In B.C., finals take on bigger-than-life aspect

By Iain MacIntyre
Vancouver Sun / June 2, 2011

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“That you are here — that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’’ — Walt Whitman, “O Me! O Life!’’

Indulge us. The Stanley Cup finals have come to Vancouver. If there isn’t poetry somewhere in your heart, maybe we’re not all Canucks.

Whitman, regrettably, would have been a Philadelphia Flyers’ fan and he did write “powerful play,” not “power play.” But his answer to the essential question — the meaning of life — always resonates.

It’s hard to remember this is just hockey. No one is going to be killed or cured by what the Canucks do the next two weeks although, interestingly, team psychologist Len Zaichkowsky says there is empirical evidence that people are healthier when their team is marching toward a championship.

But, of course, it’s not all about the game. Canucks chief operating officer Victor de Bonis was correct when he said this Stanley Cup run has become bigger than the game or his team. It’s now about community.

It’s about how we feel about ourselves and our province.

In the largely First Nations community of Moricetown, about 40 kilometers north of Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis’s hometown of Smithers, each Vancouver win lately has been celebrated with a parade down Highway 16 of honking cars, the number of which belie it’s small population.

That parade is not about the Canucks any more.

This spring is about our history.

The team’s rare run already has a permanence that makes it a reference point for more than hockey.

Think about it: We orient ourselves with 1994 and 1982 not only for the Canucks’ first two appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, but as mileposts in our own journey.

Where were you — literally and figuratively — when Roger Neilson hoisted a white towel in Chicago? How old were your kids in 1994? And were your parents and grandparents still alive then?

This is one of the wonderful things about momentous sporting events like the 2010 Olympics and the 1972 Summit Series. We do not need time and perspective for context; we recognize the history in what we are seeing as we see it. And we all have front-row seats.

Whether you are a Canucks fan or not, if you live in British Columbia the team’s run to the finals the last six weeks is probably already part of your own historical narrative.

“For my generation, this is our Cup run,” Canuck Jeff Tambellini, the 27-year-old from Port Moody, explained. “Everybody has been so starved for a winning team and people want it so badly. This is big stuff. Guys are so grateful for the opportunity. The fans deserve this more than anybody.”

He didn’t say which guys are grateful, but I’m pretty sure it’s most of the 4.5 million people who live in this province.

Probably it wouldn’t be like that if this were Montreal in the 1970s or Edmonton in the 1980s or even Detroit anytime in about the last 15 years. But this is B.C., winless in Stanley Cups since the Canucks joined the NHL 41 years ago. This is Vancouver, whose name has been inscribed on the Cup only once — in 1915 when the long-dead hockey team was called the Millionaires.

“It’s a bit daunting that this means so much to so many,” said Hamhuis, who was 11 when he watched the ‘94 finals. “But it’s fun at the same time to have that pressure, to have this unbelievable support behind us. I just want to get it done for all these loyal fans. Growing up in a small town and all through the North and those little towns up there, it means so much to everybody, means so much to this province.”

“You see people crying when they come up to you just because we’re going to the Stanley Cup finals,” defenseman Kevin Bieksa told reporters last week. “We’re definitely impacting the community in a large way and it’s a great feeling. We want to win for a lot of people — for every coach along the way, your parents, everyone who sacrificed, your families. We’re doing this for a lot of people right now.”

Mostly, the Canucks want to win for themselves and each other.

But, Bieksa said: “We’ve got the biggest series of our lives coming up. It’s definitely in the back of our minds how important this is and how much it’s affecting everybody around us.”

Canuck players don’t dare fully embrace this reality or they’ll have no chance against the Bruins. For them, the games are all-consuming. Every bit of their mental and physical investment must be made on the ice. They have not the luxury the rest of us do to measure history and our place in it.

“I’m not frightened,” captain Henrik Sedin said of the responsibility. “If we do what we want to do, people are going to remember this.”

They are going to remember it regardless.

Seventeen years from now, 37 years from now, people on the West Coast will talk about this time and these Canucks.

Where were you when Alex Burrows scored in Game 7 overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks on April 26, which, impossibly, was still 2011? And where were you when Bieksa skipped that puck unseen across the frozen pond to beat the San Jose Sharks only last Tuesday?

Where were you be last night, and with whom, when the Canucks play for their first Stanley Cup?

We are all part of Whitman’s powerful play and this verse — the Canucks’ and our own — will be remembered forever.

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