SaltWire's Ask a Journalist: You have questions, let's find some ...
What you need to know about COVID-19: July 3
The latest on Nova Scotia's mass shooting
The latest weather columns and browse beautiful photos from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
NOW Atlantic: Smart thinking for a changing world
Visit SaltWire.com for more of the stories you want.
Victor Oreskovich (left) and Alex Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks react after being defeated by the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 15, 2011.
Members of the Vancouver Canucks react after being defeated by the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 15, 2011 (RICH LAM/Getty Images files)
Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 15, 2011 (ELSA/Getty Images files)
Rick Bowness has coached in more games than anyone in National Hockey League history, but one game, more than any other, haunts him to this day.
Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, June 15, 2011: The Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup — and the city burned.
The night the Canucks became the best team never to win the Cup.
In fairness, better teams have lost in the playoffs, as recently as last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning not winning a single post-season game. Along the way, there were some great Red Wings teams that didn’t win, and some amazing Washington Capitals teams that didn’t win, but Detroit came back and won Cups and the Capitals eventually won their own.
And, of course, there was Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins losing to rookie goaltender Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens in the great upset of 1971, but they came back a year later to win again.
With the Canucks, it was different. It was one and done. One chance for a championship. This was their shot — after five seasons of dominant hockey. This was their shot — and they couldn’t finish.
“It hurts to this day,” said Bowness, now the head coach with the Dallas Stars, then an assistant coach under Alain Vigneault with the Canucks.
“It hurts very much. There’s a lot of pain involved with looking back. Sometimes, when the Stanley Cup is being presented, I have to force myself to watch. I don’t want to see it. That (year) stays with me every day of my hockey life.
“You see, we had such a great team, and maybe more important, we had such great guys, such great chemistry, great coaching, everybody got along, everything you’d want. I’d never been on a team like that before and I’ve never been on a team like that since.
“That’s been a very painful thing to live through. We had a good team and we knew we had a good team. It’s not just me, it’s everybody. You look around now and you realize it’s over. The twins (Daniel and Henrik Sedin) are retired. Kevin Bieksa is retired. Ryan Kesler is retired. Alex Burrows is retired. (Roberto) Luongo is retired. Most of the team doesn’t play anymore. That was our best chance. That was our shot.
“I feel bad for every one of those players. They’ll carry this around with them. They all know it’s the best team they ever played on …”
A team like the 2011 Canucks doesn’t come around often, the way they controlled everything. They finished first in the NHL in wins and points. First in goals scored. First in goals against. First in faceoffs won. First in power play. Third in penalty kill at a remarkable 85.6%. First in a Western Conference that featured the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, future champion Los Angeles, along with San Jose with 107 points and three other teams with 99 points. On a soccer equivalent, the West, those years, was the hockey group of death.
And 2011 was supposed to be the Canucks’ year. The club went up three games-to-nothing on nemesis Chicago in Round 1 of the playoffs, and somehow lost the next three games to send the series to a nervous seventh game. Game 7 was sent to overtime on a Jonathan Toews shorthanded goal and then Burrows came out of the penalty box in extra time to score a typically sloppy series winner.
There are many hockey people who swear that you need to be face-to-face with disaster before you can find your way to a championship. That win was the Canucks’ moment, the sign they were headed somewhere. They then beat Nashville in six games and the Sharks in five to advance as favourites to win the Cup.
They had their scare. The celebration was to be next.
It just never happened. Defenceman Dan Hamhuis got hurt in Game 2 of the final. And then defenceman Aaron Rome got suspended.
“That’s two of our top five,” said Bowness.
And after winning the first two games of the championship series at home, the Canucks began to fall apart, losing all three games in Boston.
Then came Game 7 at home against the Bruins in a homer series. They outshot Boston 37-21, outhit Boston 47-29, and were looking to score first in the clinching game. The team that scored first had won each of the first six games.
Daniel Sedin, who had succeeded his brother, Henrik, as NHL scoring champion, was in perfect position to put the Canucks ahead early in Game 7. All he had to do was shoot at an empty net. The puck bounced over his stick.
“If that goal goes in, who knows what happens?” said Laurence Gilman, now the assistant general manager of the Maple Leafs. Back then, he was the assistant GM of the Canucks, where he worked most of his years under general manager, Mike Gillis.
Daniel Sedin led the NHL in scoring. Brother Henrik finished fourth. No Bruin was in the top 40 in scoring that season. Boston won Game 7 by a 4-0 count. The score seemed nothing like the game itself.
“What I learned that year, and it’s stuck with me, is that the best team doesn’t always win,” said Gilman. “It’s the team playing the best at that time, that wins. And that wasn’t us.
“It haunts me to this day. It lives with me every day. It is without a doubt the most crushing defeat I’ve experienced in my professional career of some 25 years. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.
“You can think things should have been different. You can think about all that, but what sticks with me is this profound feeling of sadness. It should have happened for our organization, for our players, for our city.
“I worked in Vancouver for a long period of time. There is a part of the psyche of the sports fan there that the gods are always conspiring against them and things don’t work out. The mentality goes back to the first days of the franchise, losing the first pick to Buffalo of the draft (Gilbert Perreault went to the Sabres, the Canucks ended up with Dale Tallon). What sticks with me now is we had a chance to break through, to be the first Canadian team since 1993 to win the Cup. That would have been huge in Vancouver, huge in Canada.”
They played seven games against Boston and scored eight goals. The highest-scoring team in hockey couldn’t score when it mattered. Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas never played better than he did those two weeks.
“People forget how well Luongo played at home,” said Gilman. “He had two shutouts at home and was great in the other win at home. If we shut out Boston in Game 7, he would have become the first goalie in Stanley Cup history to have three shutouts in a Stanley Cup final.”
He didn’t. Brad Marchand, just becoming a star, and Patrice Bergeron, already a star, scored two goals each in the win for the Bruins in Game 7. Had this season been completed, the Bruins might have been favoured to win again. Both Marchand and Bergeron remain major stars in today’s NHL. The only Canucks still around in any meaningful way are Alex Edler, old man Hamhuis, and then-part-timer Chris Tanev.
The one thing still difficult for Bowness to reconcile is how poorly the Canucks played in Beantown.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t play well in Boston,” he said. “We played Vancouver Canucks hockey at home, but couldn’t do it on the road. Boston got a lot from its fourth line (Greg Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille). We didn’t seem to have an answer for that.”
“I hope to win the Cup one day,” said Gilman, “but whether I win one or two or how many, there will always be tremendous regret that we didn’t win it in Vancouver. How many chances like that do you get in a lifetime?”
When Gillis travelled to the NHL Awards after the season as a nominee for the general manager of the year award, he made sure his assistants Gilman and Lorne Henning came along with him for the event. After he won the award, Gillis made certain that Gilman and Henning posed for photographs with him and the trophy. They were a team, right to the end.
Just a few steps away stood Thomas, winner of the Vezina Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy and, beside him, was Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara.
“We were excited to be there,” said Gilman, “and then you look over and there was Thomas and Chara. It felt just a little bit awkward.”
The Canucks have not won a playoff series since beating San Jose to advance to the 2011 final. They have played only 15 playoff games since the season that almost was, winning just three of them.
The glory days, short as they might have been, will never be forgotten — and will never stop hurting.
THE TEAM THAT ALMOST WON
First in points, 117
First in goals scored
First in goals against
First in power play
First in faceoffs
Among those retired from the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020