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Canucks finally a part of Vancouver's sporting fabric

Forty years ago, the NHL invited a new guest to the party and, if nothing else, Western Canada's first franchise has certainly livened up the bash.

The Vancouver Canucks will celebrate their 40th anniversary Saturday with an elaborate pregame ceremony before faceoff against the Los Angeles Kings - the same opponent, on the same date, as their inaugural game in 1970. The city and the team have matured together, and along the way Original Six allegiances withered away.

Stanley Cup angst runs high on Pacific shores, resembling the black hole in the centre of the country. And as in Toronto, the business of the NHL has become foolproof in Vancouver. Where you see the difference is in the unrestrained passion of the crowd. By comparison to the fans at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Air Canada Centre spectators seem to be wearing seat belts and muzzles.

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"The crowd is very young, and much noisier than it used to be," long-time Vancouver broadcaster Jim Robson said. "More show business."

The Hall of Fame voice of the Canucks would know. His broadcasts used to include greetings to the "hospital patients, shut-ins and those fans that can't get out to hockey games," references to the retirees who flock to B.C.'s temperate climate, and those working in provincial industries, on tugboats or in logging camps.

Today, even as more head offices setup in Vancouver, the lower-bowl at Rogers Arena is less corporate, less suited, and less reserved than other rinks. It is perhaps the loudest building in Canada, certainly this side of Montreal's Bell Centre.

"That fever, that pitch. You can see it on TV, and you can feel it in other cities," said Darren Chura, whose family's season-ticket account has been uninterrupted since 1970. "Club seats are now a great place. You see kids, young people, and jerseys. There's a lot more participation."

Of course, Canucks Nation's greatest contribution stems from Roger Neilson's famous protest during the 1982 Campbell Conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks. Upset with the officiating, the late coach raised a white towel atop a stick, and several players followed suit. By the time the series shifted from back to Vancouver, the promotions department at a local radio station had created "Towel Power," and the tradition of fans waving hankies at sporting events was born.

Then, last year, two students in one-piece, neon green spandex suits began taunting visiting players in the penalty box, and their skintight attire - regrettably - has caught on in other stadiums.

If it seems kooky, it is. B.C. is Canada's California, the place that marches to its own drumbeat, a little more eccentric, a little less predictable.

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Consider the last decade, when on two occasions, the justice system has intervened, pressing charges against defendants named McSorley and Bertuzzi, and chilling the NHL's system of vigilante justice.

Or consider the 1970 draft meeting, when a giant wheel was spun to determine which expansion franchise would receive first pick and the right to select burgeoning superstar Gilbert Perreault. The wheel looked as though it had stopped on a Canucks number, but upon closer inspection, the pick belonged to the Buffalo Sabres. Vancouver chose defenceman Dale Tallon second overall, and the fan base's sense of "impending doom," as one local broadcaster calls it, was established.

For years, Vancouver was the Canadian market that seemed indifferent; a half-empty Pacific Coliseum, open seats in a new state-of-the-art facility first called GM Place. But the Canucks, who missed the playoffs for their first decade of existence, have subsequently played before 308 consecutive full houses, every game since November, 2002, the streak beginning shortly after the NBA's Grizzlies left town and proved just how fleeting pro sports franchises can be.

"Hockey has just become so much of the fabric here," said Ron Shute, a dressing room attendant who dates back to the franchise's minor-pro days and is celebrating his 50th year with the Canucks. "In those years when the building was empty, it wasn't fun. You wondered how long the team would go on with the kind of fan support."

Forty years later, they're still waiting on a Cup.

There have been two appearances in the finals, in 1982 and 1994, and many losses before and since. Both runs came out of nowhere, whereas six 100-point Canuck teams have exited the postseason with a whimper.

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This season, the experts are predicting that the Canucks stand a real chance, and fan expectations have never been higher. The franchise that has never won anything is a popular as ever, perhaps poised to host its own party next spring.

"There's still that carrot dangling there," Robson said. "There's still hope."

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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