Canucks, city begin road to redemption
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The last time we walked these streets, they were littered with glass and the acrid aroma of tear gas still hung in the air.
It was long after the Boston Bruins had uncorked their last bottle of champagne at Rogers Arena and long after the last disappointed Vancouver Canuck had made for home, and groups of mostly young people still roamed the streets pitching whatever large objects they could find through downtown storefront windows.
Vancouver, Canada's great jewel on the coast, the city that had been embraced so warmly by the world during the 2010 Olympics, was wallowing in its own filth.
By morning, millions across the globe had seen the images of the looting and rioting following Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. And yet, by morning, hundreds of local residents, city workers, store owners and students had descended on downtown streets to clean up the wreckage. Messages of regret and optimism were written on some of the plywood sheets that were nailed up in broken windows.
It's called rebuilding, or redemption, or maybe both.
Now, on the eve of the 2011-12 regular season, the city and its team will try to move forward from that dark moment, to find a measure of redemption for the way last season ended. In some ways, the path must be shared. In order for the city to restore its luster, it needs to be able to show it can travel a similar path, but create a different ending.
The Canucks hope they can provide that path as they try to prove the exact same thing, that they can learn from the mistakes that caused them to crumble in excruciating fashion during last season's finals.
As for the city, it has been more than a little off-putting to see provincial and city officials, as well as top police officials, look to lay the blame for the riots at the feet of others, including the Vancouver Canucks themselves, the NHL and the media. It would have been refreshing to see those public officials actually take ownership of a problem given that the last two times the Canucks were in the finals (1994 and 2011), there was massive destruction of public property.
Give credit to the Canucks for taking a leadership role in what is a symbiotic relationship between the team and community. The team will honor police, ambulance workers and firefighters, along with those citizens who moved quickly to help clean up the city in June. The team gave out about 1,000 tickets during the preseason to people who were identified as having helped out after the riots.
The team is also working throughout the season to promote appropriate fan behavior under the catch phrase "Heart of a Canuck." A pregame video Thursday night is expected to show images of some of those who cleaned up after the riots, and many of those officials and citizens will be on the ice along with some of the NHL hardware the Canucks earned during a stellar regular season.
"It's very important. We shouldn't be the lightning rod for civil unrest," GM Mike Gillis told ESPN.com on Wednesday afternoon at Rogers Arena. "A lot of people did the right thing and we want to make sure they get recognition for that."
On the ice, the challenge facing the NHL's best team by a country mile during the regular season is different, but just as daunting.
The team's best all-around forward, defending Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler, remains sidelined by a hip injury, although he did take his first full practice with his teammates Wednesday. Mason Raymond will also be missing indefinitely, recovering from a fractured vertebra he suffered during the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks will also be without one of their top defensemen, Christian Ehrhoff, who signed a monster deal with Buffalo as a free agent. Raffi Torres, a useful if sometimes reckless role player, is likewise gone.
Beyond the changes in personnel, there are also the issues of the team's identity and how June's meltdown will alter that. By the time the finals series was finished, the Canucks had established themselves as one of the least likable yet talented teams in recent memory.
There was Alex Burrows' bite on Patrice Bergeron early in the final series. There was Aaron Rome's nasty blindside hit on Nathan Horton that ended both players' seasons (Horton's to injury and Rome's to suspension). There was Maxim Lapierre's laughable attempt to draw a penalty by pretending to have been speared by Boston captain Zdeno Chara. And there was netminder Roberto Luongo's curious complaint that counterpart Tim Thomas wasn't giving him enough love.
One imagines all the energy expended flopping and diving and trash-talking might have been put to better use, but perhaps that's simply part of the learning curve for an immensely talented team.
Luongo was a Vezina Trophy finalist a season ago, but his play throughout the playoffs was wildly uneven, especially during the Cup finals when the Canucks were blasted in three losses in Boston.
In some ways, Luongo perfectly illustrates the challenge that faces the Canucks, the test of being able to put aside a disastrous performance on the game's biggest stage. Does he have the mental toughness to use that loss as a motivator, as a building block to capitalizing on what are clearly world-class skills?
The same can be asked of Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Unfairly lampooned by some, the Sedins remain remarkable talents. They have captured the past two scoring championships and there is little to suggest one of them won't be in line for a second Art Ross this season. But they have likewise shown a propensity for not being able to raise their game to a level that the playoffs demand. The Sedins combined for a plus-56 during the regular season and then were a curious minus-20 in 25 postseason games.
Still, having listened to the two of them answer question after question in that quiet Canucks locker room after Game 7 and their unflinching honesty in shouldering the blame for the team's loss, there can be no question of their desire to win.
Is there an overriding lesson to be learned from last season's disappointment? Gillis doesn't think so.
"But there's lots of little lessons you learn along the way," he said. "This was the first time there for a lot of our guys."
Three years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team against whom the Vancouver Canucks will open the 2011-12 regular season Thursday night, became the first team since the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers to lose in a Stanley Cup finals and then come back and win it all the next season. Starting Thursday night, on a fresh sheet of ice, the Canucks begin a journey they hope will put them in the same company.
A city anxious for its own fresh sheet of ice hopes to get a similar chance at restoring its tattered image with a parade long on silver trophies and short on tear gas and broken glass.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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