Four Vancouver Canucks debuts that were Lionel Messi-like
6 months ago
Hockey might be out of season right now, but the sports world has been buzzing this summer.
While the FIFA Women’s World Cup has captured most of the world’s attention, and Shohei Ohtani’s future has speculation running rampant in baseball, maybe the biggest story right now is the one happening in South Florida. That’s where Lionel Messi made his Major League Soccer debut for Inter Miami CF last week.
Messi is nothing short of one of the greatest athletes of all time, and his arrival in North America is a massive coup for soccer on this continent. The pink #10 is already living up to his own hype, notching three goals and two assists in just two games with his new club.
Like 99% of the pro sports franchises on Earth, the Canucks have never had a player of Lionel Messi’s caliber. But they’ve had their fair share of debuts that felt on par with his in Miami, be it from rookies, big name free agents and future Hockey Hall of Famers.
So today, we’re looking at the four biggest arrivals in the Canucks history, the attention they brought from the hockey world, and just how quickly they proved their talents in a Vancouver uniform
Pavel Bure vs. Winnipeg (1991)
The first game on our list is also arguably the closest to Messi’s debut of the bunch. Or at the very least, holds the closest amount of mythos.
Pavel Bure wasn’t an extremely known commodity when the Canucks drafted him in the sixth round of the 1989 NHL draft. But his legend would grow in Vancouver as snippets of highlights played on sportscasts around the Lower Mainland for the next two years.
When he finally touched down in Vancouver as a 20-year-old in 1991, Bure’s first practice with the Canucks at the Britannia ice rink brought a standing-room-only crowd to the building that oohed and ahhed every time he touched the puck. Before he’d even played a single game, fans were already enamored.
But Bure-Mania officially kicked off in his very first game, on a cold November evening at the Pacific Coliseum against the Winnipeg Jets.
In the first period, Bure famously took the puck from behind the Canucks blue line, skated past all three Jets forwards with ease, split between the two defencemen, and deked out goalie Bob Essensa on a sudden breakaway. But the puck, perhaps not used to going so fast, bobbled on Bure’s blade at the last moment, preventing him from getting a shot off.
Bure may not have scored or even picked up a point, but that night completely changed fans’ expectations of what Canucks hockey could be; offensive-minded, fast-paced, and extremely fun to watch. His debut is so synonymous with the birth of Canucks Nation that the team made a documentary about his first game ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony in 2014.
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Bure would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, finish with the best goal scoring seasons in Canucks history, and become part of some of the greatest hockey moments Vancouver has ever seen.
Roberto Luongo vs. Detroit (2006)
In 2006, the Canucks appeared to be a team transitioning into a rebuild as the West Coast Express era came to an end.
Then Dave Nonis traded for Roberto Luongo, and practically overnight everything changed.
Luongo arrived as the cornerstone piece in a blockbuster trade with the Panthers that sent Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld to Florida. Already with Olympic and All-Star appearances on his resume at 27 years old, Luongo was just entering his prime and looking to put an end to a decade of subpar goaltending performances handcuffing the Canucks’ potential.
And what better place to prove it than opening night 2006 at the Joe Louis Arena, against the defending President’s Trophy winning Red Wings.
Luongo turned aside 27 of 28 Detroit shots, including stymieing the Wings on nine(!) power play chances and all 17 he faced in the third period. The footage from this game feels like a relic of a bygone era. 240p footage uploaded in YouTube’s infancy, Don Taylor at the Sportsnet desk, and of course, the first iconic “Grrreat saaaave Luongooo!!!” call from Jim Hughson.
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That first victory gave Vancouver its first real taste of elite NHL goaltending and set a precedent for Luongo’s eight seasons as a Canuck; with plenty of winning and plenty of unforgettable moments.
Mats Sundin vs. San Jose (2009)
Before 2009, plenty of great players and big names had suited up in a Canucks uniform, but very few had chosen that path for themselves via free agency. Well, except one who shall remain nameless.
That’s why when GM Mike Gillis arrived, he was determined to make a splash and prove to the rest of the league that the Canucks could become a destination franchise. And that’s exactly what he did when he signed future Hall of Famer Mats Sundin to a $5.626 million midway though the 2008-09 season.
At 37 years old, Sundin wasn’t the same player he’d been from his heyday as captain of the Maple Leafs. But his presence brought a level of professionalism and experience that the Canucks’ locker room needed as their young core was developing.
Sundin’s official debut came January 7 in Edmonton, but his actual arrival as a Canuck game three games later against the Sharks. Sundin scored his first goal as a Canuck on a late first period power play, and earned a standing ovation from the sellout crowd at GM Place.
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Sundin would only play 49 in a Canucks uniform, but his impact in such a short timespan is unmistakable. Sundin put together some of the biggest highlights of the entire season and the playoffs, and numerous Canucks would later credit him for helping the team realize its potential in the ensuing years.
Elias Pettersson vs. Calgary (2018)
But as far as introductions go, maybe no Canuck has ever lived up to the hype as quickly as Elias Pettersson did.
From the moment the Canucks drafted him fifth overall in 2017, there was an aura of greatness around Pettersson that Canucks fans hadn’t felt since Bure. And when he arrived in North America a year later, it didn’t take long for him to prove why.
In his first set of preseason games Pettersson was already turning his opponents inside out, including poor Ryan Strome. “But that’s easy! Let’s see him do something cool when the games count!” his detractors said.
And so he answered. On his very first shot.
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Pettersson picked up the puck in the neutral zone from Loui Eriksson, skated in on a two-on-one with Derrick Pouliot, and absolutely rifled the puck past Mike Smith for his first NHL goal. That goal not only wowed all of his own teammates, but it gave Canucks fans hope that he could become the saviour for a franchise in desperate need of one.
That reputation has only grown for Pettersson since, and hopefully it will continue to for a long, long time.
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