheel spin for Gilbert Perreault, nothing will ever compare to Vancouver’s unbelievable and enchanting run to the 1982 final against the dynastic New York Islanders.
Maybe because the 1980s were pretty much a lost decade otherwise except for the arrival of Pat Quinn as general manager in 1987, but the spring of 1982 felt like a winning lottery ticket, a glimpse of paradise. It was made possible by players like Stan Smyl and Thomas Gradin and Richard Brodeur, who all make Sportsnet’s All-1980s team for Vancouver.
The Canucks will be wearing 1980s black, trimmed in gold and orange, when they play the Sabres at Rogers Arena on Saturday. Seems like a good time to name an All-1980s Canucks team.
CANUCKS ALL-1980s TEAM
1980-87, .892 SV%, .388 GAA
Years before Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure, Markus Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Elias Pettersson, the Canucks’ first king was a roly-poly goalie. “King” Richard Brodeur was a superior NHL starter in Vancouver for the first seven seasons of the 1980s, averaging 53 games.
But it was during the team’s dreamy playoff run in 1982 that Brodeur, all five-foot-seven of him, became a Vancouver folk hero. Only Kirk McLean (who will be on Sportsnet’s 1990s team) and Roberto Luongo (2000s and 2010s) have played more games in the Canucks’ crease than Brodeur, who made 377 appearances before his 17-year professional career ended in the Hartford Whalers’ farm system in 1988.
1983-93, 65 G, 242 A
The blue-liner from Kamloops was a revelation when he emerged from Colorado College, via the Canadian National Team, in 1984 as a fairly polished product. You could find harder shots at a juice bar, and yet Lidster’s skating and puck-moving ability allowed him to amass 307 points – fifth all-time among Vancouver defencemen, ahead of Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Ed Jovanovski – over the following 10 seasons.
In his third full NHL season, the seventh-round pick put up 12 goals and 51 assists in 1986-87 for a points record that still stands for a Canucks defenceman. He left Vancouver to win a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994 before finishing his NHL career five years later as a 38-year-old depth player on the Dallas Stars team that handed the Sabres their second Cup Final defeat.
1981-91, 33 G, 107 A
The second defenceman on the all-1980s team was Sportsnet’s most difficult choice, but we’re going with tireless warrior Garth Butcher. A 10th-overall draft pick from the Regina Pats in 1981, Butcher played five games as a 19-year-old the following year before becoming an anchor for the Vancouver defence for most of the decade.
His consistency and combativeness made Butcher a fan favourite, and he is second all-time in Canucks penalty minutes with 1,668. Even when he left, he helped the Canucks. Quinn’s 1991 trade of Butcher to St. Louis in a multi-player deal that brought Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall and Sergio Momesso to Vancouver helped propel the Canucks to another Stanley Cup Final in 1994.
1978-91, 262 G, 411 A
Stan “The Steamer” Smyl was a five-foot-10 giant who Punch McLean’s New Wesminster Bruins delivered to the Canucks in 1978. The third-round pick hurt opponents with his physicality and talent, which today is under-appreciated.
In a playing career shortened by injuries, a consequence of Smyl’s fearless style, the right winger averaged 30 goals a year for seven seasons at the start of the 1980s, and captained the Canucks for his final eight campaigns. When he retired in 1991 to begin a three-decade career with the organization in coaching and management, Smyl had 262 goals and 411 assists in 896 games for Vancouver. His 673 points as a Canuck stood as a record until another icon, Linden, surpassed it 13 years later.
Smyl’s No. 12 was retired in 1991, and if anyone ever carves a Canucks Mt. Rushmore on the North Shore, “Steamer’s” wonderfully crooked nose will be on it.
1978-86, 197 G, 353 A
Arriving with Smyl and another terrific rookie, Curt Fraser, in 1978, Thomas Gradin was one of the most graceful, fluid players in franchise history. His willingness to battle and withstand battering from opponents helped shatter the myth about the toughness of Swedish players, and Gradin’s success in Vancouver established the talent pipeline that continues to flow here from Sweden.
His line drove the Canucks to their improbable Cup Final appearance in 1982, and the 86 points Gradin posted during that regular season was briefly a single-season record for the franchise. By the time he was given to the Boston Bruins in 1986, Gradin had managed 550 points in 613 games in Vancouver. He remains second among Canucks centres in all-time scoring, 157 points ahead of third-place Ryan Kesler and Brendan Morrison.
1983-90, 250 G, 220 A
Bure wasn’t the first pure goal-scorer the Canucks ever had; Tony Tanti was. Acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in an unpopular trade for Fraser the winter after Vancouver’s Stanley Cup run, the right winger went on to score 250 goals in 530 games for the Canucks over seven-and-a-half seasons.
His quick release and uncanny ability to deflect pucks made Tanti a power-play master. His 102 power-play goals are third all-time on the Canucks, behind only Naslund and Danny Sedin, and Tanti’s 10 hat tricks are tied for first with Naslund.
But his most incredible achievement is this: over a five-year period beginning in 1983-84, when the Canucks were consistently one of the worst teams in the NHL, Tanti averaged 41 goals per season for a franchise that had had exactly two 40-goal scorers before him (Darcy Rota, 42 goals in 1982-83; and Ron Sedlbauer, 40 in 1978-79).