Vancouver’s Other Team are Playing a Big Game Today

I was six when that picture was taken, and had the opportunity to go, having an uncle on the team. Being scared of the noise in the old domed stadium, I never went, and its one of the biggest regrets I have. I can’t remember the game, but it would be nice to say I was in the building for Vancouver’s greatest sports moment.

There are few fleeting joys in sport better than walking from the concourse to get your first look at the playing surface. Being a kid and growing up in Vancouver in a family that loved sports gave me ample opportunity for this. I always loved the lighting of the Pacific Coliseum, when you’d walk out to the seating area under the steps leading to the upper deck and catching your first look of the classic red, yellow and black sweaters.

The slope of the upper deck seats always ensured that the arena would be dark—there was just less to light up—and with the primitive scoreboard, no power-lighting ring—the only thing illuminated was the playing surface, and the way the light reflected from the roof off of the Canucks home whites made it look as if each player had an individual spotlight following him around.

BC Place, the walking out of the concourse to the field had a similar effect. The BC Lions never played on a field when I was a kid, but this weird, green-like carpet that was simply placed over the concrete. I’m no engineer and don’t have the details, and while it must have been murder on the actual players, the shade provided a nice aesthetic visual through the mid-90s. When we got into the later stages of that building, the field-turf made everything look a bit duskier. The dust was apparent on the roof, the sound-system was choppy and the weather too muggy. But we had a winning football team in the dome before the end of its era, and that’s what will, in the end, turn the focus in this city onto its CFL team. 

Sports are funny, and they weave in and out of one another. Seasons overlap, loyalties to cities and team colours change as a ball changes its shape, and constants are slim to find. I can think of two: exuberance when you walk into a building for the first time in a new season, and the idea that the luck evens out over the great stretch of games we call a season.

As the BC Lions head into their Western Final tilt against the Edmonton Eskimos, one can’t help but think that fans of Vancouver’s major teams can’t see some similarities in the starts for both of their major contending teams. The Lions began 0-5 and finished the season winning 11 of their final 13 games to clinch the top spot in their division and the right to host the Western Final under the new, dust-free roof at BC Place Stadium. The Vancouver Canucks have stumbled out of the gate and stand at 9-10 after a 2-4 start.

I hate to say it, because I may turn off a few readers, but it’s all about trusting the math. None of the Lions’ early season losses were as bad as they were made out to be. Close, upsetting, filled with mistakes of execution and coaching errors. After the first five-games, however, three of them were within a single score. When the team was 2-6, the team had allowed no more points than they had scored.

One of the basic tenets of sports, popularized by baseball statistician Bill James can be summed as “score points, wins will come.” James went on to show that you could win predict the number of wins a baseball team would earn if you just looked at the number of runs they scored and allowed. That concept applies to basketball, football and hockey. It may be counter-intuitive, but there is no cognitive talent involved in winning a tight game. No clutch, no big-game players, none of that. It’s all poetic and lovely theories and appeal to a sort of musical appreciation of the game, but coaches and managers who put too much stock into this archaic idea of sports are much like the jock equivalent of Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned.

Sports aren’t so much a musical puzzle as they are a mathematical one. Having lost so many close games, the truth wasn’t that BC were bad in tight games. The trend could be considered the opposite. They were unlucky in tight games, and their fortunes were bound to turn. BC dominated down the stretch. They scored 511 points and allowing just 385 for a point differential of 126, 79 better than the next best team (Montreal). Nothing is set in stone yet and there are still two football games to win that open themselves up to luck and random draw as much as any, but it’s amazing how much better the team looks when variance works the right way.

Of course, the Lions were certainly better as the season progressed, but what’s important to take away is that the team was never as bad as the record indicated. Trusting the math, and trusting that variance will eventually play in your team’s favour is crucial. The Vancouver Canucks are not a .500 team. Just as point and goal differential can help predict a team’s fortune in the long run, so is a basic, statistical tenet in hockey. A team’s shooting percentage and save percentages will eventually even themselves out. It’s also counter-intuitive, the idea that the quality of shots do not matter in the long run, but it’s true. Teams rarely finish with more than a 3% difference in shooting percentage than their opponents, but whenever that number climbs higher over the course of a few games, the media and fans begin writing scripts about why certain things have happened this way.

For the Canucks, it is the Stanley Cup hangover. They are not resilient enough. They are injured. They weren’t played enough in pre-season. Idea after idea after idea is discussed on talk radio to ask why the team is playing so poorly. I have no clue what the pretend solution will be agreed upon when the Canucks begin shooting more than 6.6% as a team. When the Canucks’ percentages line up with their shot count, they will speculate as to why, and they will be wrong. The truth is that the team is not so bad as the record indicates, and that is bound to change.

The slow and unlucky start helped the Lions. It allowed them the urgency to acquire Arland Bruce and Tad Kornegay. The moves gave quarterback Travis Lulay one more receiver in Bruce, and gave the defensive backfield some depth in Kornegay. But regression happened as well. Turnovers finally turned into points, and points finally turned into wins, and all it took was a little bit of patience.

But in football, you have 18 games to prove your worth. In hockey, you have 82. A 2-6 start in the CFL is akin to a 5-14 start in the NHL after the 19 games the Canucks have played. The straits aren’t dire. The Canucks’ underlying play has yet to match up with its record. 

As writers, we will attempt to find parallels and meaning. The Vancouver Canucks and BC Lions don’t even share a geographical name, despite now living across the street from one another. The two don’t share colours or history and are independent of each other. But they share many fans, and the lessons learned in watching the Lions’ turn-around can be adopted by those fans who balance loyalties with the Canucks.

The City of Vancouver will see both of its major teams play games tomorrow. The Lions game, a lose-and-your-out playoff game is far more important and ought to be treated as such. They kick off at 1:30 against the Edmonton Eskimos. Meanwhile, hours later, one out of just 82 games will be played by the local hockey team against the Ottawa Senators. I can only hope that the relative importance of the games is recognized by fans who have the opportunity to witness something special at the dome. No team since 1994 has hosted—and won—the Grey Cup.

Some Vancouver sports fans prefer to remember 1994 for a winning field goal by Lui Passaglia (The “Original” Lu) rather than a lost Game Seven and subsequent Stanley Cup riot. 2011 has an opportunity for a repeat, and it would be treated as a great turnaround led by a star player at the team’s most important position shaking off early criticism, shrewd management, and contributions from every member in the locker room.

But mostly, it was just patience, math and luck. Sometimes that’s all there is to it.