The summer of 1981 in Canuckland was filled with controversy. World-class Czech players Ivan Hlinka and Jiri Bubla had been drafted by Winnipeg and Colorado, respectively, but when Canuck GM Jake Milford learned there was no formal agreement between the Czech Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL, he met with and promptly signed the pair. The League later ruled that compensation was due the Jets and Rockies and it was eventually given, but Hlinka and Bubla were Vancouver-bound, nonetheless.
It was mid-August when the European duo arrived and the Griffiths family - owners of the Canucks - and Milford, decided the best way to introduce them to the Vancouver public was via the PNE parade. What a great idea! Frank Griffiths Sr., always a proponent of the Mercedes automobile, secured a dandy convertible for the momentous occasion, light yellow, as we recall. Yours truly was PR director of the club at the time and it was my job to pick them up at their hotel and ensure they were at the parade marshalling area in plenty of time.
Everything went off without a hitch; even the weather cooperated as sunshine sparkled over the Hastings Street parade route. The Mercedes wasn't difficult to find; it had big signs on both front doors which read "Ivan Hlinka and Jiri Bubla-Welcome to Vancouver". The players were led to the vehicle and they settled into the luxurious red leather back seat. The big convertible purred into action and took its place among the floats and marching bands. And as it pulled away into the main parade route amid thousands of well-wishers, my life flashed before my eyes! For at the very same instant, Hlinka and Bubla reached into their breast pockets, pulled out cigarettes, and lit them!
I never knew I could run that fast as I sprinted after the Mercedes, trying to look inconspicuous, mind you. I caught up with them and yelled at the startled pair to give me the cigarettes, which they did amongst snickers from many amused onlookers. At the parade's conclusion, we discussed the little faux-pas and it was impressed upon the two (via an interpreter) that it may be okay for a pro athlete to smoke in public back in the CSSR, but it was somewhat frowned upon here. They didn't do it again.
ODDY'S FINEST HOUR
Chris Oddleifson had a fine eight-year career with the Canucks scoring 265 points in 469 games, but the lanky centre never had a night in Vancouver like he did on Dec. 30, 1973 in Oakland, California.
Allow us to set the stage...
Oddleifson was the first pick of the California Golden Seals in the 1970 amateur draft. But the team that was famous for making its players wear white skates chose not to keep the Winnipeg native, but instead traded him to the Boston Bruins. Now, it must be pointed out that the Bruins were defending Stanley Cup champs with the likes of 76-goal scorer Phil Esposito, the great Bobby Orr and a long list of other star players such as Ken Hodge, Johnny McKenzie and Wayne Cashman. So for "Oddy" to crack the Boston lineup was going to be a tall order.
But that winter night in Oakland, the stars and moon must have been lined up just perfectly. Prior to this, Oddleifson had been a utility right winger for the Bruins, but on this occasion, Derek Sanderson's colitis was acting up and Gregg Sheppard was too ill to play. Oddleifson, a raw rookie, was called upon to centre a line with Terry O'Reilly at right wing and Don Marcotte on the left side. In the first period, he scored a goal. Then he scored another in the second frame. Now, remember, even though he'd never played for the Seals, Oddleifson had attended their training camp and knew a lot of their players. So now, some of them are chirping at Oddy from their bench, yelling betcha a beer ya don't get your hat trick'. Well, as luck would have it, he scored two more in the third period and ended up with a four-goal night as the Bruins hammered the Seals 8-1!
The ultimate indignity, though, was yet to come. For the next morning, the headline in the sports section of the Oakland Tribune read: SEALS LOSE 8-1...ESPOSITO HELD OFF SCORE SHEET, and the sub-head read: rookie scores four.
It truly was Oddy's finest hour, but it wasn't enough to preserve his Bruin status, as they traded him to Vancouver just 40 days later.
WACKY HOCKEY AT ITS BEST
The Canucks weren't a very good team in 1984-85. Oh, yes, they'd made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals two years earlier but then they'd slid backwards considerably. On this occasion (March 3/85), they were playing the final contest in a late-season, four-game road trip against the Whalers at the Hartford Civic Center. In the first three games of the trip, they were nipped 3-2 in Washington, shellacked 11-5 in Detroit, and shut out 5-0 in Boston. The team was an abysmal 20 games below .500 so, you could say, our weary band of travelers wasn't exactly oozing confidence that afternoon in Hartford.
The Whalers, predictably, jumped out to an early lead. As the game wore on, Hartford continued to pepper Canuck goalie Frank Caprice and had put six pucks past him by the 18:50 mark of the third period. But the pesky Canuck kept chipping away and had four goals of their own against Mike Liut by that stage of the game. With just 70 seconds to go and a faceoff in the Whalers end, coach Harry Neale decided to yank Caprice in favour of a sixth attacker. The Canucks buzzed all around Liut's net. The pressure finally paid off with a goal by Patrik Sundstrom at 19:16. With the ensuing faceoff at centre ice, Neale kept Caprice on the bench and, lo and behold, Vancouver scored again, this time Stan Smyl at 19:38 to knot the score at 6-6! The Whalers, now in a total flap, called a time-out. Everyone at the Canuck bench was standing and Neale was having a good giggle.
"We should have done this earlier," said Neale. "Caprice, you stay right there on the bench!"
Caprice and his teammates couldn't believe their ears!
"But Harry, the score is tied; we got what we wanted," backup Richard Brodeur protested.
"Nope, we're gonna win this thing," Neale persisted.
But just as the whistle blew to end the time-out, Neale sent his goalie back out to defend the tie. As the overtime period began, it was plain to see that the Whalers had become totally unravelled. At the 2:47 mark, there was a goalmouth scramble and Jean-Marc Lanthier, who scored just seven goals all year, poked the puck past the sprawling Liut for the win in OT.
Final score: Canucks 7, Whalers 6...and one of the whackiest victories in team history!
OH, WHAT TO DO?
Harry Neale, of course, was always a character and was a hands-down favourite of the sports media because of his colourful command of the English language.
During one particularly dismal stretch in which the Canucks suffered through eight losses and a tie in a nine-game span, the late Al Davidson, sports director of CKNW radio, sat down with Neale for the post-game show following a humiliating 9-3 home-ice loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Trying to be somewhat tactful in pondering the future of the hapless club, Davidson asked Neale: "Geez, Harry, where do you go from here?"
Without batting an eye, Neale deadpanned: "We go to Buffalo, Al."
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It was during that same stretch of futility that Neale came up with arguably his greatest gem. During that nine-game winless skid, the team had played six games at the Pacific Coliseum and three away from Vancouver. Province columnist Tony Gallagher sat down with Neale to discuss the plight of the Canucks.
"What do you think the biggest problem is, Harry," Gallagher asked.
"Well," sighed Neale, "we keep losing on the road and we can't seem to win at home. I guess my greatest failing as a coach is that I can't think of any place else to play."