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Friday, September 23, 2011
A case of the Roxy flu

By Calyn Shaw and Sam Eifling
ESPN The Magazine

Roxy
What happens at the Roxy doesn't always stay at the Roxy, as visiting NHL teams have learned the hard way.

This story appears in the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IT'S 11:30 P.M. ON VANCOUVER'S GRANVILLE STREET, a few hours after the Canucks bungled a chance to close out the Predators in the second round of the playoffs. win or lose, this downtown strip of pizza joints and bars crackles with energy -- enough to fuel a riot, as the city would later find out.

Tonight the energy is being channeled for one big party, and nowhere is the party crazier than at the Roxy.

The beer-and-whiskey joint doesn't look like anything special from the outside, with its burgundy awning and blipping marquee lights, but hockey fans know you can often spot the sport's biggest names letting loose there, if you can get in. On this evening, a three-hour line reeks of aftershave and cigarettes. As bouncers survey wannabe VIPs and girls in slinky dresses, someone yells, "Shane O'Brien is inside buying everybody drinks!" The rumor turns out to be false, but the eager crowd knows no better. Who wouldn't want to throw down with the ex-Canucks defenseman? After all, he was banished to Nashville last year supposedly because he loved the Roxy too much.

Inside, the vibe is more Saskatoon than South Beach. The lights are dim, the walls are festooned in memorabilia and it's shout-to-talk loud when the music gets cranking. Booths line the wall across from the stage, and in between, a dance floor is filled with loitering drinkers. The carpet could use a deep clean or maybe an exorcism. The bathrooms are the kind you wouldn't want your mother to know you use.

The Roxy isn't bottle service and menus infested with "tini" suffixes. It's puck bunnies in tank tops and a cover band in front of exposed brick. Despite the grungy vibe -- or perhaps because of it -- this is a joint where a big shot like O'Brien feels at ease. "The crazy relationship between us and hockey was nothing that was contrived," says Peter Martin, the Roxy's manager and an employee since it opened 24 years ago. "It just sort of happened. It's a good, safe bar to go to, and the players figured that out on their own 20 years ago."

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The Roxy isn't bottle service and menus infested with "tini" suffixes. It's puck bunnies in tank tops and a cover band in front of exposed brick.

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The place is so renowned as a hockey haunt, and its impact the day after so deeply felt, that Vancouver natives coined the term "Roxy flu" to describe its effect. It can hit anyone, but visiting players who enjoy mixed company and mixed drinks are especially susceptible. "There have definitely been games when the Roxy effect has been a big factor," Martin says.

Just look at what happened to the Stars last January. They had two nights off in Vancouver, but you'd think they'd just gotten off the red-eye after a 7-1 loss in which the Canucks scored on three of their first five shots. The next day's headline from British Columbia paper The Province read, "'Roxy Effect' takes its toll on Stars."

The Canucks owned the NHL's best home record last season, but they were formidable opponents wherever they played, leading the league in goals scored and fewest goals allowed. Still, among Canadians, the legend of the Roxy flu has taken on a life of its own.

The reporter on that Province story, Tony Gallagher, said his paper went with the Roxy headline not just because he "knew it to be accurate" but because "any reference to the Roxy has become shorthand for players having too much fun in Vancouver." In the words of Vesa Rantanen, another veteran NHL reporter and a Roxy regular, "If you smell like booze the next morning, it means you went to the Roxy -- even if you emptied the minibar at your hotel room."

Whenever a team skates into town and gets waxed, as the Flyers did in a 6-2 loss last December, locals simply assume the bar deserves an assist. During a postgame interview on Hockey Night in Canada last season, broadcaster Scott Oake asked Vancouver center Ryan Kesler, "Does the Roxy deserve a place in the Canucks' ring of honor for the 30 or 40 wins it may have helped you get over the years?" The alternate captain replied, "I definitely think we should give them some tickets to the game."

Kesler's tongue was planted firmly in cheek, but asked about the flu now, he's a true believer. "We're a good team and we earn those wins, but maybe the Roxy makes a game a bit more one-sided or slows a team down enough that they can't come into our building and steal one," he says. "I think it definitely limits reaction times, if you know what I mean."


BLAME CAMERA PHONES. These days, when you exercise your constitutional rights to get debauched (or, north of the border, your Charter of Rights), you are just a snotty Facebook post away from winding up as a cautionary tale. O'Brien became a short-timer in Vancouver after he showed up late to an 11 a.m. skate-around in the spring of 2010. Being tardy to work when you're earning $1.6 million is never a good career move but even less so when everyone recognized you at the Roxy the night before. The Canucks sat O'Brien for four games and traded him to Nashville after the season. When he returned to Vancouver with the Predators in the 2011 playoffs, the defenseman drew the attention of the Canucks' shrink-wrapped superfans, the Green Men, who waved a sign reading, "Which way to the Roxy?" beside the penalty box when O'Brien served minutes. (O'Brien, who signed with Colorado in July, wouldn't comment for this story.)

Jeremy Roenick, a Roxy devotee in his playing days, remembers going there on his first visit to Vancouver as a Blackhawks rookie in the late 1980s. His wildest night at the Roxy came a few years later, when the Bulls were in town playing the Grizzlies. Roenick hit the bar with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. "They held court like nobody's business," Roenick says. "All the girls were all over Rodman, and he was loving every minute of it."

The bar's drawing power transcends borders. After winning men's hockey gold in the Winter Olympics in 2010, Team Canada celebrated at the Roxy. So did the women of the Finnish team after they beat Sweden for the hockey bronze.

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Do the Canucks always seem to disappoint in the playoffs because visitors are less likely to hit it hard at the Roxy when the Stanley Cup is on the line?

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Perhaps the most notorious night at the Roxy came later that year, when Patrick Kane and his then-Blackhawks teammates John Madden and Kris Versteeg started an evening at the Roxy and ended it shirtless, flexing for photos, in a limo filled with women. That regular-season tomfoolery didn't stop the Blackhawks from torching the Canucks in the playoffs that spring. Which raises an interesting question: Do the Canucks always seem to disappoint in the playoffs because visitors are less likely to hit it hard at the Roxy when the Stanley Cup is on the line?

To be clear, many players dispute the existence of the Roxy flu in the first place. Late last season, the Bruins wrapped up a Tuesday night win in Calgary and headed for Vancouver. Sure enough, at 11:30 p.m. that Thursday, a trio of Bruins, including Vancouver native Milan Lucic, eased past the Roxy line and made their way to a back bar. They grabbed some beers, chatted among themselves, smiled at a few pretty girls and soon left, all with minimal fanfare. In a harbinger of their Game 7 Stanley Cup win that led to the riots, the Bruins beat the Canucks 3-1 that Saturday. "I don't believe in the Roxy effect," says Lucic. "It's just a bar."

If anything, some say an evening at the Roxy? -- or any bar, for that matter -- can motivate a player who knows that his teammates and coaches will be scrutinizing him after a long night out. As Roenick says, guilt is an underappreciated performance enhancer. "Staying up to 3 a.m., drinking beers and pounding shots down, they know they better be at their best the next day," he says. "If you can't handle it, guys will know, and there will be repercussions."

While there aren't any studies that prove the Roxy flu's existence, one way or the other, the bar's reputation precedes itself. Former Canucks coach Marc Crawford remembers the day when Nickelback front man Chad Kroeger, a native of Hanna, Alberta, skated up to him during an event at GM Place, now Rogers Arena. The singer gave the coach a heads-up: "You guys are going to win tonight for sure." Kroeger had been at the Roxy the night before and had seen the opposing team partying like rock stars. Whether it was the flu or just the bounce of the puck, the Canucks pulled out a win that night, and the legend of the Roxy grew.


RANTANEN CAN'T RECALL the visiting team or the year, but he remembers the woman who approached him in the Roxy after a late-'90s game. Flirting with intent, she asked, "Which team do you play for?"

Rantanen doesn't play. He's an editor for Veikkaaja, the biggest sports magazine in Finland. He was introduced to the bar's charms by Roxy devotee Esa Tikkanen, the five-time Stanley Cup winner and fellow Fin. "I'm a reporter," Rantanen told the woman. She excused herself politely. "And boom!" Rantanen says. "She scanned the room and found a player. Five minutes later, they were gone."

This, ultimately, is what makes the Roxy special. Inside the bar, a reporter can be mistaken for a player, and a player can blend in as a regular dude. Or maybe a retired player can mistake himself for a rock star.

Take the night of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. After the Canucks' 1-0 home win, the party roared along Granville Street. Soon, word swirled that Roenick was at the Roxy. Alex Ruiz was already in the bar. She works for the Flames' website but grew up in Vancouver. Knowing the bouncers, she skipped the line and was in prime position to catch Roenick jump on stage to belt the Tone-Loc classic "Funky Cold Medina."

The band, Troys 'R Us, didn't make a big deal of it, and neither did Roenick. "Girls is all jockin' at the other end of the bar," he rapped. "Havin' drinks with some no-name chump when they know that I'm the star."

The crowd ate it up but didn't mob him afterward. They snapped photos, raised an appropriate amount of hell and kept on.

In one regard, it was a delirious and bizarre moment. At the Roxy, it was just part of the effect.

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