Canucks’ commitment to change leads to Pacific Divison title

Tyler Myers led the way on offence picking up a shorthanded tally and adding an assist as the Vancouver Canucks defeated the Calgary Flames 4-1 to clinch the Pacific division for the first time in franchise history.

VANCOUVER – The group text arrived in the summer like a challenge. 

Twenty-three-year-old defenceman Quinn Hughes, who would be named captain of the Vancouver Canucks a couple of months later, wanted everyone to return to the city weeks before training camp to start skating and get ready. Veteran J.T. Miller chimed in, too, as did others.

It was time to do something about ending the years of losing by changing the Canucks’ culture. Now or never. Are you in or are you out?

“Everybody is tired of losing,” coach Rick Tocchet told us in August, a month before camp. “You hear everybody say that. That’s OK to say that, but what are you doing to change that narrative? These are things I challenge the players on. You’re tired of losing, but what are you doing about it? When I talk to the leadership group, they’re not talking about goals and assists. They’re talking about changing the narrative.”

On Tuesday, they did.

A year after missing the National Hockey League playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons, and after three straight years of upheaval and chaos, the Canucks beat the Calgary Flames 4-1 at Rogers Arena to win the Pacific Division and the team’s first banner since 2013.

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The Canucks reached 50 wins for only the third time in franchise history and, with 109 points and their final regular-season game Thursday in Winnipeg, could yet win a Western Conference that has produced the last two Stanley Cup champions and, in Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers, has the team most favoured to win this spring.

Hughes has 91 points and is plus-39 and will win the Norris Trophy. Tocchet should win coach-of-the-year. Goalie Thatcher Demko, who emerged Tuesday from a five-week knee injury to stop 39 of 40 shots against Calgary, is likely to be a Vezina Trophy finalist. J.T. Miller merely has 103 points and has built one of the most impressive individual seasons in Canucks history.

And it all started with that group message last summer, the commitment to change and conviction in what Tocchet has taught them.

“Huggy sent us that text in the summer,” winger Conor Garland recalled late Tuesday. “Him and Millsy were like, ‘Yeah, get out here early and we’re going to work.’ We did right from the start. Training camp had a different feel this year, pre-season had a different feel. And we came off hot right from the start. We had some bumps, but we kept our foot to the gas pretty pretty much the whole year and put ourselves in a good spot. And now we’ll see what we’re made of.

“When you have a chance to win the division, you realize how hard it is to win it. In the grand scheme of things, does it mean much? Not really, but it puts us in a good spot going into playoffs. But it is hard. We have a really hard division, a couple of wagons. It’s tough. You’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be consistent and we were, right from the start. We earned it. But now, it will all be forgotten in Game 1 of the playoffs.”

No, it won’t be forgotten. The banner will go up in Rogers Arena next fall as a reminder. 

But everything that has happened this season, all those wins and the construction of culture, the relentless internal accountability and Tocchet’s insistence that only team goals matter, all of this has brought the Canucks to the cusp of the Stanley Cup tournament and another chance, finally, to try and win a championship that has eluded the franchise since it joined the NHL in 1970.

“This isn’t the end-all-be-all for us,” Miller told reporters. “We know we have bigger things coming and more exciting things coming, we hope. But right now, this is certainly a great step in the right direction for our group. We should be proud.”

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Miller joined the Canucks in 2019 in a trade largely trashed at the time by critics, but has been one of the best forwards in the NHL since then. But next week will see his first playoff games in Vancouver in front of fans. Has he heard about Roger Neilson and the white towels?

Forty-goal winger Brock Boeser has played for the Canucks since 2017 and is the longest-tenured player in Vancouver. Not counting his 17 games in the fan-less, pandemic bubble in Edmonton in the summer of 2020, the 27-year-old has never played a real playoff game.

Defenceman Tyler Myers, ridiculed by many last season at the height of the organization’s dysfunction, will finally see playoff hockey in Vancouver before his five-year contract expires on July 1. Drafted in 2014, Demko will see genuine playoff hockey for the first time.

“This means a lot,” Boeser told Sportsnet. “I mean a year ago, I don’t know if you’d have been thinking Pacific Division champions. Winning it? I don’t know, we were just trying to make the playoffs. But I think the mindset we had at the beginning of the year, even before camp, that set the tone. This is just a huge accomplishment for us. I think we took a big step but, obviously, we need to keep building off that.”

“It means a lot just because what a group of us have gone through the last few years,” Myers said. “It just kind of goes to show if you bury your head and put the work in, things will start turning around. I’m really proud of what the guys were able to accomplish tonight winning the division. By no means are we satisfied with that, but it means something. It’s a good feeling.”

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There has been a lot of that season. The Canucks seem more than rebranded – more like reborn. Under Tocchet and general manager Patrik Allvin, they’ve changed what they believe in themselves and how others view them. 

“The crest means a lot to me,” Tocchet, reminded Tuesday of what he said about the Canucks logo when he took the head coaching job 15 months ago, told reporters as players gave their jerseys to fans. “We always talk about the emblem on the front, more than the back, and I think a lot of guys have bought into that. We try not to preach individualism around here. You know, it’s good for guys to get accolades — 100 points, some guys 40 goals. That’s all great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s all about the crest. That’s what wins in the playoffs. And so that’s what I’m most proud of.”

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