Courtnall the clutch
Believe it or not, but Victoria’s own Geoff Courtnall did not welcome his trade from the St. Louis Blues to the Vancouver Canucks.
Courtnall, then 29, had already been traded three times in his first four and a half seasons in the NHL and as a member of the Blues for the 1990-91 season, the gritty forward, who worked his way to the big leagues despite not being drafted, was comfortable with the position he was in.
The Blues were on pace to eclipse 100-points for the second time in franchise history and they were giving the Chicago Blackhawks a stiff challenge for the Norris Division lead; Courtnall was thriving through 66 games with 57 points as St. Louis, armed with Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Rod Brind'Amour and Scott Stevens, was primed to make some serious noise in the playoffs.
Then the calendar turned to March 5th: Trade Deadline Day.
Courtnall, Robert Dirk, Sergio Momesso and Cliff Ronning were traded lickety-split from St. Louis to Vancouver for Dan Quinn and Garth Butcher.
So much for a battle for top spot, the Canucks were 24–39–7 and struggling to keep pace for eighth place in the Campbell Conference.
Making the most of a gloomy situation, Courtnall set his sights on helping Vancouver sneak into the post-season for just the second time in five seasons and he got the ball rolling in his first outing by scoring Vancouver’s lone goal in a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Courtnall finished the season with eight points, six of which were goals, and none bigger than his overtime game-winner in the final game of the season to lift the Canucks past the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 and into the playoffs.
That was the beginning of when the Vancouver Canucks started to believe.
“I think Trevor shot it and I tipped it out of the air and it went in,” recalled Courtnall. “I had never been in that situation before where it was do or die every game and I think to go through that and to go through that as a group, it really started to build some chemistry on that team. We ended up with some pretty good lines and a good group of guys by the end of that season.
“When we got here to Vancouver, I think it was a team that had really low self-esteem and wasn’t happy with a lot of the things that were going on and it was like they needed this new boost of energy and life to basically become a better team.
“I think that’s exactly what the trade did; you bring four new faces into the dressing room and there weren’t many games left and at the time we got to Vancouver we were out of the playoffs, so to battle back and get in in the last game of the year, it was very challenging and exciting.”
Making the playoffs in 1990-91, albeit in a 4-1 losing cause to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, was the start of a franchise tying six consecutive post-season appearances. The Canucks, after losing to the Kings in the Semi-Finals, lost in the Division Finals the following two seasons, but all Vancouver’s playoff experience culminated in the magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993-94.
Having been a member of the Stanley Cup winning Edmonton Oilers in 1987-88, Courtnall had an idea of what it would take for the Canucks to win the most cherished trophy in sports, but it was impossible for him to compare the two teams or their journeys to the Cup Final.
“Winning the Cup in Edmonton was very interesting, but we only lost two games in the entire playoffs that year, so it wasn’t really as challenging as what we went though in ’94,” said Courtnall.
“In Edmonton, nobody expected anyone to beat us, and they didn’t. Detroit gave us a couple of good games, but really, every other game we dominated. Going through what we did in ’94 and just basically having such a strong group and a group that had so much confidence for a team that was basically scratching and clawing to get every win and it took everybody’s full focus and 100 per cent energy to win, it was quite a difference.”
Courtnall himself was a difference maker for the Canucks throughout his four and a half seasons in Vancouver, especially in the playoffs. He remains third on the franchise’s all-time playoff points list with 61 points in 65 games; nearly a third of his playoff scoring came during “The Run.” In 24 games, Courtnall had nine goals and 10 assists and a three of those points (well two goals and an almost should-be assist really) will forever live on in Canucks folklore.
What is remembered as “The Forgotten Goal” came with Vancouver up against the ropes for the first time versus the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference Quarter-Finals. After the Canucks thumped the Flames 5-0 in Game 1, they lost three straight games as Calgary took a grip on the series.In a must-win Game 5 in Calgary, Pavel Bure and Wes Walz traded goals in regulation before Kirk McLean and Mike Vernon went save-for-save forcing overtime. In the extra session, there was no Bure brilliance or luster from Trevor Linden, it was Courtnall who ripped a shot from the left wing that eluded Vernon for the game-winner, the first of three consecutive OT wins by the Canucks in a come-back series win.
“Heading into overtime I said to Cliff Ronning, I said ‘I’m going to heat my stick up and put a huge curve on it and if I get a chance, I’m going to shoot it high over his glove,’” said Courtnall. “So for me to get that puck the way I did coming off the bench and then get a breakaway and shoot that shot, it was something that I’ll never forget. To be honest, I just shot it as hard as I could at that side and it’s pretty nice to see that one go in.”
Courtnall’s second most memorable goal didn’t count as a game-winner, heck it barely count at all. During Game 6 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks led the New York Rangers 3-1 when Nathan LaFayette gained the blueline and dove to knock a cross-ice pass to Courtnall in front of goaltender Mike Richter. Receiving the pass on his forehand, Courtnall instinctively went backhand a rocketed a shot top shelf.
The goal judge thought it was in, the fans though it was in, the Canucks thought it was in; Courtnall knew it was in.
“It was 3-1 and then I scored the goal to make it 4-1, but the goal…nobody saw it go in. Basically I made a move to the backhand and I went upstairs and I saw it hit the back of the net. The puck came straight out and then they went down and scored and the whole time I was yelling at the ref that it was in. I definitely remember that goal a lot.”
Another goal that Courtnall should remember and all Canucks fans should cherish was never actually scored and it still haunts the forward to this day.
With the Canucks trailing 3-2 and time winding down in the third period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, Linden carried the puck through centre before feeding Courtnall on the left wing as he entered the Rangers zone. He let a shot fly that Richter steered towards the end boards, Courtnall hustled to get to it and feed LaFayette in front before crashing into the boards.
LaFayette, skating straight down main street, one-timed the pass and beat Richter, but not the post.
“That’s a moment that I can never forget, when I passed the puck to LaFayette with 40 seconds left and he hit the goal post in Game 7. Basically I remember it so well because I just about killed myself to get to the puck and then pass it to him and he hit the post. If that goes in, it’s 3-3 and we go to overtime and who knows.”
No one will ever know how Game 7 would have ended, all Courtnall knows is that his time in Vancouver, which he cringed at in the beginning, ended too soon for his liking.
“I wish it would have been longer. I think that I did have a great time playing in St. Louis, but I still, and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of the guys from the ’94 team that are around and still watch the Canucks, would love to see the Vancouver fans get a championship and I wish that I was around for longer to maybe make that happen.”