VANCOUVER – For those old enough to understand what they were seeing, there was a beautiful and linear line of ascension on Monday when former Vancouver Canucks captains Stan Smyl, Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund stood shoulder to shoulder at centre ice.
The line pointed directly to Henrik and Daniel Sedin, whose jersey numbers will be retired by the Canucks before Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The numbers for Smyl, Linden and Naslund are already hanging from the heavens at Rogers Arena.
But it wasn’t that. And it wasn’t that Smyl held the National Hockey League franchise’s career scoring record before he was passed by Linden, who in turn was eclipsed by Naslund before the Sedin twins blew everyone away.
It was that Smyl was the captain who mentored Linden upon Linden’s arrival in 1988. And that Linden was captain when Naslund was acquired by trade in 1996, four years before the Swede was named captain in Stockholm at the end of the Daniel and Henrik’s first training camp with the Canucks.
It was Linden and Naslund, among others, who encouraged the Sedins and convinced them they could become great NHL players when the twins struggled in their early years amid a relentless and largely unfair barrage of criticism and even ridicule.
At times, Henrik and Daniel considered moving back to Sweden, and it took an extraordinary summer meeting in London in 2004 with former general manager Dave Nonis and coach Marc Crawford to assure them that they had a future with the Canucks, and that better play would be rewarded with greater roles in Vancouver.
The Sedins became the best players in franchise history.
“You know, nobody is fooling anybody in the locker room,” Linden, who has returned to Rogers Arena for Sedins Week, told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “You spend enough time in there and you learn what’s inside everyone. That was the biggest thing about these guys.
“You could just see what was inside of them: their character and determination. The biggest misconception about Danny and Hank was that because they were polite and respectful and Swedish, people thought they were soft. That was ridiculous. That was the furthest thing from the truth.
“Those guys aren’t quitters. I know there was talk that they might go back to Sweden, but I don’t know how realistic that was because of their incredible desire to be the best.”
Henrik Sedin didn’t say how seriously — if at all — he and his brother were about returning to Sweden, but admitted they were frustrated initially with their play and then with their limited roles before the 2004-05 lockout, and that if they’d had a different coach or even different teammates their career paths may have been dramatically altered.
“I think Markus had a direct impact on us because he came from the same hometown and went through the exact same stuff we did growing up,” Sedin said. “He played for MoDo and was drafted, he came over and he struggled the same as we did. When we got to Vancouver, he really took off. For us to see that and understand his journey, and that he could make it from the same little neighbourhood outdoor rink that we played on, it was really something for us to look at.
“Trevor, I still remember him walking into the dressing room in Minnesota when he got traded back (in November, 2001). I didn’t know him, but I knew what he’d done in Vancouver and how big he was. That first meeting, he came up to us and just seemed so happy to meet us. I don’t know why. If things were rough for us for a few games, he was there. He just said the little things that helped. He must have seen something in us. That’s what we thought. And when you have that (belief) from someone like him, you want to prove that he’s right.”
Like the Sedins, Naslund was a first-round pick from the Jarvet area of Ornskoldsvik who floundered early in his NHL career. He demanded a trade in his third season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then asked for another when things weren’t going well initially with the Canucks. Former GMs Pat Quinn and Brian Burke refused to trade him, and Naslund went on to become the first Canuck to win the Ted Lindsay Award.
“I went through the same struggles (the Sedins did) when I came over,” Naslund said. “The easy way out would have been to sign back home where you are comfortable and know what you’re getting into. You go back and everything is set up for you. You could live a comfortable life, but I think you’d regret it the rest of your life. Maybe I told them that, but I don’t remember. You only get this one chance.
“I felt this extra bond because they were from the same small club team I came from. I knew their family, I played with their older brother. I knew the type of people they were, and I wanted them to do well.”
The Sedins did so much more than that.