Ending the dubious curse

Essay by Daniel Gawthrop posted on British Columbia Review on April 14, 2024

HIGH HOPES – Vancouver Canucks team photo for their inaugural season, 1970-71. Defenseman Pat Quinn (back row, fifth from left) would get to the Stanley Cup final as coach and general manager in the team’s twenty-fourth season, losing Game Seven by one goal.


When the New York Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup final, it was their first NHL championship in fifty-four years. This season, as the Canucks prepare for their first playoff action in front of fans since 2015, their own Cup drought is fifty-four years—the team’s entire existence. In a perfect scenario of poetic justice, the Canucks would go all the way this year and meet the Rangers again in the final, this time winning their first Cup. But many fans are resigned to a more disappointing outcome: the Canucks bowing out after round one.

It’s not so much about the team’s struggles during the final stretch after spending most of the season at the top of the standings. Nor that the players are unprepared for the more significant challenge of playoff competition, a new experience for most. Nor that they’re still missing this or that critical piece to build a champion. No, this dark cloud of doubt despite the most successful Canucks season in recent memory is all about embracing the inevitable: we are used to having our hopes raised only to have them dashed, every time, whenever the Canucks are on the hunt.

Cynical pledge

Someone I am close to, hereafter referred to as CS (for “Canuck Skeptic”), has weaponized this pessimism, maintaining a cynical pledge he made in 1977: that if the Canucks won the Stanley Cup in his lifetime, he would drink a pint of his own you-know-what (not blood). This promise, which he remains confident he will die without keeping, is based on a logic most infuriating to the faithful: as sure as water flows downhill, he likes to say, every Vancouver Canucks season must end without a Stanley Cup.

This is not the bitterness of disappointment speaking. CS couldn’t care less about the Canucks or any other team, having lost interest in the NHL when the last Montreal Canadiens dynasty fizzled out. He just thinks there’s something about the culture of mediocrity surrounding the Canucks—an identity crisis typified by multiple brand redesigns, successive ownership melodramas, and how a time-honoured playoff tradition, “towel power,” mimics an act of surrender—that screams inferiority complex, thus guaranteeing failure every spring.

What began “towel power” may not be what current Canucks fans think: during the 1982 Campbell Conference final, Canucks players held up white towels to protest what they believed were bad ref calls. Fans took up the charge for the rest of the Stanley Cup run. Photo Bruno Torres

He enjoys tormenting Canucks fans for their Cup dreams, preying on the most gullible whenever the team is playoff-worthy. He can always find some poor schmuck who’s willing to bet—even before the post-season has begun—that our boys will win it all. Exploiting the hopes of the diehard fan, he says, is like taking candy from a baby: all he has to do is bet the Canucks won’t win the Cup. (These are great odds, with fifteen other teams competing; playoff qualification itself has become more of a Sisyphean task with every new expansion franchise awarded during the Gary Bettman era.) Then count his winnings.

During a three-year championship window more than a decade ago, a good friend who lost the bet had to shell out for dinner at a fancy restaurant. For dessert, CS arranged to have a chocolate cake shaped like a puck brought to the table. Bearing a single lit candle in the middle, it was iced with the original stick-in-rink logo and a cruel, sarcastic taunt: “The eternal flame of hope.”

Legacy of futility

The Canucks’ playoff record over the past half century has only reinforced CS’s triumphalist hubris. As the losses pile up, he wastes no opportunity to expand on a popular joke. Q: Why have you chosen Canuck players to be the pallbearers at your funeral? A: So they can let me down one last time. “As more Canucks fans age out and expire with unrealized Cup hopes,” CS muses, “the Aquilinis could start marketing Canucks casket straps.”

In 1975—two years before CS made his vulgar pledge—the Canucks capped their fifth season with their first playoff appearance. They drew the Canadiens, who would begin a four-year string of consecutive Cup wins the following season. The Canucks beat the Habs once in the series but were eliminated in game five at the Forum after blowing a two-goal lead in the third period. (They lost in overtime when defenseman Dennis Kearns, intercepting a goalmouth pass from Guy Lafleur to Yvan Cournoyer, neatly deflected the puck into his own net past a stunned Gary Smith.)

In four of the six following seasons, they got to the playoffs—but lost every time, in round one, to a vastly superior opponent. Then in 1982 they shocked everyone by winning their first three series in a row, knocking out Calgary, L.A., and Chicago. Canuck fever was born, and all of B.C. rallied around them. But then, for their first Cup final, they met the two-time defending champion New York Islanders. Playing their hearts out in game one on Long Island, they kept the score tied after sixty minutes. But as overtime began, CS pronounced: “They will lose.”

Defenseman Harold Snepsts featured on an O-Pee-Chee hockey card from the 1979-80 NHL season. Snepsts was no match for Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders in the 1982 Cup final.

Sure enough, as the first period of sudden death ticked down to the final ten seconds, defenseman Harold Snepsts—instead of ragging the puck a bit longer, freezing it against the boards to secure a second OT—threw a blind pass up the middle that was picked off by Islander super sniper Mike Bossy, who predictably banged home the slapshot winner. “The universe is unfolding as it should,” CS concluded, as the Canucks were swept in four straight.

The following decade would do nothing to wipe the smug grin off his face. From 1983 until 1991, the Canucks missed the playoffs four times and didn’t win a round in the five years they qualified. But the Pat Quinn era during its peak (1992-95) was more promising, a Cup win seeming far more likely than in 1982. In 1994, during their second Cup final appearance, the Canucks came back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Rangers to force a seventh game at Madison Square Garden. To this day he is loath to admit it, but CS began to sweat when captain Trevor Linden scored late in the third to put the Canucks within a goal of forcing overtime.

The phone started ringing, word of his pledge having gotten around. Someone brought out an empty beer stein from the kitchen (“Should I put it on the table—or in the bathroom, where you can have a little privacy?”). Apart from general excitement that the Canucks were so close to victory, CS’s family and friends relished the prospect of watching him fulfil his pledge. Out of decency, we would have stopped him after the first sip. But at least the curse would be lifted, and we would all bask in the glory of being Stanley Cup-winning fans. More importantly, we’d be spared the annual nuisance of CS’s gloating.

But hold on: CS was having none of it. “Never mind the glass. It won’t be necessary,” he said. Moments later, Nathan Lafayette hit the crossbar. Then Martin Gelinas hit the post. The seconds ticked away, and with them the Canucks’ best-ever chance of Cup victory. This time, CS chose not to gloat right away. He’d come too close for comfort to lifting that glass of you-know-what.

From hope to despair

For the rest of the Nineties, the Canucks were non-contenders. In 1996, they were bounced in round one by the Colorado Avalanche, who went on to win their own first Cup. For the next four years the Canucks stunk out their new downtown rink, failing to make the playoffs. Then in 2001, the Avalanche bookended that misfortune by beating them a second time in round one, once again using Vancouver as a launching pad for Cup victory.

A year later, the Canucks won both games in Detroit to take a 2-0 series lead over the Red Wings in round one. But CS didn’t flinch. “The Canucks will blow it at home,” he said. Sure enough, when the series shifted to Vancouver, Dan Cloutier whiffed on that Nicklas Lidstrom shot from centre ice. It was all over. Again. Like the Avalanche twice before them, the Red Wings gained momentum from beating the Canucks, going on to win another Cup.

The last championship window for the Canucks was 2009-12. In the spring of 2011, they were President’s Trophy winners and overwhelming Cup favourites. This time, they had home ice advantage for every round and won the first two games of the final. After losing both games in Boston, they came back home to beat the Bruins in Game Five.

For only the second time in their history, the Canucks had positioned themselves to secure Cup victory with just one more of the sixteen playoff wins left to achieve. Despite two chances, however, the kryptonite set in: they were blown out in game six in Boston and shut out at home in game seven, touching off Vancouver’s second Stanley Cup riot. CS maintained a dignified silence.

Fin waves the team flag while the Canucks celebrate a goal in March 2023. Photo Trevor Marc Hughessix in Boston and shut out at home in game seven, touching off Vancouver’s second Stanley Cup riot.

Time to end the curse

I needn’t review the following dozen seasons. But now that the Canucks are facing their first legitimate playoff round in nine years, there’s extra motivation to finally bring the Stanley Cup to Vancouver.

Never mind legacy building for team president Jim Rutherford. (Yes, for someone already in the Hall of Fame after building Cup winners in Carolina and Pittsburgh, creating an NHL champion from a Canadian franchise would be a fitting final act.) Never mind that a victorious Canucks would be the first team north of the border in more than thirty years to sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s mug. And never mind the bucket list wishes of countless fans who attended their first Canuck games as children and have since become parents and grandparents.

Oh, no. The real reason for the Canucks to win the Cup, sooner rather than later, is to make a horse’s ass out of CS.

As the clock ticks down on the team’s first Cup—or, better yet, following the overtime goal that clinches it—and while the rest of us are drinking something more appealing, I want to see the ultimate Canuck Skeptic squirm as he raises that glass of pee to his lips.

He’s pushing seventy now, so the taste would be all the more bitter than had the Canucks won games six or seven in 2011. Or game seven in 1994.

British Columbia Review contributor Daniel Gawthrop is a co-founder of the Cutting Edges, Vancouver’s LGBTQ+ hockey association. Here he camps it up in his Edges jersey, outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, just before the Vancouver Canucks Pride Night (2023).