The Vancouver Canucks: One Big, Happy Family?

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

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Whenever I look at another NHL team and its players – whether it’s the Chicago Blackhawks and their dance parties, or the L.A. Kings, or the Detroit Red Wings and, to some extent, the Philadelphia Flyers – I think, “Wow, are they all best friends?”

They look like they chose themselves. I feel to wander through one of their crowds for a night, to leave the hostile, jumpy confines of a hockey-mad, sadistic Canadian city, and to be a part of one of their fan bases would leave me like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris… just walking around the Twenties saying shit like, “Wow, this is UNBELIEVABLE!” and “I don’t know what it IS with this city!” over and over. And over.

But instead, when I look at the Vancouver Canucks, I just think, “Oh, are they at Thanksgiving?”

You know. The forced conversation. Pretending to be religious because someone still thinks you and yours say grace when you sit down. Your elders tell you the same stories they’ve been telling you for 10 years, because they really can’t remember when the last time they saw you was. (And, if you’re being honest, you don’t either.)

It’s not like I’ve ever not felt that way about Vancouver, either. Even that 2011 year, it all unraveled so fast at so many different times – has everyone just forgotten that the Canucks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Chicago Blackhawks? – and you just sat there thinking, “Boy, they better win this thing now. Because I think the family’s about to break up if they don’t.”

I’m glad we still have the Sedins and Kevin Bieksa. It’s a shame we lost both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. But, when I think about it again, it’s really just a shame we lost Cory Schneider.

Because Mike Gillis’s biggest problem wasn’t the trades he made or didn’t make, or the players he signed or didn’t sign. Mike Gillis’s biggest problem was that he treated his players like assets. And we, in critiquing him, did the same thing.

We fully expected Luongo to stand on his head. Not for himself, but for us. We blasted Mason Raymond and harpooned Alex Edler. It’s a wonder half of that twosome is still around and not quarterbacking a powerplay in Detroit. And Cory Schneider wanted to be here, saying very quickly after he left that he had planned to play his entire career in Vancouver. (Shouldn’t we have wanted someone like that, not the other guy who had the first flight to Florida booked for every mid-April?)

The Canucks didn’t build a team of players who wanted to be here. They sort of just did it like you do it in the career mode with EA Sports – you moved some pieces around and spent what you had to in the summer, and then you rigged the game for as long as you could. But if you simulated a whole season, your team would probably fall to 12th and your AHL club would go to shit. Because, honestly, what sort of video gamer really has ever paid attention to his AHL roster?

What also happened was Vancouver’s young core – which was never really that young – got old. And they sold off whatever sub-20-year-olds they had to prolong the high, like an addict hawking his couch for a month atop the world. They never had any rookies. They never had any future. And when they did, it was – again, like you playing Apples to Apples with your family while the turkey cooks – a forced motion, a combed-over scenario.

Except now it’s different.

Oh sure, you’ll hear from those who want to rush our suddenly repleted prospect bank into the National Hockey League.

And in a way, I’m one of them. Not because it’s logical to do that, but because I’m tired of hearing guys called busts or disappointments just because they didn’t go all Patrick Kane on the world and explode into a Fantasy Hockey star at age 18. We forget, Jonathan Toews took a year off. Alex Ovechkin took a year off. Evgeni Malkin, too.

Patience is okay. But patience isn’t the only reason to keep the Tie Fighters in the loading bay.

Imagine, if you will, that the Canucks just sucked for one year… which they very well might. Would that really be so bad? Vancouver ain’t gonna win a Cup in 2015 anyway, not while the Anaheim Ducks and the Blackhawks and the Kings and the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins man the perimeter, bobbing up and down like those pylons in the ocean that keep you in shallow waters and hold you back from the breaker.

So why not just let this season play out, and save up for the next? Why not play the long con, strike when re-filled and ready?

But there’s another reason, too…

Imagine, still, if our entire incoming fleet of high-profile draft picks and signees – Nicklas Jensen, Frankie Corrado, Anton Cederholm, Brendan Gaunce, Hunter Shinkaruk, Bo Horvat, Jordan Subban, Cole Cassels, Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, goalie Thatcher Demko, Dane Fox, and Nikita Tryamkin – all came up together, all as one organism. They’d all play in the AHL, and all for the Utica Comets. They’d get pulled up one-by-one or two-by-two into the NHL, when the next one deserved his shot. They wouldn’t just be a collected of bodies stuffed together and assembled, as it’s clear the Vancouver Canucks now are, or have been for the past 36 months.

They’d be a real team, and one that just might last.

Do they have a Toews or a Crosby? No, but that’s okay. Only two teams have a Toews and a Crosby, after all.

Watching those guys over the summer, whether it’s been at Whistler or at UBC for the Canucks’ prospect camp, has been a treat… and I haven’t even been there. It’s clear they’re a group of kids who are taking to this franchise and are grateful for the opportunity.

They also just love to play the sport.

“Shinkaruk oozes love-for-the-game,” writes Jason Botchford, in his column from July 13. “If it was a measurable, he’d hit 11. He’s jacked about his opportunity this summer to go out East and skate with some NHL stars, including Sidney Crosby. He’s done it before, as it’s something his trainer sets up. But with the way his eyes light up, it clearly hasn’t lost its glamour.

“Shinkaruk has this personality where if he told you he curls up inside his hockey bag every night to sleep eight hours, you would respond by nodding your head and saying, ‘Of course you do.'”

Okay. There we go. That’s what we want, isn’t it?

But then you can drift across to the other end of Botchford’s newsroom, where only a click or two away lies an angry guy named Tony Gallagher.

Tony is well known in Vancouver and, I must say, under-appreciated. Not just because he’s freaking old and already belongs in whatever Hall of Fame writers like him have to hold them, but because he’s a pretty damn good columnist. He knows how to control the English language. He also knows how sell it.

“There’s Dane Fox, Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann,” he writes, apparently because he likes to list players names like me, knowing it makes you sound as knowledgeable to your reader as you need to be, “all rifling pucks in just that clinical way which distinguishes the goal scorer from the labourer, and there’s no question these are the skills the Canucks need the most right now.

“This fall, guys like Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Shinkaruk may as well pack their bags for Utica upon arrival no matter how they play at camp or in pre-season games. It simply doesn’t matter how they perform. There’s no room for young players with all the old names labouring away, many of them with no-trade contracts.

“Yes, this team finally has some very promising young faces. But will any of them ever get a serious look?”

Hey, Tony. Slow down, pal.

You’re still thinking of next year, like a sucker. You’ve gotta think bigger, like the year after next year. Like, whenever Rio’s gonna have the Olympics. Because you’re worried about the playoffs, which don’t matter right now. I understand they’re important inside Rogers Arena, where Jim Benning has mistakenly made them his goal. (Did he ever hear of managing expectations?)

Listen, it would be terrific if Vancouver made the playoffs again. No question, and they should absolutely do whatever they can to get there.

But why are we still sacrificing tomorrow for today? Is it just a natural illness we have, because we live in Canada and because we can’t condition ourselves to care any less?

I share Tony’s concern about how the Canucks have historically treated their younger players, and I agree that they should have committed to a couple of them – standouts like Shinkaruk or Horvat, and certainly Corrado – by now, and let them play their way through one or two tough years in the ‘Chel. I agree with Tony, that another year in London won’t do Bo Horvat any good.

But I also have to trust in these rookies for the exact season Tony clearly trusts them – their skill.

That way he described their sessions at UBC, the way they rifled pucks “in that clinical way” that separates a natural from a chucker… that doesn’t go away. That doesn’t die. Unless, of course, you kill it.