Vancouver Canucks fans would often be remiss if they didn’t pine for better days, and over 20 years ago might have been the best days of all in Canucks lore. Let’s turn our eyes to the glorious spring of 1994.
1994 Vancouver Canucks: Bright Beginnings
The 1992-93 season had filled Canucks fans with renewed hopes of finally returning to hockey’s elite. They had won their division for a second consecutive season, and reached a franchise record 101 points. A furious first round series with the Winnipeg Jets featured a match up of young players who would define hockey in the 1990’s including a rookie Teemu Selanne coming off his startling 76 goal campaign and Vancouver’s own Russian Rocket Pavel Bure.
It was Bure who scored 60 goals in his own right while putting up 110 total points at the tender age of 21. (To give an idea of how different the NHL is now, Bure’s 110 points, which would have won him the last three scoring titles, was tied for 15th in the league that season.) While the Canucks were victorious against the Jets, they would be put aside in six games by the eventual conference champion LA Kings of Gretzky and Kurri.
The seeds had been sown, regardless. The fall of 1993 was to be a time of great promise. With Captain Trevor Linden back, Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall, outstanding net-minder Kirk McLean and the Russian Rocket himself, things were trending towards a year of plenty in B.C.
Expectations, Unmet for the 1994 Canucks
Their 7-3 start was certainly within expectations. However, the wheels soon fell off the Pacific Colliseum. The 1994 Canucks devolved into a middling, punchless offensive team. While their goaltending remained nearly identical in giving up two more goals then they had in 1992-93, the much-ballyhooed offensive machine fell off drastically. After scoring a hefty 346 goals the year before, the Rocket and his men fell 67 goals short of that mark, a statistical Bigfoot.
Bure, of course, could hardly be blamed. He again broke 100 points and scored another 60 goals all on his own. He could not do it on his own, though, as the team slumped their way into the playoffs as a seventh seed. Barely edging the expansion San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks for that lofty position, and with a first-round tilt with Canadian rivals and division champion Calgary Flames, not much was expected of the men in black.
Not unlike the 2012 Kings, another black-crested franchise, something happened to these Canucks. It is not as if they were building momentum late in the season and came into the playoffs warm and loose. They were under .500 in the last month of the season, and in fact the entire calendar year up to that point. And yet somewhere in that locker room, a switch was flipped.
1994 Vancouver Canucks, On Fire
Into the Saddledome for Game 1 appeared an entirely different set of men. In an astoundingly unexpected result, the Canucks blew the doors off of the Flames 5-0 on goals by five different skaters and 31 saves from McLean. Calgary would not be embarrassed again, as the deep and talented squad from Alberta roared back winning three straight, with young Theo Fleury scoring four goals and seven points in those contests. Suddenly it seemed that brief burst in Game 1 was the aberration, and the lifeless Canucks of 1994 had returned.
Canucks fans, of course, will remember better. Fighting with every inch of their pride the Canucks crawled back into the series, by winning Games 5 and 6, both of them in overtime. The seventh game, not to be outdone, ended in double overtime with one of, if not the most, memorable moments in Canucks history.
There is something about the task of living so desperately on the end of your season. Other teams have fought back from 3-1 series deficits to win. But no one had ever done it like that. The three games the Canucks had to win had as many periods as four games, and any mistake, any slip in any of those overtimes and their seasons would collapse. That resolve, forged in western Canada in a duel with old rivals, made sure that the switch that had been flipped, stay bolted open.
The Magic Returned for the 1994 Canucks
The new Canucks would proceed to roar through the rest of their conference, winning eight of the next ten games in dispatching the bewildered Stars of Dallas and the ancient power in blue from Toronto. The conference finals were put away in five, with Greg Adams scoring 16 seconds into another double overtime period. (The Canucks would play six games that spring that went past regulation. They won five of them.)
And suddenly, the lowly seventh seed Canucks were sitting at home with a week off, watching two teams on the other side of the continent duke it out over seven games for the right to play them for the cup. That series, oft-remembered as one of the greatest in the history of the sport, also ended in double overtime, at the hands of one Mr. Matteau.
It was if the division champion Canucks of 1991-93 had reappeared. This was the playoff they were meant to play the last two springs. This was how it was always supposed to play out.
A Ringless Finale, A Grateful City
And they proved themselves, though finally cupless, against the destiny-bedecked New York Rangers of 1994. Against the #1 seed and President’s Trophy winning Blueshirts, the Canucks returned every punch with a fevered counter. They took Game 1 in New York, and fought off clinching attempts in Games 5 and 6 to force but another seventh game. In the end, it was one goal short of the ultimate prize. They won 15 games in a contest that only rewards the team that wins 16.
Though bitter the final outcome may still be. There is little doubt that in the hearts and minds of the people of Vancouver, there will always be a special place of unlimited love for those men in black. It is how sports can surprise, uplift, and enrich the life. How though expectations may be unmet, they can be remade. That no matter what, if the situation looks dire, there is always a way to fight back. To survive on the fringe of oblivion, and to thrive in the times other men wither. The 1994 Vancouver Canucks did just that.
This article was originally published in April, 2014.