Captain Vancouver: Trevor Linden

A heavy canopy of grey clouds hung over the city on that Sunday morning in April of 2002, and the light that filtered through the stained glass windows of St. John the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Kerrisdale was pale and sad and perfect for a funeral. Which is why I was in church, for once again the Vancouver Canucks had died in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I was there not so much to mourn them as to ask forgiveness. I had repeatedly broken a few of the Ten Commandments during that series: worshipping false idols; profaning the divine (and some others); and, when goalie Dan Cloutier—with the Canucks up 2 games to 0 against lavishly favoured Detroit—let in that Red Wings shot from centre ice, breaking the commandment against murder. Or at least thinking about it. I was also there to see my friend Monsignor Greg Smith after the mass he was celebrating, as the good monsignor is aman with impeccable hockey pedigree: he’s the grand-nephew of the Montreal Maroons’ 1930s Hockey Hall of Famer Hooley Smith, and a coffee with him would help me focus on what truly matters to the bereaved fan: the afterlife, a.k.a. next season.

As the mass ended and I walked out, I thought I was having a miraculous vision, for there in a pew at the back sat none other than Trevor Linden. It was hard to believe that St. Trev needed to seek forgiveness for anything in this town. Perhaps he was praying for a Canucks team that would consistently show up the way he did: whether healthy, hurt, or in between, a player who empties his tank every game. His was the kind of constancy that had won him the fickle heart of the city in his first incarnation here as Captain Vancouver.

He’d returned to the fold after a three-year exile, and his second coming had been a good one. Clutch player that he is, he had five points in the six-game loss to Detroit, one of the few “plus players” in the self-destruct. But on that April Sunday, when he could have been hanging at one of his R&R hideaways in Montana, Whistler or Westbank with his wife Cristina—or, had things been different, actually playing in the playoffs—the non-Catholic Linden was at the church to have coffee with his friend, Father Greg.

So it came to pass that we all wound up in Father Greg’s digs sipping coffee, eating pastries and talking hockey. Linden, his playoff stubble gone, his round glasses giving him a scholarly air, and seeming taller in person than 6’4”, didn’t have a lot to say about the Detroit debacle. Instead, he wanted to talk hockey history, something he’d inhaled during his 107 games as a Montreal Canadien. “I was injured for a while,” he said, understating the broken foot, ankle and ribs that plagued him as a Hab, but the silver lining was “sitting in the press box with Red Fisher and listening to his stories about the great Canadien teams of the past.” He loved Montreal’s culture and élan, and its NHL team. “The organization was tremendous,” he recalls today. “It’s a first-class place to play. Having the opportunity to meet Guy Lafleur and Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore and Elmer Lach, for me, as a history guy, was pretty special.”

Of course, Linden makes clear that Montreal is his second favourite NHL jersey, after those he’s pulled on as a Canuck: the skate going downhill; the angry corporate whale coming up for air; and the jersey that was the perfect icon, the original logo of rink and hockey stick, forming a stylized C—a logo as clean, honest and direct as Linden himself.

“All I ever wanted to do was be a hockey player,” he recalls. He was 17, and had just finished his first full season of junior with the Medicine Hat Tigers, when he realized he just might become one. His team had won the first of its back-to-back Memorial Cups, and he was sitting in the general manager’s office. “He said to me, ‘You know, Trev, you’re going to be a very high draft pick next year, and you may want to think about getting some legal representation.’ I was kind of shocked. That was the first time it actually clicked that it’s real.”

But reality in Vancouver is an ever-shifting thing, and the city’s sense of history can evaporate in the time it takes to tear down an old building and put up a new one. Linden has transcended both the city’s short attention span and the various reconstructions of Canuckville—the ownership changes, the demolitions of Mike Keenan, the overpriced real estate that was Mark Messier, the perpetual work-in-progress called Todd Bertuzzi—to win the adoration of a couple of generations of Vancouverites, whether they like hockey or not.

“What I admire most is his grace off the ice,” Monsignor Smith says today from Rome, where he’s finishing his doctorate in church law at the Gregorian University. He met Linden at the wedding of a mutual friend in 1997, and the priest and the NHLer formed a tight friendship (Linden is surrounded by Catholics: his older brother Dean converted to marry one, and Linden’s wife Cristina is also Catholic). “Whether he’s reading bedtime stories to sick kids or patiently signing autographs between sips of a latte at Starbucks,” says Smith, “he’s living proof that character and charity both count, no matter what else you’re good at.”

Linden, who turns 37 in April, has been in Vancouver for a long time now.  He arrived here in 1988 as a lanky 18-year-old from Medicine Hat, where his parents Edna and Lane still live, running the family construction business (though they also spend a lot of time at the property Linden bought near Kalispell, Montana). It was Linden’s mother who gave him his first skates, his athletic genes and his love of hockey. “My mom is the real sports person in our family,” he says. “She was a real good fastball player, a pitcher. My mom’s dad, my grandpa, was a big hockey fan. I was glued to Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night.”

Linden developed his talent on the outdoor ponds of Alberta. There were no garage bands, no runs-in with the law, no find-oneself escapes to Thai beaches, just winning hockey with the Tigers, a gold medal at the 1988 World Junior Championships, and then bright lights, big city. “It’s crazy to think,” he recalls, “that I won a Memorial Cup in May, graduated from high school in June, and played my first NHL game in October.” A game with the team to whom—save for that three-year interlude—Linden has remained faithful for nearly two decades with his never-say-die play, his exemplary leadership and his charitable works (his foundation just helped to raise $4 million in Maple Ridge for Camp Goodtimes, which benefits children with cancer).

Indeed, when The Province ran an online, all-time Canuck poll in 2003, Linden demolished the competition in things like captaining a Game 7 (129 votes to Mark Messier’s 12) and player you’d most like to meet for a beer after the game (32 votes to Todd Bertuzzi’s 14). Linden laughs when I reveal the results to him, something apparently the Canucks media folks didn’t get around to doing, perhaps figuring the three-year, $6.3 million (U.S.) contract extension he signed in 2003 was consolation enough. “I’ve got a lot of family members out there,” he jokes; and they came through again in February 2007, voting him “Best Local Athlete” in the Westender’s Best of the City poll.

Yet while the city adores him, a glance at the Canucks’ own website, with its “Hall of Fame” rankings of former greats, points out the tawdry irony behind the Canucks’ relationship with him. While Linden is number 1 all-time in points and games played—and the public face and heart of the franchise to practically the whole damn city—he ranks number 11 on the site, sandwiched between Harold Snepsts and Kirk McLean. Former Canuck Stan Smyl ranks first and Thomas Gradin second—even though Linden outscores them all in everything.

“That’s mind-boggling,” says Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason, who won two National Newspaper Awards as a sportswriter for the Vancouver Sun. “When you add up everything Linden has done as a Canuck, he should be Number 1. I’ll tell you this: Trevor Linden’s jersey will eventually be retired—Thomas Gradin’s won’t be.”

The website doesn’t reveal the science of its rankings, but Vancouver historian Craig Bowlsby, whose Knights of Winter chronicles the game in B.C. from 1895 to 1911, sees the problem with Canuck memory as a function of interrupted history. “Most of Vancouver’s early professional hockey history burned up in 1936 with the Denman Arena,” says Bowlsby. “This is one reason there’s no continuity of tradition, as there is in Toronto. But Toronto has also had a top professional team for almost a hundred years, while Vancouver was without one from 1927 to 1970. Of course that doesn’t explain everything. I think those who look after the hockey torch need to be reminded of their past glory.”

When the Canucks got into the big leagues, in 1970, they went head-to-head with Buffalo at—of all things—a roulette wheel for the right to pick first. The Canucks would win if the roulette ball landed on an even number. It landed on 11, which became the jersey number of Gilbert Perreault, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Sabres. Vancouver chose Dale Tallon, who did not go on to a Hall of Fame career with the Canucks. No saviour there.

Going into the 1988 draft, with a franchise record of 435 wins and 650 regular season losses over 18 seasons, the Canucks hoped that their most persistent quality—failure—would finally catapult them toward success. The worst teams from the previous season get to pick first; that year, the Canucks drafted second. After Minnesota (now Dallas) took Mike Modano, the Canucks chose Linden, who was happy to land here. “I always had that sense, I guess from my dad, that Western Canada stuck together,” he says. “So I think that was a right fit for me, staying in the west, and having an opportunity to play in Canada.”

The Canucks, too, were delighted. “He’s shown a lot of leadership skills early in life and usually those patterns don’t change,” general manager Pat Quinn said at the time, proving himself a prophet. “From what we hear he’s a coach’s dream—a player you can put out on the ice in almost every situation.”

The coach’s ultimate dream, of course, is the Stanley Cup. The Canucks had made an appearance in the 1982 Cup Final, but “next year” had been the hope and the reality for Vancouver fans ever since 1915, when the Vancouver Millionaires, led by the great Cyclone Taylor, won the city’s only Stanley Cup.

There was a lot of pressure on the teenaged Linden to lead his team out of the wilderness, but he “felt completely prepared to be a National Hockey Leaguer,” he recalls. He was less prepared for the post-Expo 86 boomtown that was Vancouver. “When I was a kid we used to go to Calgary and look at tall buildings. So for me it was a big change. I remember thinking the craziest thing was having to pay all this money for parking. We didn’t have pay parking in Medicine Hat.”

Linden scored his first hat trick a month into his rookie season. Even so, he smashed his stick in the dressing room after the Canucks found a way to lose 7-6 to Minnesota. “This kid has a burning desire to win,” Pat Quinn told a Minnesota reporter at the time. “I think he finds it hard how some of our veterans can have a ‘Well, we worked hard but lost again’ attitude. He can’t accept that.”

Finally, a player who felt about the game the way long-suffering fans did. He scored another hat trick a week later, tied for the lead in team goals that year with 30, and became the first Canuck rookie to win team MVP honours. He finished second to Brian Leetch in Calder Trophy-voting as rookie of the year. “And two years later,” he says, “I was a captain in the National Hockey League.”

At 21, he was the NHL’s youngest captain, but the “C” and the responsibilities that went with it were, to him, as they should be. Off the ice, he hired an accountant and financial advisor to look after his money (now easily in the double-digit millions—in addition to the $6.3 million extension, another of his Canuck deals was worth $7.2 million). “The people I selected at that time,” he says, “are the same ones I use today.”

On the ice, he led the Canucks to a first-place finish in the Smythe Division in 1992—a feat that hadn’t happened since 1975. The following season the Canucks blew the roof off with a franchise-record 101 points. And then came that magical run in the 1994 playoffs, one that revealed the intensity of Linden’s will. With his black eye, broken nose and focussed determination, it was as if he could see his name etched on the Stanley Cup and it was fuelling his every shift to Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. “I was sitting there in amazement that we were one game away, and that I could be carrying the Stanley Cup around Madison Square Garden,” he recalls. “It was a pretty surreal experience. That afternoon before the game was pretty long.”

Phil Pritchard, famous for his MasterCard commercial as “Keeper of the Stanley Cup,” was sure the Canucks were going to win it all. In Game 5, with the Rangers up three games to one, and scalpers selling rinkside seats at $5,000 (U.S.), Pritchard had been ready to hand the jug to the Rangers to end their 54-year curse. The Stanley Cup is perhaps the most superstition-bound trophy in sports, and you do not even touch it if you haven’t won it. The Rangers had suffered the Curse in 1940, when the team president burned the paid-up mortgage to Madison Square Garden in the Cup’s bowl, and the hockey gods, offended at this profaning of the chalice, had deprived the Rangers of it ever since.

Before Game 5 in the ’94 final, a Ranger official had brought friends and family to see the Cup, and Pritchard had to polish the thing again to rid it of paw prints, all the while thinking that the Rangers had cursed themselves again. Early in the third period, the Canucks were up 3-0 and Pritchard, not understanding (as Canuck fans do in their DNA) that no Canuck lead is ever safe, thought Stanley would not be won tonight.

Then the Rangers scored twice. And when Mark Messier tied the game with half the period remaining, Pritchard brought the Cup up to the concourse level. “Then a strange thing happened,” he said. As soon as the Cup reached daylight, the Canucks scored and went on to win the game. Pritchard was sure this was a dire portent for the Rangers.

So was the city of Vancouver, after a Game 6 win that then-team owner Arthur Griffiths called “the greatest game ever played at Pacific Coliseum.” Then, in Game 7 back in Manhattan, Linden tried his damnedest to win the Jug himself, scoring both goals as the Canucks fought desperately to tie the game—and almost did when Nathan LaFayette hit the Rangers’ goal post with less than three minutes to play. “That was tough,” says Linden, about that ring of the iron, which was actually a death knell. As for the loss, well, he says, “that stays with you for a long time.”

That series was itself a portent. Canuck history was about to take a nasty turn. First came a riot in Vancouver, then an NHL lockout the following season, and then, despite off-ice happiness—he married Vancouver native Cristina Giusti—two tough seasons for Linden. His “Iron Man” streak of 482 consecutive games ended when he sprained a knee in Philadelphia on December 1, 1996. “I didn’t have the puck and the guy that hit me didn’t have the puck. We just banged into one another and he hit my knee. I was out over two months. That was basically the first injury I ever had.”
Things got worse. General Manager Pat Quinn was fired in 1997. A few days later,  head coach Tom Renney got dumped in favour of Mike Keenan, and Linden was replaced as captain by recent arrival Mark Messier—rather, by himself. He graciously offered the “C” to the legend he’d gone head to head with in 1994 and Keenan supported the move, making it abundantly clear that not just the dressing room, but the team, was Linden’s no more.

Keenan kept people on edge as a tool of motivation and control. It had helped propel the Rangers to a Stanley Cup, but the method was the Mad Hatter crossed with Snidely Whiplash. When Canuck defenceman Grant Ledyard (with the team’s permission) went to Dallas to be with his wife, who was receiving cancer treatments, Keenan had Ledyard’s locker-room stall cleaned out. Keenan told the players that Ledyard had abandoned them. And when Linden hurt his knee in a game in Phoenix and Ledyard came to check on him between periods, Keenan, who considered injuries a betrayal of the team, ejected Ledyard from the trainer’s room on a jet-stream of profanity.

When the Canucks played St. Louis three weeks later, in one of those games where a team can show solidarity with their coach by pasting his previous team, Vancouver got walloped 5-1, and Keenan unloaded on Linden—who had returned early from a groin injury for the game. “He thought Linden was a pussy and told him so—in front of his teammates,” says Gary Mason. “It was nasty, nasty stuff and made Trevor hate going to the rink for the first time in his life. He handled it with the class we’ve come to expect but it really, really hurt. There’s a part of Trevor Linden that will never forgive Mike Keenan.”

Linden agrees that the low point in his hockey life, and perhaps life in general, came that miserable season. “It was the darkest time for me, for sure, and not only because of my relationship with Mike. Pat Quinn had been fired, the organization was going through tremendous turmoil, and the team was struggling on the ice. It was just a bad, extremely difficult time.”

It was thus bittersweet relief when the Canucks traded him to the Islanders on February 6, 1998. Fittingly, on a franchise that was treating its first-class citizen in a second-class way, he heard the news from the equipment manager. “I just came off the ice and Pat O’Neill—he was a close friend—came in and gave me the news,” says Linden, who points out that this is not unusual because equipment men get called early by their counterparts on the new team to inquire about the traded player’s gear. “Obviously, I never got along with Mike,” says Linden. “But I wouldn’t put that on him.”

Coming this way was Todd Bertuzzi, a 23-year-old problem child of infinite potential with a talent for getting in the way of himself. To the city, it played like Greek tragedy: the evil villain (Keenan) banishing the wounded young hero (Linden was still just 27) in exchange for, among others, a dubious hero-in-waiting in Bertuzzi.

Linden was much more than the unfailingly dependable Canuck. He appreciated the power he had, and saw it as a way to do good: helping poor kids and kids with cancer, and making time for anyone who came his way. When he headed for Long Island, this city mourned him with calls to talk shows and letters to editors that went, roughly, “We won’t see his like again.”

And then, in the kind of storybook twist usually confined to storybooks, we did: his stints with the Islanders, then the Canadiens and then the Capitals ended in November 2001, when he was sent back to the Canucks. “I remember I went home from the rink in Washington and I honestly did not sleep,” he says. “I had a million thoughts going through my head.”

First among them: can you go home again? “It was an odd experience,” he recalls. “I was back home, but I didn’t feel like I was. I felt like I was auditioning. I remember the first few months I was really on edge. I wanted to perform well.”
He needn’t have worried. In 2002-03, he notched a respectable 41 points in 71 games as the Canucks won 45 games—their second best total in club history. For his contribution to public life, he was named to the Order of British Columbia. The following season, the Canucks won their first division title in 11 years. Along the way, Linden broke sacred Canuck records, passing Stan Smyl’s 896 games in February 2004, and then on March 8, scoring his 674th point with the Canucks to break Smyl’s point total.

Of course, in cursed Canuck fashion, Linden’s record-breaking night—when the linesman faked fixing the ice so Linden could enjoy the standing ovation—was also the night Todd Bertuzzi broke Colorado Avalanche Steve Moore’s neck.

Linden’s place in the hearts of Canuck fans was illustrated the following day, when a BCTV crew showed up at Bertuzzi’s home. Bertuzzi, through an intercom, told the reporter to get off his property, and then, for good measure, called the West Van police. Before they got the bum’s rush from an embarrassed cop, the TV crew encountered a kid playing ball hockey in the driveway across the street. And yes, Todd Bertuzzi’s young neighbour was wearing a Canuck jersey: Trevor Linden’s.

There have been other dark moments for Linden since his return home: his eight years as president of the NHL Players Association saw him square off with management and some of his own members as the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season due to labour impasse. Perhaps worse, Linden was pilloried in public, the criticism a variation on the classically Canadian theme that too much player success/money/power is bad for the game. It’s a position team owners have been taking since the game moved indoors in 1875, and it wore Linden down.

During the ugly reality of the lockout, Linden spent time with sick kids, hung out in the city and cycled from his Point Grey Road home to Kits Beach with Cristina to grab a bite and chat about her plans for Basquiat, the boutique she opened in 2006. “I’m blown away,” he says of her eye for fashion, and of her store, for which he stresses he does not act as a consultant. “I’m just a customer,” he laughs. “And I thought I’d get a better discount than I do.”

During the lost season, Linden continued to work his magic on the city. Darren Peterson, a recreation programmer at Mount Pleasant Community Centre, received the surprise of his life when he walked into Kits rink one night to practice with his beer league team, the Formworks Hornets. “One of the guys worked for Formworks and had done some work on Trevor’s house,” recalls Peterson. “Trevor asked how often we practiced, the dude said, ‘We never practice,’ and Trevor said, ‘I’ll run a practice for you guys.’”

Linden arrived at the rink early, and by the time guys started showing up he was sitting in the dressing room with his skates and hockey pants on. “Guys arrived, saw him, and said holy shit!”  says Peterson. “We did a team jersey for him—number 16—he threw it on, and he ran us through some drills—some we couldn’t do. It brought a new spirit to the team.” Linden took the Hornets for beer afterwards, and the team was transformed. “We didn’t lose the rest of the season,” says Peterson. “The guys were so excited, it was crazy how we kept winning. We ended up winning the league championship.”

The lockout ended the following summer, but the fallout of the labour war caught up with Linden. In July 2006, he chose not to run again for president of the NHLPA, and in October was named in a lawsuit by a small dissident group of players who weren’t happy with the way Ted Saskin had been installed as executive director. “The attacks he’s received from people like Chris Chelios, not to mention a former friend in Trent Klatt, have hurt Trevor,” says Gary Mason. “There’s no doubt it contributed to the shitty year he had last year.”

Indeed, that fallout drifted all the way to the Canucks front office, which took a leisurely two months to respond to my request to interview him. Fearing demons known only unto themselves, they not only said no, they didn’t even pass the request on to the man who will one day have his retired jersey hanging from the rafters. In the end, it was our man in Rome who got us together.

Perhaps the media people were just trying to protect him, for early in the season he had trouble finding his groove and endured the humiliation of his first-ever “healthy scratch.” Still, his perseverance had him back on the power play by December, exceeding last year’s goal total by January, and a part of the Canucks’ most productive line (with Brendan Morrison and Matt Cooke) by February. Like other great leaders (most recently, Steve Yzerman), he’s adapted his game and taken on a more limited but no less important role.

“Through the season you grow, you change, you evolve,” he says. “We’ve got a good attitude, we’ve got good pieces, and our philosophy on how this team will be successful is the same with everyone.”

All of which is adding up to the kind of season that has Canuck fans thinking of hockey in June. Linden feels the addition of “quality people”—especially Roberto Luongo and Willie Mitchell, then Brian Smolinski and Brent Sopel at the trade deadline—has helped the team gel. And while nobody’s overconfident, who knows how far into the post-season the team might ride the consistent brilliance of Luongo? You’re no longer assumed to be crazy if you mention “Canucks” and “Stanley Cup” in the same sentence.

When the team played pre-season games in Japan in 1997, the Stanley Cup went over, too, so that Asian fans could pay homage. One day Linden found himself in the same room as the Cup—which he’d come so close to winning three years earlier—and a bunch of Japanese fans. They recognized him and urged him to pick up the trophy so they could take pictures. He politely declined, but they insisted. Where was the harm in hoisting the Cup to please a few folks in Asia? Linden, torn between his impulse to accommodate fans and his reverence for the game, took a step toward the Cup, then stopped. He simply couldn’t do it. He hadn’t earned the right.