THE BIG GUY COMES BACK

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Like so many fans of the local Canuckleheads, I was an off and on admirer of Roberto Luongo during his seven years with the team. Loved him, soured on him, then grew to admire him, despite all the abuse he took from the knuckleheaded folks who have given Vancouver its sadly deserved reputation as a goalie graveyard.

Starved for a winner, fans tend to take out their frustration on the obvious, the guy between the pipes as yet another goal trickles over the line. Never mind the botched line changes, the defensive breakdowns, the giveaways, the woeful power plays, Keith Ballard. It’s the goalie who gets the loudest abuse whenever he makes a gaffe. The legendary Jacques Plante, the most innovative goaltender in hockey history, said it well: “How would you like it at your job, if every time you made the slightest mistake, a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?”

images-3Nothing can erase those mystifying playoff breakdowns that plagued Luongo at key moments in his career with the Canucks. Painful memories of the big guy flopping around like a beached whale, minus his stick, or whiffing on a shot to the short side are hard to forget. Yet, it’s useful to recall the rest of the team didn’t play well in some of those games, either.

As a longtime “Icepack” ticket holder, I see about a dozen games a year at the Aquilinis’ cashbox. Until this year, my seat was behind the Canucks’ goal for two of the three periods. So I saw a lot of Luongo in net. More often than not, you could tell almost from the first shot whether Lu would have a good night. If he was sharp on the first tough shot, he was almost always solid for the rest of the game. “He’s on the puck tonight,” I would tell my seatmate, meaning his reaction time was quick and precise. If he seemed uncertain early on, he usually battled the puck for the rest of the game. Why someone as good as Luongo would have these off-nights was always a puzzle, and they frustrated me as much as anyone.

But over his last few years with the Canucks, I changed my view. I no longer expected Luongo to be terrific in every game. I began to appreciate him as just one hell of a good goalie, one of the best, if not the best, to ever play for Vancouver. Not only that, he seemed to grow personally as well, displaying a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humour on Twitter as @strombone1. ( ‪@strombone1 Jan 5 What are your office hours this week ‪@RoxyVancouver ? Just asking for a friend ————>‪@ShaneOBrien55)

And his handling of the difficult situation with Cory Schneider, who was slowly replacing him as the Canucks’ chief custodian of the pipes, was classy and professional. Their joint video was hilarious. http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?id=221117

I really became a member of Lu’s Legions the night he was injured in a pile-up and had to leave the game. As Luongo wobbled off and Schneider skated on to replace him, the fans cheered. I thought: what a shabby, tasteless treatment of a guy who had done so much and played his heart out for the Canucks. I’ve been firmly in his corner ever since.

images-2So I was sad to see him depart for Florida. That followed John Tortorella’s unforgiveable decision to leave Luongo on the bench for last year’s Heritage Classic, a game he yearned to play. It was the worst move by a Canucks’ coach since Trevor Linden was pressured to give up his captaincy to the appalling Mark Messier in 1996. Luongo soon decamped with his rich, multi-year contract to the far more relaxed environment of The Sunshine State, where he met his wife and started his NHL career. Despite my own sorrow, I was happy for Lu, and he has responded with a solid season so far for the surprising Panthers.

Which brings us to Thursday, when Luongo returned to the Rogers Arena for the first time since his hasty leave-taking last March. It turned into a grand occasion. For a change, the fans were classy. The Luongo haters were absent. It was all “Luuuuuuu”, not “Boooooo”. The familiar low cheer rumbled through the rink every time Luongo made a decent save. Right off the bat, as my favourite netminder flashed his thick pads to deflect a quick, hard shot into the corner, I said to my seat-mate, as I had so often in the past: “He’s on the puck tonight.” And indeed, he was, stopping 31 of the 32 shots the punchless home-towners fired his way.

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He was an easy choice as the game’s first star in the Panthers’ 3-1 victory. Many of us stayed behind to roar for Lu as he IMG_4614skated out to acknowledge his selection, the first time I can remember a guy from the other team doing that. The roar got louder, when Luongo did what he always did, after being chosen a star for the Canucks. He headed to the boards and gave his big goalie stick to a kid. Skating off, he clapped his hands to acknowledge our cheers.

That was great, but the most emotional moment had come much earlier. During a first period break, the Canucks’ showed a video highlight of Luongo’s career with Vancouver. The crowd rose as one, cheered mightily, and of course, serenaded the Panthers’ goalie with the loudest “Luuuuuu” of the night. A bit unsure what to do, Luongo took off his mask, raised his stick and touched his heart. Perfect.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan who left the game with a happy smile. Good on you, Lu. Thanks for the memories.

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THE MIGHTY QUINN HAS FALLEN. JOHN BRIAN PATRICK QUINN, RIP.

Image At 6’3” and having once knocked the stuffing out of Bobby Orr with a devastating body check, Pat Quinn was often referred to as “the big Irishman”. I preferred to think of the former Canucks player, coach and general manager as “the loveable Irishman”. During our exchanges, I found him delightful, open, even charming, not caring a whit that I wasn’t a regular hockey guy. He simply loved to talk hockey. The world today is a drearier place, now that Quinn has lost his long, gruelling fight with cancer.

I remember sitting with him in the empty stands of the Tokyo arena where, in 1997, the Canucks opened the NHL season against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. At the time, he was the team’s general manager, and I was a hockey nobody, assigned by the Globe to cover the game only because I was based in Asia. Yet Quinn could not have been more courteous and patient answering my questions. I most recall his passionate defense of NHL-sized rinks over the bigger ice surface of international hockey. “There is no better spectacle in the world than fast skating and use of the body within a confined space,” he told me. “When the rinks are larger, you lose that.” Since then, I called him several times for different reasons, and his demeanour was always the same. Friendly and direct, he was a reporter’s dream. If you couldn’t get a good quote out of Pat Quinn, you’d be better off selling shoes.

When the Canucks made their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011, I called him up for a story on Nathan LaFayette’s heartbreaking shot that hit the post late in Game Seven, the last time Vancouver made it to the finals in 1994, with Quinn as coach. The Rangers held on to their one-goal lead to win the Cup. Quinn described it this way: “Nathan was suddenly there in front. He made a great shot. Unfortunately, the goalie’s best friend happened to be in the way. The next thing you know, we were lined up, shaking hands.” He understood the bitterness fans still feel today over LaFayette’s failure to score. “As a fan, you’re full of hope that your local guys are going to do well. Yet they still don’t have that championship. So you remember things. And in this case, it’s the ‘what if’ you remember. Because you have nothing else.”

I had a lovely chat with Pat Quinn just several months ago. Although clearly not in the best of health, he quickly came to the phone, once his wife told him the reporter wanted to ask about Gino Odjick, who was caught up in his own battle with a terminal illness. Quinn was Gino’s first NHL coach, and he had great memories of a player he came to love. Over the course of our lengthy talk, however, Quinn also revealed much about the kind of coach and person he was, too. He insisted that Gino had to be more than a mere enforcer. “My personal philosophy in coaching was: ‘I wouldn’t carry a goon. You had to play the game, or we wouldn’t play you.’” Gino embraced the challenge. “I didn’t want him to be one of those players chasing around and starting fights, or being a show-off, as if that’s the only reason they were on the ice. He had to contribute, and he did,” said Quinn. “I told Gino: ‘If there’s any reason to look after one of your team-mates, you deal with it. But I’m not going to tell you to go out and get this guy.’ That’s not something I believed in. I said: ‘Gino, just be a hockey player. All the guys who could fight, they also had to play.”

He also recounted with relish the abiding, “odd couple” friendship between Gino and superstar Pavel Bure, which persists to this day. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar players on the ice, but both initially felt estranged from their team-mates and sought each other out. “I’m not a softie, but I do enjoy stories like that,” Quinn told me. “Eventually, they were accepted. That’s when we started to become a really strong team. It was ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. You don’t win without it.”

Finally, of course, there was the storied Gino Odjick penalty shot. When Gino scored on Calgary netminder Mike Vernon, the resulting roar from the fans nearly lifted the roof off the Pacific Coliseum. It was as if the Canucks had won the Stanley Cup. Quinn was behind the bench, embracing every moment, as team-mates, fans and Gino kept celebrating. He prolonged the bedlam by refusing to put a new line on the ice for the next face-off. “I held the guys on my bench, so he would get even more applause,” Quinn told me, his grin almost visible over the phone. “Finally, the referee came over and said, ‘Get a line out there.’” At the end of the interview, there was an awkward catch in the voice of the man with a reputation for gruffness, the man who cold-cocked Bobby Orr. He confessed, softly: “Gino’s one of those players that I could easily say that I came to love. You know?”

Last night, at Rogers Arena, as the strains of Danny Boy faded aways, the cheers for the late Pat Quinn seemed to go on forever. We came to love him, too. (The Canucks’ video tribute is here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMOiDU4KFqk&feature=youtu.be and Tom Hawthorn’s usual thorough recap of Pat Quinn’s life is here: https://benchedathletes.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pat-quinn/ ) Image 1

THE ROCKET’S RED GLARE

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I was missing from Vancouver during those pelvis-percolating daze when the Russian Rocket soared into the city’s hockey pantheon. The manner of his  arrival likened by one scribe to “an Aeroflot ghost flight from Irkutsk”, Pavel Vladimorovich Bure was by far the most exciting player to don the blades of the mighty Canucks in the team’s up and down, 43-year history. He remains its only member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But I do remember watching from afar, on my cheap TV set, the first time Bure carried the puck in the NHL. I gasped out loud. It was if there were rocket boosters on his skates, firing at warp speed. The other players seemed to be standing still.  Nike’s Swoosh had come to life.

Sixty-goal seasons followed, topped by the 7th game, never-to-be-forgotten, breakaway goal in second overtime that eliminated the favoured Calgary Flames in the first round of the Canucks’ 1994 run to the Stanley Cup final.

Over time, however, for all sorts of reasons, the love affair between the city and its spectacular speedster slowly soured. Beset by injuries, Bure appeared to tire of the adulation and the pressure. Local sportswriters despaired of ever getting a decent quote from the stand-offish superstar.

Image(Some things don’t change. “Everybody’s happy. That’s the main thing” was about all Bure could muster, after the huge ovations and even a few, uncharacteristic Rocket tears that accompanied the ceremony retiring his No. 10 jersey at Rogers Arena on Saturday night.)

During my one brief encounter with Pavel Bure, I saw a different side of the astonishing Russian. It was the fall of 1997. Improbably, the NHL opened its season that year with two games in Tokyo, between the Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks. As the Globe’s Asian correspondent, I got the plum assignment. The Canucks came to me!

One morning, to give the Canuckleheads a dose of life in teeming Tokyo, the players rode to the rink on a packed commuter train. Most were no fans of the cramped quarters, swaying to and fro, cheek to jowl with other strap-hanging passengers. “It’s the team bus from here on in, guys,” groused Mark Messier.

But later, when I asked Bure about the ride, his face lit up. It reminded him of all the times he rode the Moscow subway, as a kid, he said. “When I was 10 years old, I used to get up early every day and take the subway, with all my equipment and a hockey stick,” Bure told me. “The old ladies would say, ‘Look out for that little boy.’ Sometimes, they would give me their seat.”

I then asked him about the coming Winter Olympics in Nagano, where NHL-ers would be playing for the first time. Once more, Bure beamed. Growing up in the then-Soviet Union, the Olympics were everything, he explained, and he still felt the same way. “The whole world is there. The Stanley Cup is just hockey. If you can win a medal at the Olympics, it’s really a big deal. It’s got nothing to do with money.”

After practice, I saw him in his gangster-like, pinstripe suit, hanging out beside the team bus with unlikely best buddy and team enforcer Gino Odjick, whose own cheer from the pumped crowd Saturday night almost matched the roar for the Russian Rocket. With his distinctive red lips and boyish good looks, he looked barely 21. His face was bursting with boredom.

Four months later, at Nagano, Bure scored five goals for Russia in the team’s semi-final match against the Finns, one of the best individual performances in Olympic hockey history. Three came on breakaways. Once he deked left. Once he shot. The third time, he deked right.

Love him or loathe him, we will never see his like again.

MICKLE MARKETPLACE

Okay, I know BC Place is beset by debt, but is that any excuse to pick on us poor popcorn munchers? Our hard-earned $5.50 now fetches far fewer kernels at a BC Lions’ game than the same princely sum garners at nearby Rogers Arena, when the Canucks take the ice. It’s bad enough having that annoying, sideline loudmouth scream “MAKE SOME NOISE!” about every two minutes, without being short-changed on popcorn. The clearcut evidence is before you, my lord. Rogers popcorn on the left, BC Place on the right. Same price. Snackers of the world, unite. Bag ’em, Danno!

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