Roger Neilson had seen enough.
With the Vancouver Canucks trailing the Chicago Black Hawks 4-1 in Game 2 of the 1982 Western Conference Final, coach Neilson couldn’t take any more of referee Bob Myers and his questionable officiating.
The Canucks were being assessed penalties left, right and centre, leaving Neilson and the Vancouver bench up in arms. In protest, troublemaker Tiger Williams suggested to Neilson that he throw sticks on the ice, but Neilson, having already tried that, had a better idea. He surrendered.
Neilson grabbed a white towel and placed it on the end of Jim Nill’s stick to signify a surrender flag and he held it high for all to see. Stan Smyl, Gerry Minor, Williams and others joined in as the Canucks symbolically voiced their displeasure with Myers’ work.
“When that went down, Myers was calling tons of penalties and they were suspect calls,” recalled Canucks goaltender Richard Brodeur. “It got really bad in the third and Roger was pissed off. Then I looked over and I saw the towel come up and I thought, ‘what the hell is he doing there?’ Then I thought ‘oh yeah, that’s cool, I like that.’ Then the other guys put the towels up and everyone was doing it.
“We lost that game, but in the room afterwards it was like we won the game, the atmosphere was so positive, we were laughing about it a lot. We knew what Roger did there, there was a message to send and he did.”
Neilson was escorted off the ice after the stunt and he received a hefty fine for his actions, but the damage had already been done with Canucks fans in a frenzy.
When the Canucks returned to Vancouver for Game 3, it was clear a tradition had been born as fans waved a blizzard of white towels in support of their beloved Canucks.
According to Garry Raible, contributor to the book Canucks at 40, Butts Giraud, owner of a Vancouver t-shirt company, was selling white towels outside the Pacific Coliseum before Game 3.
What was meant as a symbol of surrender gave Vancouver a mental edge over Chicago as the Canucks swept the next three games to win the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
The ‘Towel Power’ tradition lives on to this day, 28-years later. Canucks fans use towel power as a means to pump up the home team during the playoffs; prior to games at Rogers Arena, Canucks staff towel every seat to ensure no fan is left empty handed.
Over 18 thousand Canucks fans waving towels in unison, all hungry for playoff success, is quite the sight, one today’s players do not take for granted.
Alex Burrows made his Canucks playoff debut in 2007 during a game that went down as the longest in team history and the sixth longest playoff game in NHL history, a 5-4 quadruple overtime Vancouver win over Dallas.
“I saw all the towels on the chairs before the fans came in and it looked great and when the game started it looked really good,” said Burrows. “I was able to see it for a long time because that game went into four overtimes.”
The towels didn’t receive an official assist on Henrik Sedin’s game-winning goal at 18:06 of the fourth overtime, but they might as well have.
Canucks fans are rabid on their own, put a towel in their hands and they kick it up a notch.
“It looks great,” said Burrows. “It looks like the fans are really into the game and the atmosphere out there is something else, people are really passionate instead of just sitting and no one moving or anything like some places. It just creates movement and it seems like there is more enthusiasm and intensity in the building.”
Although the Canucks were the originators of the towel tradition, there have been plenty of duplicators around the NHL, including in Ottawa, Chicago, Toronto, Calgary, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, New Jersey and Anaheim.
Towel waving has become so popular in professional sports that on any given night fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame Fighting Irish or Boston Red Sox are cheering with a twirl of a towel.
While Fowl Towels (Anaheim Ducks), Homer Hankys (Minnesota Twins) and Rally Towels (Philadelphia Phillies) all have their place, the significance behind them just isn’t the same.
“Everywhere you see towels now,” noted Richard Brodeur, “even in the NFL and in baseball or whatever, and it’s like, alright, okay, you guys we know where it came from.”
It came from the brilliant mind of Roger Neilson, a man always ahead of his time, who provided Canucks fans a means to get their team ahead in the game.