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The first

Monday, 25.10.2010 / 8:30 PM / Features - 40th Anniversary
By Derek Jory

You always remember your first.

First car, first date, first job, first captain.

Orland Kurtenbach will forever hold the distinction of being the first captain of the Vancouver Canucks, a role he took to heart and performed to the best of his ability from 1970-1974.

Pictures and videos from his playing days are scarce at best, but the tales of “Big Kurt” remain legendary to this day. He was tough as nails and just as stubborn, a true brute who was the dominant policeman of the 1960s.

Get in Kurtenbach’s way and you’ll pay. That’s one of the beliefs about the forward that has prevailed over the years and it’s 100 per cent accurate.

Kurtenbach was a feared fighter with thunderous fists that kept Tylenol in business, but he was also a revered leader with above average offensive skill.

Today, more often than not, he’s remebered as merely a tough guy. A run-of-the-mill rabble-rouser. A lunchbucket player.

If that were the case, Kurtenbach wouldn’t be the first inductee into the Ring of Honour, a new initiative launched this season to celebrate and salute Canuck heroes who have made a lasting impact on the franchise.

Kurtenbach’s dedication, situated over the Best Buy Club, will be revealed Tuesday, October 26th when the Canucks host the Colorado Avalanche.

The following day Kurtenbach’s name will be splashed over sports pages throughout North America with fans inevitably tapping Google for information on the former heavyweight.

What they won’t find is that Kurtenbach hated his reputation.

“I thought it was demeaning,” Kurtenbach revealed in Canucks at 40: Our Game, Our Stories, Our Passion. “I’ve always felt hockey is a game of tremendous skill and while you were always taught to stand up for your teammates, I never went looking for a fight.”

Kurtenbach’s career stats back that up as he never served more than 100 penalty minutes in a season throughout his 13-year NHL career.

It was as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1965-66 that Kurtenbach was forced to play a lesser role than he was used to. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound native of Cudworth, Saskatchewan, was coming off back-to-back productive seasons with the Boston Bruins (63 points in 134 games) when he joined the Leafs. Under coach Punch Imlach, the last bench boss to lead Toronto to a Stanley Cup win, Kurtenbach was relegated to the bottom six.

He still isn’t happy about that.

“Punch got me playing strictly penalty killing and on the third or fourth line,” Kurtenbach told Canucks.com. “It didn’t matter if I got two goals in one night, I was back to that same shit and I didn’t like it at all, but at the same time, you had to learn to play a different style of hockey.”

Becoming a bruiser went against everything Kurtenbach had been taught since first giving hockey a go at age 10 when his family moved off the farm to Prince Albert.

Kurtenbach was less than graceful on the ice in an old pair of goalie skates, so he focused on stick handling and moving the puck with ease. No surprise then that he began his hockey career as a rushing defenceman, but before long he was flying down the ice a centre.

Ken Elliott, Kurtenbach’s coach with the SJHL’s Prince Albert Mintos in the early 1950s, was the man who helped a then 20-something kid learn that dexterity was of the utmost importance. The true equality of the game had to do with your brain and hands.

Those lessons were put to the test in 1957-58 when Kurtenbach signed a C-form and turned pro with the Vancouver Canucks of the WHL and he had an immediate impact offensively with 15 goals and 39 assists for 54 points, alongside 58 penalty minutes, in 52 games.

That season Kurtenbach helped the Canucks win their first of four President's Cups as league champions.

Just like that the farm boy who couldn’t skate was a hot commodity.

In the next three seasons Kurtenbach was up to the AHL, down to the WHL, up to the AHL and all the way up to the NHL briefly before finishing the year in the WHL. Two more seasons putting in his time in the WHL and AHL after that, and it was off to the NHL for good.

Between 1963 and 1970, Kurtenbach played for the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. His numbers varied depending on his role with each club, but he never surpassed 40 points.

He was a staple of hardwork, however, yet it looked as though his dedication wasn’t paying off. After three quality seasons with the Rangers over four years (one was cut short by injury), Kurtenbach was told he wouldn’t be protected in the 1970 NHL Expansion Draft.

It was either Vancouver or Buffalo for Kurtenbach and he crossed his fingers for a return to the Canucks. He got his wish.

“Coming back to Vancouver was a godsend,” he said. “I really appreciated the fact that I got the opportunity to come back.”

Kurtenbach was back and in a bigger role than ever, as the first captain of the Vancouver Canucks.

“It was an extreme honour. In the old six-team league, there was so many vets on the clubs that it was maybe like the Canucks now, they are younger but they are experienced and they’ve been around a while, and they know what they have to do to win in the dressing room.

“As it turned out because our club got off to a good start, it brought more attention to the captaincy, but basically the dressing room ran quite nicely and you’ve got to have good people in the dressing room. I think we had a combination of young and old when I came here, we had guys like Dale Tallon, he was a good kid and he was a good player as well, and then we had guys like Pat Quinn and Gary Doak who had been around. Then we had some of the vets from the Western League like Murray Hall and Teddy Taylor and they provided a stability not only on the ice, but a stability in the dressing room.”

Whether it was the C on his jersey, his familiarity playing for the Canucks or the fact his personal life had never been better (he met his wife during his first stint in Vancouver so it was a homecoming for both of them), Kurtenbach thrived as a Canuck.

Kurtenbach set career-highs in goals (21), assists (32) and points (53) in his first season in Vancouver and then set new personal bests again a season later in all three categories (24-37-61).

“The puck was going in, what can I say? For whatever reason, I don’t know why but I clicked with Wayne Maki and Murray Hall, whatever brought it to fruition I’m not sure.

“I don’t know what makes people work together well, when you watch the Sedins, there’s a chemistry there that is just twins chemistry. We didn’t have that, but we really worked well together.”

Even in the backend of Kurtenbach’s career when his point totals fell below 30, he was still a valuable player who set an example for generations of players after him.

Kurtenbach will always be a Vancouver Canuck and fans watching games at Rogers Arena will forever be reminded of his greatness.