EDMONTON – Said by every successful hockey team and a lot that aren’t: “We’ve got a great group of players, a really close team, guys who play hard and sacrifice for each other.”
And because this is what good teammates are supposed to say, these ideals often seem like fortune-cookie platitudes, sound bites to satisfy the media and fans during an uninspired road trip in the middle of January.
But then you watch the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, and see the raw emotions when Troy Stecher scores a winning playoff goal against the St. Louis Blues two months after his dad died on Father’s Day.
You see how teammates including Elias Pettersson hug him during a television timeout, how captain Bo Horvat, a new father himself, is swamped by emotions post-game when he tries to talk about Stecher, how stoic goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who lost his own dad last November, admits to becoming emotional at what he witnessed.
“I know what he’s going through,” Markstrom said.
You can’t fake this. You can manufacture a forecheck, but you can’t manufacture emotions like these.
The Canucks are a tight group. They are fond of each other and will do anything to help their teammates. And they have grown closer through a series of personal hardships that began last summer when winger Brock Boeser’s dad stopped breathing for 15 minutes before he was resuscitated so he could continue to battle both cancer and Parkinson’s Disease.
Stecher, who went to the University of North Dakota with Boeser, actually flew to Minnesota from Vancouver in August to support his friend and be with teammate when it seemed Duke Boeser still might not make it.
The Canucks are as real as it gets.
“If that emotion is faked, then the team doesn’t go anywhere,” general manager Jim Benning said Thursday. “I don’t think it’s fake. It’s got to be real. Where it ends up, where it’s going to go, I don’t know. But as a general manager, that’s what you’re trying to do – assemble a group of guys that are going to play hard for each other.”
Few teams build a long playoff run on talent alone. Almost always there is something more.
The Blues were the worst team in the NHL halfway through last season, but came together to survive and ended up winning the Stanley Cup.
The year before, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights built one of the most improbable runs in playoff history with a team of castoffs, helping heal Las Vegans after their city was fractured by the almost incomprehensible mass shooting of nearly 500 people at a music festival.
Three Canucks lost their fathers in the span of one season. Three others have welcomed newborns in the last two months.
“Whenever someone goes through something like that, I think we have a close group here and everyone is so supportive of each other,” Boeser said Thursday. “Even what I went through, the stuff with my dad, everyone texted me last year. It goes a long way.
“When you lose some loved ones over this past year, it’s hard. I think our whole team is super supportive. A lot of really good human beings on this team. I definitely think it brings us together.”
Canuck coach Travis Green said: “This group likes being together, they enjoy hanging out with each other. And they really want to win badly. As a coach, that’s important.”
Picked by about nobody to even make the playoffs, the Canucks handled the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round and calmly took the game away from the champion Blues in the third period on Wednesday, winning 5-2 to open the best-of-seven series.
The Canucks have won four straight playoff games, which last happened on their way to the Cup final in 2011. Vancouver seems to be getting stronger, more confident as their many young players realize they are not overmatched in their first Stanley Cup tournament.
Game 2 is Friday.
“We wanted to try to find the right kind of people – people of high character who are going to play hard and compete hard,” Benning explained. “I believe if you work hard, you become more than the sum of your parts. We always make sure we do our background work with the people we draft and who we bring in, the free agents we look at.
“If you have a group of guys that are willing to work hard for each other. . . you can have success with a group like that. Since I’ve been here, that’s always been important to us.”
Benning has run the Canucks for six years. The qualifying round was his first playoff series win in Vancouver. The team has been almost entirely rebuilt. Whatever mistakes Benning has made, he and Green got the chemistry right.
As Boeser said, there seem to be a lot of good human beings on this team.
“I think you get to a point where you get out of yourself and you’re playing for each other,” Benning said. “When you develop that culture where you’re going to compete and do whatever you can to win that game. . . guys get out of their comfort zone to do anything that helps the team achieve more. When you can gather a group of players that can do that, I think that’s when you have something.”