Right arm outstretched, the blade of journeyman forward Jim Nill’s stick in hand, holding aloft a white towel on the butt-end, a Vancouver Canuck associate coach made history, and is forever enshrined in bronze outside of Rogers Arena.
Rogers Arena, or Roger’s Arena, as it may now be called, in the memory of one Roger Neilson, whose spontaneous protest in Game 2 of the Campbell Conference Finals series kicked off a tradition in sports unlike any other.
As the story goes, on April 29, 1982, up 1-0 in a series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Neilson, filling in for Harry Neale behind the bench, felt his ragtag Canucks were getting the short end of the stick on penalty calls. Down 3-1 in Game 2, a goal was called back due to an offside. Blackhawk goalie Murray Brannerman swung at Curt Fraser, and, after the ensuing scrum, referee Bob Myers charged an extra 2 minutes to Harold Snepsts. Denis Savard scored to make the score 4-1.
“We should throw our sticks out on the ice,” said David “Tiger” Williams.
“Nah, we did that before,” said Neilson, instead fashioning a crude imitation of a white flag of surrender, three years before MacGyver went on the air.
While Roger gets the credit, it was actually CKNW Promotions Manager John Plul who had the idea to hand out towels for Game 3 of the series, and the Canucks would roll over Chicago in three consecutive games to reach their first ever Stanley Cup Final.
Perhaps too much is made of Roger’s invention of what has become known in Vancouver as towel power, because Neilson was one of the great innovators in sports. As head coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978, Neilson became the first modern day coach to expect players to show up in training camp in shape. That season, he also began shooting video of games and practices, breaking down habits and statistics of players. Ron Smith, hired by the Leafs as the first associate coach in the NHL, said that Roger’s methods were “a marriage of science and the arts”.
Stat junkies in hockey now can write computer scripts to download numbers like Corsi, a plus/minus number that records every shot attempt a player was on the ice for, as well as watch televised games to record scoring chances, Roger was a coach who would stay up late to calculate these numbers with a pencil and paper.
While the coaching convention at the time dictated for bench bosses to be ruthless motivators, Neilson removed himself from this, associating himself with line combinations, and strategy to work around the rules of the day. (This is, after all, a coach who once sent a defenseman out to defend a penalty shot, a rule that has since changed.) To teach his junior team how to forecheck, he brought his dog Jacques onto the ice, offering up the idea that, if the dog didn’t move, why should a forechecker?
Roger bounced from Toronto and Vancouver to four other teams, never for more than three years, before replacing Ottawa’s Jacques Martin behind the bench for two games to get to 1000 games coached in the 2002 season. He never won a Stanley Cup, and died at 63 after the Senators’ 2003 season which finished with a President’s Trophy. Until the day he died, he could be found in his office, watching, analyzing video, and learning how to cut and edit the raw film with the newer technology.
Trailblazer, innovator, and one of the good guys, a player’s coach. Hall of Fame Roger now stands permanently enshrined outside Roger’s Arena, now a literal fixture of Vancouver sports tradition. He was only in Vancouver for three and a half years, but one of the few members of the Hall that Canuck fans can proudly call our own.
The Vancouver Canucks announced their annual award winners as they are wont to do in the last home game of the season. Not surprisingly, Daniel Sedin won the Cyclone Taylor Trophy as the team’s Most Valuable Player while Ryan Kesler took the Most Exciting Player Award, and Jannik Hansen was named the Unsung Hero.
However, Christian Ehrhoff, in a bit of a stunner, was given the Walter “Babe” Pratt Trophy as the team’s Best Defenseman. Ehrhoff is top 10 in league defensemen in both goals and points, but he’s been put in a situation by Alain Vigneault to succeed. Ehrhoff starts 61.1% of his shifts in the offensive zone (excluding neutral zone starts) which is the second safest ratio in the league among defensemen who have played over 70 games, behind only Anton Babchuk.
It’s been Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis who have played against the toughest competition and have still been on the ice for a positive shot differential. While Ehrhoff has been the only Canuck defenseman to stay relatively healthy throughout the season, both Hamhuis and Bieksa have played over 60 games. The reasonable choice could have been either or those two, who don’t have amazing offensive numbers, but at least they’re defensemen who are trusted enough to be sent out on the ice to play defense.
As great as it was seeing Manny Malhotra out of eye surgery pose for the President’s Trophy with Henrik Sedin, it was a shame that the pipes of longtime Canucks’ public address announcer John Ashbridge were silent for once. Ashbridge is resting at Royal Columbian Hospital after suffering a heart blockage Friday night.
Like most fans who were born in the 1980s, John Ashbridge has been the lone voice of consistency. Radio men have come and gone, the players and coaches and managers have changed, but the distinctive pipes of Ashbridge were always heard after goals and penalties. Get well soon, John.
And you too, Malhotra.