Now that the long awaited post-season is upon us I’m sitting around a pool in the Los Angeles with a few friends listening to the Giants game. In the spirit of the Black Ice blog, I continue to watch hockey in odd and inspiring places with odd and inspiring people.
Enter: Holly Russell, Australian bush girl, Michael Bublé’s personal assistant, ignorant as fuck about the game of hockey.
Enter: Michael Bublé, friend of hockey, co-owner of the Vancouver Giants. Lifetime FREAK of the Vancouver Canucks.
Enter: Craig Britain, sound tech extraordinaire, crib champion. Designated driver.
And myself, your humble correspondent and co-president of the Hollywood Hills Vancouver Giants fan club.
Tonight as the Giants battle a Game 7 in Vancouver, myself and this roving band of characters are sitting around with beer, herb and sushi, commiserating about the regular season behind us and where the Canucks are fated in the post-season.
As it stands the Giants are going into overtime with the game tied 0-0. Bublé, the owner, is crying over unspilled beer and trying to keep spirits high by battling Craig for cribbage domination. Holly, pouting in the corner after being routed by Craig is ordering takeout in her best Kylie Minogue impression.
While Dustin Tokarski (goaltending the Spokane Chiefs) holds the Giants at bay, Bublé and I discuss the schizophrenic season of the Vancouver Canucks. Between frustrated jabs into the empty air as Tokarski keeps the vaunted Giants offence at bay, Bublé and I breakdown a season that is over (regular) and a season that is about to begin (post). Unlike us casual fans of Junior Hockey (or super-casual fans such as myself) Michael Bublé actually has a vested interest in the Giants success. There are cracks in his devotion, however, as the conversation about the Canucks often overshadows the still tied hockey game.
From the ashes of last years slide-out-of-postseason arose some not so startling revelations. The Canucks badly needed secondary scoring and more team toughness, but even more, so they needed an identity. After almost twenty years of an organization guided by the ghost of Pat Quinn and gilded by upset after upset, the entire cultural paradigm of the team had to shift.
Bublé and I organized the following three highlights of the past year which seems to have addressed this glaring shortfall.
First is the passing of Luc Bourdon. The tragic death of this future stud blueliner shocked the Canucks and surrounding community. However, it also served as a rallying cry for a team (who up to this point) seemed content just letting a championship come to them. The entitlement in this city has reached an apex. They would have to work hard for it, and now there was a reason — do it for Luc. Obviously every hockey player dreams of hoisting the cup and doing the victory lap. But as I have been preaching all year, it was the culture of this team that forced them to lose, a culture that for all intents-and-purposes began the night they lost the Gilbert Perrault lottery.
The Canucks, it seems, have always had the deck stacked against them. Being a far out-post to the center of the universe, it stands that only a few escape the Nazarus-like curse put on this city. Will a savior, (or the subsequent death of a savior) unite us finally?
The second highlight (or low-light) was Roberto Luongo’s groin injury. Without a doubt the Canucks were on a tear in late November, eating up precious points in the standings while Luongo was putting up Luongoesque numbers in Luongoesque fashion. Going 8-3-2 on the month, the Canucks were starting to look like a team ready for a deep playoff push, missing only one small piece of the puzzle, in the form of a 6’5″ Scandinavian from Bromma, Sweden. All the talk in town had the ex-Leaf packing his bags and heading for the West Coast in time for Christmas.
Then came the moment of truth. And the truth, as it turned out, was far uglier then first imagined.
Common wisdom in the league is that the Canucks are a second-rate team without Luongo. In the spirit of populism it is difficult to argue this point, especially as the Canucks went on a 6-7-1 skid in December only to collapse entirely going 2-5-5 in January. The problem was not Luongo, the problem was systemic. The backup goaltender situation was not as bad as some teams (see: New York Islanders) but Curtis Sanford and rookie Cory Schieder looked cautious and unsure during their stints in net. Their tandem backup effort was not enough to bolster Vancouver’s lagging offense. The real low-point of the season was a 5-4 overtime lose to the Colorado Avalanche. Unspectacular at first glance, but upon closer examination of this game the real weaknesses in the Canuck’s organization begins to trickle in.
All of that was about to change. With what rookie GM Mike Gillis advertised as “bold moves”, which includes keeping incumbent head coach Alain Vigneault, the Canucks soldiered on through these dark moments of the 2008-09 campaign (and history as well) coming to a moment of reckoning. But this reckoning came from an very unexpected place. It came in the guise of a couple of third line grinders.
The third highlight of the season has to be the breakup of Ryan Kesler and Alexander Burrows. Not since the breakup of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt has one divorce heralded so many children. Coach Vee was at the end of his rope, desperate times call for disparate measures. The Kesler/Burrows checking unit was the only consistence unit of operation in the Canucks during the dark days of January. Hoping to light a fire under the team, Coack Vee (the consumate line-juggler) moved Burrows to the top line with Hank and Danny. Next he teamed up under-performaning Demitra and Sundin with Kesler, a speedy center-turned-winger. The two new lines combined for over 90-points in the final two months leading the Canucks to a 23-7-2 record and their second division championship in three years.
At this point the Vancouver Giants have gone to sudden-death overtime. Bublé’s knuckles are white. Even as a casual fan, once you have commited yourself you have to follow through. So I sat with the golden boy from Burnaby as his team marched through 60 minutes of scoreless hockey. The Giants brought a firestorm down on Tokarski but every wave the G-men threw at him was promptly denied. It seemed inevitable that Tokarski was going to stop everything and the Giants were going to lose on a turn-over or a bad bounce. All seemed lost. Visions of consoling an inconsolable Bublé entered by head. How would I explain this to friends at home.
At that moment my phone buzzed and I got a message from my friend Trevor back in Vancouver: IM SITTING NEXT TO SCOTT OAKE.
I couldn’t resist my reply: WITH MICHAEL BUBLE LISTENING TO THE GIANTS GAME IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS
His response was turse and direct: YOU WIN.
And so we did.
Bublé grabbed me into a bear hug (the type innate only to hockey fans) and preceded to expel all the air out my lungs in a hearty embrace. The Giants finally solved Dustin Tokarski. But this was just the opening act. In music we would call this the supporting band. The real show is next. The big time is upon us. The city is ready. Bublé and I will be home to Canada soon enough, and we’re bringing the Stanley Cup with us.