Long live the King
Confucius believed that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and Richard Brodeur couldn’t agree more.
For Brodeur and the 1982 Vancouver Canucks, the improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final began with a single, significant win.
Vancouver held a 28-33-17 record heading into March of ’82 and with 15 games remaining before playoffs, the Canucks hit the road for seven of eight games looking to build some momentum.
A 0-6-1 start to the month and panic buttons were being pushed left, right and centre. Then came the mother of all road games, a visit to the most storied building in hockey history, the Montreal Forum.
Forget the win, the Canucks merely wanted to prove they could skate with the 22-time Stanley Cup champion Canadiens – and what the heck, maybe even score a goal or two.
As it turned out, Darcy Rota was good for three goals himself and Vancouver, backed by an all-world performance from Brodeur in goal, shocked Montreal 4-2.
Just how gargantuan was that win? Consider this: the Canucks were 2-24-1 lifetime at the Forum and 3-40-8 all-time versus les Canadiens to that point.
“After that win, we really felt that we could beat anybody,” said Brodeur. “If you can beat Montreal in Montreal, you feel good about yourself.”
‘King Richard,’ as Brodeur was known, was between the pipes for 52 games during the ’82 season and at no other time did he and the Canucks feel as on top of the world as they did after upending Montreal.
It was something to build on.
Next up: the Nordiques in Quebec, in what would go down as one of the wildest Canucks games ever.
“Quebec had a good team that year and we went right in there and tied them and in fact we had a brawl there, the big brawl, where they threw out Harry (Neale) and the boys went up into the stands,” laughed Brodeur.
“Really those two games made us feel like nobody could stop us. We could do anything we wanted and that’s the attitude we had and we just had that team concept that you want to win and you can win. That’s what we had in our mind.”
Vancouver used that two-game outburst to end the year undefeated in nine games at 6-0-3 as the Canucks hit their stride right on cue. They shot into the playoffs red-hot and the Calgary Flames didn’t know what hit them in the Smythe Division Semi-Final.
A quick three wins and the Canucks were on to the Smythe Division Final and the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Vancouver looked to be taking on Edmonton until the Miracle on Manchester changed everything.
The Oilers, leading Los Angeles 5-0 heading into the third period in Game 5 of the other Smythe Division Semi-Final, gave up six straight goals to the Kings to surrender the series. Like the defence parting for a lengthy breakaway, Brodeur and the Canucks saw a major opening.
“LA comes back and wins that game in overtime and we knew we had a better chance against LA, even with their big Crown Line, we had a better shot at beating them and we knew that.”
Vancouver proved it with a convincing 4-1 series win over the likes of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and goaltender Mario Lessard, who personally called Brodeur out before the series and snacked on humble pie afterwards.
The Vancouver Canucks are headed to the Campbell Conference Championship, the headlines read. The Canucks were the hottest ticket in town as fans leached on to the underdogs and got behind them like never before.
That fueled the players like never before.
“It was a crazy time, especially because of the emotion that was in this town. The feeling that was here, it was like a carnival atmosphere, everywhere you looked there was something about the Canucks, the fans were so into it.”
All that stood in the way of the Canucks and their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final was Denis Savard and the Chicago Black Hawks and the series opened on a positive note for Vancouver thanks to Brodeur.
The native of Longueuil, Quebec, who won 131 games over eight seasons with the Canucks, remembers literally standing on his head in a 2-1 overtime win in Game 1.
“My best game of the playoffs ever was in Chicago when Jim Nill scored the winning goal. Murray Bannerman got hurt and Tony Esposito got in goal and he was an idol of mine when I was young and then he was right in front of me in the Conference Campbell Championship and I just said, okay, let’s go. He played great that night and then I didn’t give up at all; I think they had over 50 shots and we still came out with the win in overtime.”
The Canucks came away with another three wins in the next four games (thanks in large part to Roger Neilson’s team rallying towel power display in a Game 2 loss) to leave the team face to face with a shot at the Holy Grail.
Shame the New York Islanders, the defending champions and Brodeur’s former team, didn’t get the memo that it was Vancouver’s time to shine.
The Canucks took the Islanders to overtime in Game 1, losing 6-5, and lost 6-5 in regulation in Game 2, both on Long Island, before New York ran away with a series sweep and the Stanley Cup.
“We believed in ourselves in that first game. They scored on their power play and then after that we know what Mike Bossy the sniper did in overtime and that was that.
“After that, we battled hard, but they were the better team. It’s easier to say after the fact, but we believed in ourselves and we kept fighting and no matter what that was the nature of our team to just keep going, keep going, keep going.”
Pride and anguish is what Brodeur, one of only two goalies in franchise history to back the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, feels today about getting so close to the trophy every NHLer longs to hoist.
“It’s a funny feeling because you’re proud of what you’ve done, but there’s still something missing. You’re so close and then it’s just gone; how many times are you going to have a chance to go back there and do that?
“In my career I won the Avco Cup with the Quebec Nordiques [WHA], I won the Memorial Cup, which is something I will always cherish because there are not many players that can say that, but even though we didn’t win the Stanley Cup, that was the best memory of my career and my life.”