Happy Goodbyes to an Awful Year (The Province)


Canucks season real roller-coaster

Province newspaper, December 28, 1998

How do you sum up 1998 for the Canucks?

Tumultuous? Sure. Rocky? Without a doubt. A roller-coaster ride? Yup.

Break out the thesaurus. Anything goes.

The Canucks came into the New Year like a lamb. Only problem was it was a lamb to the slaughter.

Mike Keenan had taken over from Tom Renney a month and a half earlier, but you’d never know it from the way the local lads were performing. Vancouver lost 8-0 on New Year’s Eve to their traditional Dec. 31 rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in one of the worst home defeats in club history.

It could well have been the impetus to gut the team like never before. Over the next 15 weeks, the club made 11 trades bringing in 11 new players. On the outs were fan favourites Trevor Linden, Gino Odjick, Kirk McLean, Martin Gelinas and Dave Babych, among others.

Through it all, the quotes kept getting better and better. It was a veritable soap opera.

• Early in the year, well before the full extent of the carnage that was to come, Kirk McLean said after being among the first to leave, “It’s been brutal. … After Pat Quinn and Tom Renney were fired, the team went into a terrible tailspin and nothing has changed since.”

• Keenan criticized local hero Linden, who was stung by the criticism. Messier defended Keenan, adding, “We’re definitely better than we were at the beginning of the season.” To drive home his point, the Canucks went 0-8-2 in their next 10 games. In the midst of that sterling string, Linden gave his blessings for a trade.

• After tussling with Buffalo tough guy Matthew Barnaby, goaltender Sean Burke, who flew in for a two-month tour of duty between Jan. 2 and March 4, said, “Matthew Barnaby couldn’t intimidate my grandmother.”

• “Our team would probably be in a position to win if I’d taken over at training camp,” Keenan crowed. “That’s a bold statement, but that’s how it is.”

• After being benched (and embarrassed) in his home town of Montreal, Enrico Ciccone said, “Everything I had heard about playing under Keenan is true. … I’m not a player, just a number.” Three days later, that number was traded to Tampa Bay. “Mike has a big ego and that’s what this is about” Ciccone said. “He wants a player who will get down and lick his boots and I won’t do that.”

• Odjick, on being traded to the Islanders for Jason Strudwick: “I didn’t think I’d get traded for somebody I didn’t even know.” Gino blamed Messier for his exile to Long Island. “He sits in for four hours with management every time there’s a trade. He’s responsible for a lot of the changes.”

• The Canucks were officially eliminated from the playoff race on April 6 after a 3-2 loss in Edmonton. Messier said, “We’re going to be a force next year, there’s no doubt about it. And I don’t mind going on the record about that.”

The year was more than just 15 weeks of trades, though. There was the developing acrimony between superstar Pavel Bure and Vancouver. Bure asked the team for a trade at the end of March.

Days later there was the pithy exchange between Keenan and Bure, when Coach K called his star player “a selfish little suck,” to which Bure uttered the immortal words, “Fuddle duddle.” Or something like that.

There was the hiring of general manager Brian Burke in the off-season, who promptly pulled an Alexander Haig and let us all know who exactly was in charge.

“Inmates don’t run the asylum,” were his exact words. This was in response to the wishes of one Pavel Bure, who continued with his trade demands and a threat not to report to camp. Bure is four months late.

The new season has been an improvement. It would have been next to impossible to be anything but.

While the team can be a big tease, the Canucks, at 13-16-4, have as many wins in 33 games as they had in the 42 games from Jan. 1 until the end of last season, when they went 13-21-8. So things must be looking up.

Sure, there have been disappointments. The injuries to Todd Bertuzzi and Alexander Mogilny have depleted the already thin ranks. The absence of Bure, with no one in exchange, has not only lessened the team’s firepower, but has caused some rifts between Keenan and Burke.

Defenceman Bryan McCabe missed the first 13 games before agreeing to a new contract. And the team continues to frustrate loyal fans, seeming to play to the level of the competition.

But there have been plenty of pleasant surprises: The re-emergence of Mark Messier. The old man is back in the top 15 in league scoring and, while still not vintage Mess, he seems to record another milestone every other game.

Garth Snow is proving himself to be the No. 1 goalie the Canucks didn’t think they had, starting all but three games this season and with a goals-against average of well under three.

Right-winger Bill Muckult is trying to do what Mattias Ohlund couldn’t do last season – win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. (Ohlund finished second.) Muckult is leading all rookies in the scoring race, while Ohlund has emerged as the top defenceman.

The players seem to be happier, too, which is usually a sign of something positive.

Adrian Aucoin, for one, believes it’s not too soon to say the Canucks are gelling.

“I think we’re a great bunch of guys that love each other and hang out together,” he said prior to the Christmas break.

“That’s probably why we’re playing a little better this year. The best thing about this team is, win or lose, nobody’s going to be pointing fingers at anybody and we’re always going to be supporting each other.”

Aucoin, who leads all NHL defencemen with 10 goals this season, has some perspective on the situation, as he is one of the few players to stick around through the numerous comings and goings.

“For myself, going through it all was hard,” he said. “I didn’t play much last year, so it made it even harder. Seeing everybody get traded away, a lot of times it crosses your mind that maybe you’re next.”

Aucoin doesn’t fear that this season. “All the talk from the media is about Pavel and nobody else on our team, so guys aren’t too worried.”

Brett Hedican is another survivor from ’98. “Last year we were at Ground Zero – maybe even below zero,” he said. “But I thought we made some steps last year to get our heads above water.”

And if Hedican – and the rest of the team – have their way, 1999 will prove to be the year the lowly Canuckleheads finally turn the ship around and start heading in the right direction.

“The heart and soul of our team are veterans who want to make it to the next level,” Hedican said. “And the young guys bring a lot of excitement to the team. We’re definitely building. I’m looking forward to the future, I really am, with this new team. It’s fun to look around the dressing room and know that every guy’s going to give everything he has. We have a good group of guys that want to work for one another.”

We’ll see what the Flyers have to say about that when the two teams usher in 1999 at their usual meeting place.



January – Vancouver expands Mike Keenan’s duties from coach to include authority to make trades and other player-personnel decisions. It got what it bargained for, as Iron Mike goes on to make 10 more trades before the March 24 deadline. Keenan criticizes the team’s fitness level, saying, “The culture here is not acceptable.”

February – So long, Trevor, it was good to know you. Linden is traded to the Islanders for Bryan McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi and a draft choice. Messier scores his 1,600th career point, and says, “Everyone seems to be having more fun. We have four solid lines now. It’s a very unselfish team.”

March – Keenan faxes a message to every team saying Scott Walker, Gino Odjick and Dave Roberts are available. Management is red-faced, players upset. Linden returns to Vancouver as an Islander and is given a standing ovation after a pregame video tribute. “That’s as nervous as I’ve been for a hockey game.” Bure asks for trade late in the month.

April – Out of playoff contention April 6. “It’s disappointing for the team because we’ve come together pretty well,” says Keenan. Pavel Bure scores his 50th in a 4-2 loss to Calgary, finishes with 51. Canucks finish 25-43-14 overall. Only 13 Canucks stayed with the team from start to finish.

May – Brian Burke is interested in the general manager job. Neil Macrae writes: “I would be awfully surprised to see Brian Burke wind up here as general manager because the Canucks are looking at downsizing their payroll, not increasing it.” Edmonton’s Glen Sather and player agent Mike Gillis also are rumoured for the position.

June – Burke wins. Asked whether he can get along with his coach, he replies, “I can’t see any reason why two hard-headed Irishmen can’t get together and win hockey games.” Mattias Ohlund loses out to Sergei Samsonov for the Calder Trophy. Bryan Allen picked fourth overall in draft.

July – Jyrki Lumme, who was minus-25 on the season, signs with Phoenix when Burke will not agree to a no-trade clause in his contract, leaving Dana Murzyn as the longest-serving Canuck, at seven years of service.

August – Steve Tambellini is named vice-president of player personnel and David Nonis is named senior vice-president of hockey operations.

September – Training camp opens sans Pavel Bure. Also holding out is defenceman Bryan McCabe. Brad May, however, re-signs with the Canucks, and rookie Bill Muckalt signs his first pro contract with Vancouver.

October – Draft pick Bryan Allen makes the squad, but can’t come to terms with a contract and is re-assigned to Oshawa of the OHL. Canucks make their last trade of the year, obtaining right-winger Trent Klatt in exchange for a 6th round pick in 2000.

November – McCabe ends holdout on Nov. 10 and sets up a goal in his first game back, finishing the month at 3-3-6. Canucks go 5-9-1 for the month.

December – Harry York is picked up on waivers on the 8th, going 3-2-5 in his first five games and stepping in for Messier, who misses his first game as a Canuck after suffering a head injury in Calgary Dec. 22.