By special guest contributor Thomas Drance
When it was announced that Markus Naslund’s jersey would be retired – the news was met with a hearty mix of skepticism, mockery (mostly from Leafs fans), and for some: jubilation. Count me in the third category.
It was March 26th, 1998 – mid-way through Markus Naslund’s third season with the Canucks. Though he would finish this season with 34 points – that night – he was a healthy scratch. Mike Keenan was critical about Naslund’s abilities as a defensive player, he didn’t trust the young Swede, and Naslund spent several stints in Iron Mike’s legendary dog-house. The Canucks got blown out in typical fashion by a Buffalo team that wasn’t even playing Hasek, and whose best player – former Canuck Mike Peca – (who had been traded for Mogilny 2 years previous) potted two goals on the night. Mid-way through the third period Wayne Premeau smoked Mattias Ohlund with a hit that would now merit a lengthy suspension, but merely resulted in a major penalty that day – Ohlund wound up with a concussion. It was a low point of the Canucks season, a low point in Naslund’s career and another one of many low points in the history of the franchise.
But it was a high-point in my personal history as a Canucks fan. You see, I watched this game in the press-box. My Dad had bid on a game package in a silent auction at a Leukemia benefit a few months back. We got to sit in the press-box, and after the game go to the Canucks dressing room to meet the team. Before we went into the dressing room, I stood at the back of the press room and watched Mike Keenan give an angry press-conference, lashing out at his teams effort and at the Vancouver hockey media. Then he went into the dressing room to rip the team, and a Canucks PR official stood awkwardly with my dad and I, trying to figure out what exactly to do with us while we waited to go into the dressing room.
As the length of time, which he’d assured us would be "just a moment" stretched on – he began to get visibly uncomfortable and begged our pardon. He returned a few moments later with a good looking, mild-mannered Swedish gentleman. He didn’t really introduce us, he simply explained that the man we were speaking with would be happy to sign an autograph for me. I got him to sign a jersey that I’d brought to collect signatures from the team and Naslund, my dad and I spoke for about 10 minutes. Markus Naslund couldn’t have been more pleasant, intelligent and kind – though it was a somewhat awkward conversation – mostly because my dad and I had absolutely no idea who we were talking to. When he left, my dad looked at me and said in his foul-mouthed fashion something along the lines of – "who the hell was that?"
I was a rabid Canucks fan growing up – even during the brutally lean Messier, Mogilny years – and after thinking about it for a minute, and doing a quick CSI job on the autograph he’d scrawled on my jersey – I made an informed guess, saying to my dad "I’m pretty sure it was Naslund." On a night when I met two sure-fire NHL hall of famers, and a collection of other memorable personalities – it was Markus Naslund who had made the biggest impact on 10 year old me. From that moment on, Markus Naslund was my favorite player.
Watching Naslund emerge from Keenan’s dog-house and out-perform expectations during the first year of the Crawford/Burke era was awesome. He had been so friendly and funny during our conversation, that I came away from it really wanting him to succeed. That he became a perennial 30 goal scorer for the better part of the next decade, eventually acceding to team captain, was icing on the cake.
Naslund has his detractors, people say he wasn’t clutch (a point we’ll get to in a moment), that he was lax defensively and that he wasn’t a winner. All of this is poppy-cock. Naslund was competitive as hell, and took his place in Canucks history seriously. He may even have taken his place in Canucks lore too personally. Ultimately this is all we – as fans – can really ask of a captain: give us your best effort, play well, and understand your importance to the fans and the community. By this metric: Markus Naslund was second only to Linden in the history of Canucks captains.
As an observer: I don’t believe that Naslund ever recovered from the disappointment of not making a serious playoff run with the West Coast Express – certainly he wasn’t the same after the lockout. It wasn’t that he’d lost a step (Naslund was a fast skater but his wasn’t a typical "speed-game"), it’s that the game started to look difficult to him, he just didn’t seem to be having fun playing hockey. I don’t hold this against him – though many did and criticized him relentlessly in his final years – to me, it’s proof of how much the Canucks, the city of Vancouver and winning here meant to him.
As for Naslund not being clutch – I think it’s ludicrous. I don’t personally think that even Gretzky, Orr or Sakic would’ve won Stanley Cups with the Cloutier-Auld tandem that Naslund was forced to rely on. Naslund scored 18 game winning goals in the three year stretch from September of 01 to the lockout – and lots of other game tying goals. The typical Naslund goal was of a particularly fun variety – a dead-eye near side top corner snipe from the top of either circle. The West Coast Express owned the Northwest division for three years with Bertuzzi as the play-maker, Morrison the glue-guy and Naslund: the finisher.
Naslund had a couple notable clutch playoff moments – even if it wasn’t enough for a long playoff run – and these deserve to be pointed out, because they are too frequently ignored. He created a game-tying short-handed Matt Cooke goal with 5 seconds left in game 7 against the Canucks biggest rival. Gelinas eventually finished the Canucks season off – but had the Canucks won in OT, this play would have been the stuff of legend. The previous season he sealed the comeback against the Flu-ridden Blues with a typical Naslund snipe on the power-play to put the Canucks up 3-1 in the third period of game 7.
In all likelihood, Markus Naslund will never be a hall-of-famer. He doesn’t deserve to be. But he deserves to have his number retired in Vancouver. As Ian Macyntire wrote yesterday: "more than numbers, Naslund contributed stability and credibility — even hope — to a franchise that was nearly run into the ground in the late 1990s."
This is an important point. The 1994 cup run, like the 1982 cup run before it was a shot in the dark. An 8th seed with a hot goalie making some unlikely noise in the playoffs. It’s cool but like Edmonton’s cup run in the last decade – it doesn’t really mean that much. With the exception of the last 10 seasons – the Canucks have been the LA Clippers of hockey – a perennial laughing stock with a silly team name and ugly jerseys. The Burke era, and Naslund’s captaincy changed the culture of the team. Sure, the Canucks haven’t been past the 2nd round since 94 – but Canucks fans reliably have hockey to watch in May, and someday soon will make some noise in June. This is in part because of the steadying influence, and the hope that Naslund’s tenure engendered.
So count me jubilant. I’m happy that no-one will ever wear the number 19 in a Canucks uniform again. I couldn’t be more excited to have Naslund’s name beside Linden’s and Smyl’s in the rafters. Markus Naslund was an under-rated clutch player during his time with the Canucks, the second best team captain of all time, the second most talented offensive player to sport a Canucks uniform, and easily the classiest dude to sport the green, blue and white.
Congrats Markus, and Go Canucks Go!
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