Better or Worse Than “The Messier Years”?

For Vancouver Canucks fans of a certain age, “the Messier Years” are seen as the team’s lowest point. But are they still?

The Messier Years Have Unwelcome Competition

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the firing of Bruce Boudreau – and the circus around it – is the Vancouver Canucks nadir.

But there’s the lowest point for this management group, and then there’s the lowest point for the fans. With over 50 years in the NHL for Canucks fans to choose from, the options are plentiful. We could, for instance, go all the way back to losing a Hall-of-Famer to the spin of a wheel. Instead, let’s jump forward 27 years and start the comparisons there.

From High to Low to Oh, No!

In the Summer of 1997, Mark Messier was leaving the New York Rangers and looking for a new home. The high of bringing a Stanley Cup to the Rangers for the first time in 54 years was wearing off. The team was still doing well but couldn’t quite get back to the final in the next three seasons. Reaching the conference finals wasn’t enough, and he looked for a new challenge.

Or at least somewhere that would give him $30 million, loan him another $3 million, a “corporate apartment” he didn’t live in, and a pile of bonuses. Given he was coming off a 36-goal, 84-point season, that shouldn’t really be a surprise. He had star power, too, and a fairly recent Stanley Cup ring to go with five others he won with the Edmonton Oilers.

That same season in Vancouver, the team was three seasons removed from their own Stanley Cup Final appearance. They were faring rather worse than the Rangers, though, missing the playoffs entirely in 1996-97. The Summer before, general manager Pat Quinn had Wayne Gretzky agree to a verbal contract only to have the deal sabotaged by ownership.

Management was solid, and provably so with Pat Quinn at the helm. The mistake made in failing to get Gretzky was strictly on ownership’s part. So the next year they put extra effort in and got the biggest free agent on the market: Mark Messier.

One Little Problem

Now, for those of you keeping track of dates, you might have noticed something. That self-same 1994 Cup win for the Rangers came at the expense of the Canucks. Messier himself was the subject of broadcaster Jim Robson’s call while he was viciously cross-checking Trevor Linden at the end of Game Six.

Not to make a blanket statement, but most fans have memories that last longer than three years. Messier trying to further injure one of the most beloved Canucks of all time didn’t exactly sit well with them. And at the introductory press conference, where he was taking the captaincy off of Linden.

In 2018, Trevor Linden was let go by the Vancouver Canucks, losing a power struggle to then-GM Jim Benning. Benning not only got his job in Vancouver with Linden’s blessing but his contract was renewed with Linden’s help. Just to complete the scene, Benning’s previous job was with the Boston Bruins – the team that beat the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

New owner, same betrayal.

Into the Mud, We Go!

The current-model Canucks had their high point a few years back in 2020. They got not only a play-in win over the previous year’s Stanley Cup Champions but won a round themselves before being knocked out by the Vegas Golden Knights in seven hard-fought games. That was after four seasons of no playoffs at all, followed by what will soon be three more.

Between then and now, a popular uprising among fans led to both the general manager and coach getting fired. They were replaced by a management combination of Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin and coach Bruce Boudreau. The team went on an immediate tear, cranking out a seven-game win streak. Boudreau’s affable personality and very good communication skills endeared him to the fans after Travis Green‘s more reserved approach.

Fans had hope now that this new group would be able to get the team back on track. Or if not that, then on a new, rebuilding track.

Back in 1997, Messier flexed his muscle, and the Canucks coach was replaced with one of his choosing. The incoming Mike Keenan had coached Messier during the 1994 Cup win. So fans in Vancouver now had a Cup-winning coach and star player in place. Maybe not ones they liked exactly, but if it brought success they’d try it. Fans now had hope that the team would get back to their previous highs.

Hope, as both Albert Camus and John Cleese have said, is a dangerous thing.*

Failure or Betrayal? Why Not Both?

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Despite Linden actually being in town during both incidents, a closer modern analogy here is Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau was hired directly by ownership at the suggestion of the not-yet President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford. That’s the same Jim Rutherford who publicly expressed surprise that Boudreau was under contract for a second year. And the same one who has been repeatedly criticizing Boudreau’s work all season.

The current uproar (congratulations on making it into Forbes, Vancouver!) isn’t over Boudreau’s firing, of course. He had a decent record here, but not enough to win and that’s why coaches get fired. No, it was the spectacularly clumsy and public way he was hung out to dry. Fans loved him, even as his failure to bring a winning record to the team played out.

His final record with Vancouver, for what it’s now worth, is 50-40-13. Much of that was propped up by the “new coach bump” at the start of his tenure, but not bad totals. It certainly wasn’t bad enough for the fans to turn on him – and they didn’t.

In Mark Messier’s three years as a Canuck he scored 52 goals and 162 points in 207 games. That’s quite good for a guy in his late-30s, but not enough for fans to forgive him. The hiring was astoundingly tone-deaf, as was the decision to give him a voice in trades and coaches. The deal, as far as the fans were concerned, was that he would make the team competitive again and they would forgive past transgressions.

Brokered Deals and Broken Promises

So here’s the comparison in a nutshell:

On one side, you have a flawed-but-lovable team that hit on a Cinderella run before coming back to Earth. A few short years later, management brings in the people – star and coach – most responsible for ending that run. Keenan, it should be noted, replaced the much-beloved Pat Quinn as general manager as well. He proceeded to trade away fan favourites Linden, Gino Odjick, and Kirk McLean.

If the team had any success in those three years, the betrayal felt by fans could be forgiven. Instead, the Canucks had seasons of 25, 23, and 30 wins with no playoff games. Messier remains one of the most reviled players in Vancouver Canucks history – because he played for the team.

In the modern telling, the Canucks offered nothing to the players who finally had some modicum of success. Not a single free agent from the 2019-20 team even got an offer. Instead of building off the playoff run, Vancouver came to a crashing halt. Yet still, the team refused to attempt a rebuild that even the most optimistic fans recognized as the best option.

Finally, when change happened, they went big. Management was cleared out. Coaches were cleared out. Surely now, NOW of all times, the opportunity was ripe to start over and build on the shoulders of young stars! But no.

Not only would there be no rebuild, the team doubled down on the flawed squad they had. An expectedly shaky start on the road got no better and the management decided to place their blame on the coach. Loudly and in no uncertain terms. But they didn’t fire him, letting him go through the season with no signs of support outside a tepid “he’s the coach. For now.”

All Better Now!

Rutherford, perhaps finally realizing how disastrously his handling of the situation has gone, even apologized. Unfortunately for Boudreau, that apology came at the press conference introducing his replacement. It’s not exactly a circumstance setting up Rick Tocchet for success. Word is that Tocchet’s contract is for two years past this one. Given the rate of coach turnover in the NHL, he might even make it to the end of that deal.

Messier, of course, came back to haunt Vancouver’s ownership, winning an extra $6 million from the team in an arbitration suit. The team, meanwhile, returned to the playoffs the year after he left them. Whether there’s a parallel for Boudreau we’ll have to see.

We already know the results of the past, and recency bias is a real thing. But for the fans going through this terrible streak with their beloved team, there is an awful familiarity. Is the current hardship something that makes later success all that much sweeter? Or is it just a whole new hope waiting to get dashed? It’s going to be a few years yet before we know.

 

*Paraphrasing a bit, but you get it.

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