VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks were an exciting team on the rise.
Driven by a wave of rising young stars, the Canucks had finally broken through the previous season, making the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in five years. Great things were expected. Patience and the enduring hopefulness of fans was at last rewarded with a team that could dazzle. And then the Canucks crashed.
We’re talking about a Canucks team from 20 years ago, but the plot synopsis outlined here is eerily and painfully similar to the maddening drama unfolding in empty Rogers Arena this season.
So much expected, so little delivered.
This is not the first time the Canucks have done this.
The Edmonton Oilers have been doing it to their fans more or less annually since Connor McDavid, the last of the team’s four first-overall draft picks, arrived in 2015. But under coach Dave Tippett and general manager Ken Holland, the Oilers finally appear to have it figured out.
They may be counting too heavily on 38-year-old goalie Mike Smith playing like 28-year-old Dominik Hasek, but Edmonton was awfully impressive sweeping two games in Vancouver this week by scores of 4-3 and 3-0. The Canucks’ 0-3-1 homestand left them at 8-14-2, with the weekend to seek counselling before back-to-back games in Winnipeg starting on Monday.
There are a couple of key differences between the 2001-02 Vancouver team and the current Canucks, who after bursting back into the Stanley Cup tournament last summer following four straight years without playoffs, are one of the National Hockey League’s biggest disappointments in 2021.
Twenty years ago, the struggling “young” players in Vancouver had all been in the league a handful of seasons. Markus Naslund was 28 years old, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison 26. Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund were 25. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who were still a few years from developing into impact players, were 21.
Compare that to these Canucks, who are dangerously reliant on Bo Horvat, 25, Brock Boeser, 23, Elias Pettersson, 22, and Quinn Hughes, 21. Rookie winger Nils Hoglander is a top-six fixture at age 20. J.T. Miller, 27, is the only core player with more experience than Horvat.
But the paramount difference is this: the 2001-02 season was 82 games, so when the Canucks bottomed out at Christmas at 14-21-4 and general manager Brian Burke went into the dressing room to blast players and assure them he wasn’t firing coach Marc Crawford, the team still had time to fix itself and make the playoffs. They saved their season.
There probably isn’t time to do that in the 56-game season of 2021.
For what it’s worth, the 20-years-ago Canucks were 10-12-2 after Game 24, but were about to win only four of their next 15 games.
The current Canucks will hit the halfway point of their pandemic-shortened season next Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Pandemic or not, there is unvarnished anger among many fans. The only way this could be better for Canuck owners is if they could sell tickets to recoup a few of the millions they’re going to lose this season. But the only way this could be worse for the team is if there were fans in the building booing them.
It’s unclear what statute of limitations apply to managing owner Francesco Aquilini’s remarkably direct, Feb. 13 Twitter declaration supporting coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning, but it would be better for everyone if the Canucks win more than four of their next 15 games.
There is frequently opponent-envy in Vancouver, but that envy now includes: How come the Montreal Canadiens get to fire their coach and we don’t?
The hostility bordering on rage on social media, which isn’t exactly a healing circle at the best of times and was not around much in 2001, is not just because the Canucks are losing again and almost certainly will return to the draft lottery instead of the playoffs.
After five decades without a Stanley Cup, the fan base is accustomed to disappointment. But this is something much more than disappointment.
It’s one thing to wait while a poor team gets incrementally better -- as long as those overmatched players play their butts off each night.
But it’s another to have waited, finally get rewarded, teased that great things are coming, and then get walloped in the face with a frying pan. Especially after a tumultuous off-season that saw key veterans leave in free agency partly because management overspent years before on role players whose impact now is negligible.
The reaction is almost visceral. It feels to many like a betrayal.
Losing is always worse when it is least expected. Hell hath no fury in sports like a fan base scorned.